Interwoven Histories – working-class writing and immigration

Working-class writers have for centuries understood the interwoven histories of their own position within British society and that of colonised people overseas. The radical rhetoric of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries drew parallels between the plight of the African slaves who picked cotton in the American South and the children who carded and spun it in the ‘Dark Satanic Mills’ of the North of England. I’ve just started a piece examining the continuities of this tradition in two post-war writers’ treatments of ethnicity, racism and immigration. Like so many of the issues that I’m interested in, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists provides an early and important twentieth-century example. At the beginning of the novel Owen and his colleagues are sitting on upturned buckets, slurping tea from jam jars during their lunch break. One of the decorators, Easton, is reading the Obscurer, which provokes in him

a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think that it was about time we did something to protect ourselves … The papers they read were full of vague and alarming accounts of the quantities of foreign merchandise imported into this country. The enormous number of aliens constantly arriving, and their destitute conditions, how they lived, the crimes they committed, and the injury they did to British trade.*

When he was writing in the early 1910s, Tressell was dismayed by the way in which those in power distracted the people from their own colossal greed and corruption by blaming foreigners. It’s a sad statement on our own times that a century later the right-wing press are up to the same dirty tricks. Another subject of a previous post, Jack Hilton, was disarmingly honest about how he was brainwashed by such racist propaganda, describing how the foundations were laid during his education:

What a fighting chance we were given to understand the happenings of world significance – it was not a dog’s chance. It worked out this way. 1st: Heaps of God; 2nd: England first – the world nowhere; 3rd: Blatant swagger; one good honest Christian blue-eyed English schoolboy equalled twenty infidel Japs …

Having been schooled in the bigotry of British imperialism, Hilton was swept up by the anti-German feeling of the First World War and later flirted with eugenics, a despicable and discredited philosophy not a million miles from Boris Johnson’s. True to the enduring internationalism and anti-racism of the radical working-class tradition (stretching back to Joseph Mather and beyond), Hilton came to see the working-class movement as related to the anti-colonial struggles of his day. Gandhi visited Lancashire whilst Hilton was writing his first book and slept on the sofa of a Labour family in Salford. Renewed interest in the historical theft of common land – linked to the Mass Trespass of Kinder Scout in 1932 – forged a more concrete connection between these twin struggles and in the post-war era working-class writers continued to show a progressive interest in the intersection of class and colonialism.

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Gandhi in Lancashire

Writers whose work was shaped in the post-war era by these interwoven histories include Sheffield’s own Len Doherty, Shelagh Delaney (whose A Taste of Honey, in Colin MacInnes’s memorable phrase, was the first play to portray black and gay characters ‘without a nudge or shudder’), Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow (whose narrator Vic says of a racist character ‘she could hardly open her mouth without showing everybody what a stupid, bigoted, ignorant old cow she is’), Buchi Emecheta, Jeremy Sandford, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the list goes on…

The project I am starting looks at two more whose lives and works traverse British inner cities and former British colonies. In the pages of these writers’ work we find out much more about the changing nature of the working class and the spectrum of working-class responses to immigration than we ever can from the journalists and politicians who blame immigrants for everything from putting too much strain on the NHS (it would collapse without them) to roasting swans.** And indeed more than we can from phenomena like the BBC’s White Season of a few years back, which managed to be racist by labelling all white working-class people racist – a pretty spectacular feat when you think about it. What we find in these books is what many people from diverse neighbourhoods know through their daily lived experience – what Paul Gilroy has described as ‘demotic multiculturalism’ – which is that the working class co-authored multiculturalism alongside immigrants, largely from the colonies. The history of immigration into Britain following the Second World War – and in many areas before the war – is a history of immigration into working-class areas.

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Grave of a Muslim miner killed at Beighton colliery in 1922, Bunrgreave Cemetery, Sheffield

Working-class writers deal with the realities of what this means. They don’t shy away from appalling racism or seek to present a rose-tinted view of things, but nor do they ignore the rich history of tolerance and conviviality that many contemporary commentators ignore and efface. The tradition of internationalism and radical anti-racism in working-class writing constitutes an eloquent historical response to the absurd and offensive notion that the working class is somehow inherently racist or intolerant.

In our own times, as recent work by Beverly Skeggs, Stephen Garner and Owen Jones has shown, there is a worrying trend for journalists, politicians and academics to vilify working-class people in ways that are sinisterly reminiscent of the how ‘racial others’ have been demonised since the beginning of the colonial era. Working-class writers often intuitively understand this and deliberately position themselves alongside the ‘other’. In the opening sonnet of his brilliant collection The School of Eloquence, Tony Harrison connects his exploration of working-class history – and his search for an identity and a voice to express it – by analogy with Aimé Césaire’s founding text of the Négritude movement:

…I call these sixteen lines that go back to my roots

my Cahier d’un retour au pays natal,

My growing black enough to fit my boots.

With these lines – and the dedication of the poem to members of the Angolan independence movement Frelimo – Harrison aligns his own project with that of the anti-colonial poets of Africa and the West Indies. It is this interwoven history that I will be exploring in my current project.

