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Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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Paradise - Not For The Likes Of Us

As it nears the centenary of its first publication, Adrian Cruden offers a timely and eerily relevant review of Robert Noonan's "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists"


As the BBC launches its second season of the sucrose costume drama "The Paradise" this week, vying with the kow-towing class-fest that is ITV's "Downtown Abbey", it cements yet further the long established fantasy of a bygone Wonderland Britain before the unfortunate upheavals following the Great War. A near complete perversion of Emile Zola's novel "Au Bonheur des Dames", "The Paradise" centres around the relationship of a pretty young sales assistant with the store owner, who kindly sets aside his acquisitive capitalism to help out her uncle and other quarrelsome local traders, whose small shops are threatened by his dazzlingly stocked predatory emporium. 

"The Paradise" gushingly confirms the sterilised view of the age as one of breathtakingly positive progress. This is much in line with Judith Flanders' book, "Consuming Passions", which makes the audacious claim that "building on revolutions in science, technology and industry, an entirely new world was created, a world of thrilling shopping sensations, lavish spectacle and wild theatricality – a world, in fact, very much like the one we inhabit today."

This assertion, of the similarity between then and now, is strikingly true, though not, perhaps, in the way intended by the author.

While these were indeed times of change, if anything was prevalent it was not the exciting aspirations or consuming passions of the well-scrubbed people in neatly-pressed clothes in TV dramas. Rather it was the abject poverty, drudge, discomfort, anxiety and precariousness of the lives of tens of millions of ordinary people. As Rowntree and Booth's research demonstrated, nearly one in three were in deep poverty and many, many more were close behind in spite of Britain's immense wealth at this Apex of Empire. 

This was not, of course, the established opinion at the time. The general view, mightily reinforced by the press, was that poverty was essentially the fault of the feckless individuals so affected. The cause was either their inherent sloth or their apparent decision to become addicted to alcohol. Sound familiar?

It was in this, his contemporary world, that Robert Noonan set his novel, "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists", a wide ranging exposition of working class life combined with a manifesto for a socialist society.

The novel form he saw as more powerful than a straightforward treatise, allowing him to bring vividly to life the real human suffering which he both witnessed and experienced himself.

Noonan's personal history was chequered to say the least – born in 1870 as the illegitimate son of a senior member of the Royal Irish Constabulary, his father supported his mother sufficiently for him to be well educated. In his late teens, he moved to South Africa, where he was married (and divorced) and learned the decorating trade, earning enough to educate his daughter Kathleen at a convent school and hire a black servant.

Noonan joined a white trade union and in 1897 led successful protests to block the employment of skilled black labour. A not uncommon attitude of the day, this racial attitude manifests itself occasionally in the Philanthropists, with comparisons of degraded workers to "Hottentots" and "savage races". Similarly striking, despite his enlightened view of their marginalised situation, is the absence of women from his proffered solution to capitalism's evils.

With the outbreak of the Boer War, Noonan moved with Kathleen to Hastings in Sussex, where he worked as a painter and signwriter. This was a precarious living, with a vast pool of unemployed, non-unionised labour available for employers to hire and fire at will. Consequently, he became more and more influenced by socialist ideals, joining the Marxist Social Democratic Federation and reading William Morris.

He conceived "The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" as a means of disseminating his new political beliefs. Fearful of being black-listed by potential employers, he wrote under the nom-de-plume of Tressell (after a painter's trestle-table), because, as he stressed in the introduction, "There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of."

The story is set in the Hastings-like fictional town of Mugsborough, which is populated by a variety of grasping employers going by such pointedly satirical names as Didlum, Starvem and Sweater. The lead character is easily recognisable as Noonan, or Tressell, himself – Frank Owen is an educated, skilled artisan. His abilities are silently acknowledged by his disdainful employer, Mr. Rushton, and his manager, the grim Mr. Hunter, nicknamed Misery for his harsh attitude towards the men. Owen is married to the sickly Nora, whilst his son, Frankie, is an imaginative if somewhat surreal six year old, a force of nature yet to be crushed by the grinding wheels of poverty.

Setting out the fraught relationships between the temporary employees (as all of them are) of Rushton & Co as they renovate "The Cave", a country house purchased by one of Rushton's fellow town councillors, the narrative forensically exposes the gross inequality of the employment relationship. The men are driven to compete relentlessly against the clock and each other – sackable at an hour's notice, with Hunter spying on them and Rushton driving down wages and quality to maximise his profits, the temptation to denounce others in order to seem useful and curry favour is overwhelming for most.

Dignity and humanity are totally degraded, and lives reduced to existing purely for the next opportunity to work long hours for low pay. With fatal results, safety is set aside and everything takes second place to profit. Again and again, the employers play them off against each other, creating an atmosphere of paranoia and furtive distrust. As jobs near their end, the men nervously anticipate the Slaughter – the moment when those no longer needed will be stood down into worklessness (and penury).

Much of the novel is portrayed from Owen's perspective, his marginally more secure employment situation setting him back ever so slightly from the competition between the others – his graphic design skills, for example, permit him the rare chance to be taken off the normal job to work on a mural following a Moorish style for the owner of The Cave. The pleasure this brings him shows the inherent desire in people to be motivated by creativity more than money.