*pp. 41-3 – as a member of the Association of the Ragged Trousered, I have copies of this book to give away. If you’d like one, please email me your address and I’ll post one to you.

** ‘SWAN BAKE: Asylum seekers steal the Queen’s birds for barbecues’.The Sun has removed the article from its website but Nick Medic’s Making a Meal of a Myth details its complete lack of any factual basis.

Still the Greatest Novel of the 20th Century

Half way through Shut Out the Light‘s fantastic Still Ragged, Andrew Lynch – one of several writers to have dramatised the novel for radio – describes The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists as a classic, iconic text, going on to say:

It stands as a great novel and then its political significance makes it rise above just a novel.

Lynch condenses into a single sentence a century of criticism about this controversial, mysterious masterpiece. Since first emerging in heavily abridged form a century ago it has become a set text of British socialism and a popular classic whose readership is several times the number of printed copies. Over the last hundred years it has been handed down through generations, passed around workplaces, union branches and armed forces and – in a way only a book that has generated its own folklore could – won a general election (in 1945). As Lynch suggests, its unparalleled political potency has overshadowed its considerable literary achievement and it is one of the strengths of Still Ragged that both elements of Tressell’s genius are considered by the impressive cast of passionate enthusiasts the film gathers together.

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An example of Tressell’s highly skilled painting

Only The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists could require such a cast, including trade unionists, painter-decorators, singer-songwriters, playwrights, writers, actors, MPs and, yes, literary critics to even come near to doing its genius justice. Those who share their thoughts about the book include well-known fans such as Ricky Tomlinson, Dennis Skinner and Len McCluskey, as well as readers at a Liverpool book group. A painter-decorator talks us through the difficulties of the job – still plentiful in the early twenty-first century – and an actor gives entertaining solo performances of some of the book’s most memorable and important passages to give the viewer unfamiliar with the text a flavour of its tone and message.

One of the most fascinating contributions is by Stephen Lowe, who has adapted the novel for the stage several times, including for the Isango Ensemble’s musical re-imagining of the text against the backdrop of Apartheid-era South Africa. Lowe argues that Tressell’s book is a major literary landmark, skilfully blending influences as diverse as Dickens, Zola, Flaubert and Swift in order to find ‘a new form able to take a lecture in the middle of it almost Brechtianly’. As Nicola Wilson points out, Tressell self-consciously comes out of the Victorian tradition, using an intrusive narrator and the foregrounding of the men’s labour to subvert the country house novel and represent the way in which society is constructed by its members. Still Ragged manages something that literary critics have largely failed to do: it advances some decent literary criticism of a book that has always been primarily considered a political text and in doing so calls for a well-overdue reassessment from a literary-critical perspective.*

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 Tressell’s Oblong, still a depressingly accurate breakdown of British society.

As well as giving literary credit where it’s due, Still Ragged gives plenty of space to the impassioned political polemic of the book and its continued relevance today. Dennis Skinner is visibly livid as he likens the current scourge of zero-hours contracts to the instability of the men’s employment in the novel. Ricky Tomlinson tells the extraordinary story of how the prison governor introduced him to the text whilst he was in solitary confinement on purely political charges. The film shows how urgently relevant Tressell’s political message is in our own time and urges viewers to return to it and consider how it can help us in our current crises. The recurring account is that the book is passed on to people and it changes their lives; as Dave Harker points out with his extensive collection of translations, it persistently has the power to change people’s lives across space and time.**

The film also conveys some of the incredible story behind the novel’s publication, which would provide enough material for a whole film in itself.*** But what it achieves most convincingly is to celebrate the triumph of this most brilliant working-class novel. Despite being butchered by editors and publishers (who we nevertheless have to thank for the survival of the text) and ignored or patronised by critics, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has managed to become the most important and influential British novel of the twentieth century: Still Ragged passionately conveys this and will hopefully recruit more readers and change their lives. In my case it was very much preaching to the converted but the film was hugely effective at that: I immediately ordered more copies to give away.^ If you’ve ever read the book, buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant. If you’ve never read the book, email me your address and I’ll send you a copy. Then buy the film – it costs 3 quid and it’s brilliant…

Still Ragged trailer

*Welcome progress was made in this direction with the publication of Revisiting Robert Tressell’s Mugsborough in 2008.

**Peter Miles’ intro to the 2005 OUP edition includes this quotation from a website in the Philippines: ‘the injustices suffered by Owen (the hero) at the hands of the vicious foreman, the corrupt politicians, the hypocritical churchmen are all around me in Manila. It makes me so angry that we have made so little progress over 100 years’.

***It was burnt, rescued, passed on, lost and eventually bought – in a tin box handed over in a station café by a mysterious stranger – by Fred Ball, a Hastings painter-decorator and Tressell enthusiast who painstakingly restored the manuscript to as close as possible to its original state. Have a look here.

^I’m a member of The Association of the Ragged Trousered  which was set up to help the book reach new readers and whose founder Kevin Jones appears in the film