Owen has developed a belief in socialism as a response to the human despair he sees and experiences personally – from slum housing, to lack of food, fuel and clothing, to alcoholism as an escape from constant anxiety, to chronic ill health and premature death; and above all to a dull, mind-numbing acceptance of their lot by his peers. So inured are they to accepting the status quo, they see any who seek to change anything as fools or chancers or, worse, socialists. They view the rich as deserving of their wealth and generous to the lower classes whether through employment, however low paid or exhausting, or through their charity work via Mugsborough's Organised Benevolence Society or the Church. They keep voting for the Conservatives or Liberals, even though they offer the same thing:

"...they were subject to the most extraordinary hallucinations...the commonest being that the best thing that the working people could do to bring about an improvement in their condition was to continue to elect their Liberal and Tory employers to make laws for and to rule over them!"

The workers are the "ragged trousered philanthropists" (originally penned as "ragged arsed") who give their lives to allow "those who do nothing" (the wealthy) to extract the maximum possible surplus from their efforts, and then gladly offer up their children, and even their own corpses, to the same exploitation. This torpor is reinforced by a combination of the faux religion of middle class Christianity, which dismisses much of Christ's teaching as impractical, and the employer-owned press – the local newspapers are sarcastically titled "The Obscurer" and "The Weekly Chloroform". Consequently, a better life, where all enjoy the benefits of civilisation, is "not for the likes of us."

The story moves between episodes from the lives of Owen and his colleagues to more polemical, if somewhat contrived expositions of political issues. Several longer chapters use speeches by Owen and by the slightly mysterious Barrington to examine issues such as The Great Money Trick – an effective demonstration of how a capitalist system of profit maximisation ultimately concentrates wealth in the hands of the few or, as Owen puts it, "money is the cause of poverty"; while The Great Oration systematically details the workings of a socialist Co-operative Commonwealth with all ownership in public hands and people free to live meaningful lives. Eslewhere, the text addresses itself directly to the reader, more as a treatise than a novel, as it analyses the state of the working class and the functioning of capitalism.

The tone is at once shiningly optimistic and yet riddled with an overwhelming pessimism – reflecting perhaps Noonan's own condition at the time of writing. It posits humans as co-operative creatures imprisoned by the economic System – in many small daily deeds, even the dodgy supervisor Bob Crass shows acts of kindness, while the miserable Hunter has some degree of self-awareness, leading him to a tragic denouement. While deeply critical of the rich, Noonan absolves them personally – they are simply performing the roles assigned to them; rhetorically, he asks the reader would you be any different?

His real target, at moments bitterly denounced, is the working class itself and, in spite of its harsh life of hunger, cold and fear, its reluctance to turn to socialism - at one point sarcastically attributing this to some of its number having unnaturally small brains inside thick skulls.

Possibly apparent here is the vehemence of a relatively recent convert to a new ideal.

Noonan, as Owen, has seen the light – that others are either not willing or not capable of doing the same makes them the disappointingly baffling obstacles to change, almost even collaborators with the Enemy. Owen is so distraught at this that at various points he contemplates killing his wife and son and then committing suicide rather than continue in such hopeless circumstances – indeed, one early, politically excised version of the novel ended with him preparing to do just that. However, in the unabridged book, through his self-education and collaboration with other socialists, Owen is seemingly redeemed.

"The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists" is a clarion call to action, deeply humane, moving and laced with some degree of humour, but it is also often desperately disarming. When sympathisers like his friend Philpot ask Owen how socialism will be achieved, he stares back in silence. Elections go uncontested and the Labour movement is barely mentioned. Barrington has a plan but its nature is unclear. Briefly, Owen darkly contemplates the masses nihilistically drowning their masters in their own blood, but dismisses the chances of this.  

Britain in 1911 was far from settled with gradually rising social unrest manifest in the growth of unions and the broad left. Yet with Labour politicians more often than not hand-in-glove with the Liberals' self-interested reformism, the advance of socialism itself was far from assured – a doubt explored at length in a dialogue between Barrington and a former activist.

Writing prior to the dreadful levelling of the trenches, Noonan may have felt that the hope of the masses developing truly socialist awareness was far too remote to seriously contemplate. His scorn and desperation echo the dashed inspiration of radicals through the years, then as now understandably sensing a degree of doubt faced with the overwhelmingly insidious incumbency of The System. This is not some elitist vanguard-like view of the working class – rather quite the opposite; it is a cry in the darkness, raging for them to be free to realise the beautiful potential intrinsic to every human being. And, in the end, hungry, fearfully exhausted and seriously ill, Noonan was maybe simply tired of waiting.

Now, ninety nine years after the first edition was published, as once again growing numbers are short of the means of warming and feeding themselves and employment is increasingly insecure for millions of people, this passionate plea from the past is as loud and relevant as it was then. Just as the wealthy of Edwardian Mugsborough cited the lack of money to aid the poor, so Britain today runs to the same narrative myth (once again set by Tories and Liberals, frequently with Labour's consent) in spite of there having never been more wealth to be found – though, by some indices, skewed now even more than then.

Robert Noonan never saw his book published. Deeply depressed after three rejections by publishers, he took ill and died of tuberculosis in Liverpool in February 1911. He was buried in a pauper's grave. Kathleen managed in 1914 to find a publisher, though it was not until 1955 that the full manuscript was published by the Communist Party. Since then it has inspired a now lost television production by the BBC, a stage production, numerous study groups, a Tressell Society and hundreds of thousands of readers and activists to work for a fairer society.

A century on, as capitalism faces ever deeper crises, the world may for hundreds of millions be as uncertain as ever, but we can look back across the generations and, like Noonan and Owen, still seek "the beautiful cities of the future... (illuminated by) the Golden Light that will be diffused throughout all the happy world from the rays of the risen sun of Socialism."

Adrian Cruden

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books