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Under Milkwood (The Definitive Edition)
Thomas Dylan

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Harperperennial Classics)

Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (Harperperennial Classics) - Robert Tressell This is a book I’ve wanted to read for literally decades and it was well worth the wait. That I should have read it at this time seems to be no accident. There is much relevance for society today with all the draconian cuts and culture of austerity we are now facing, further impoverishing the poor and enriching the wealthy. Although a work of fiction, the book is a valuable social document of the realities of Edwardian England for the poorest. Electric lighting was not commonplace (Tressell’s workers light lamps and candles at work and at home in the dark winter evenings), adequate clothing and protection against inclement weather was non-existent leaving the workers open to poor health and life-threatening diseases, there was no NHS, no unemployment benefit or welfare state and no workers’ rights or health and safety protection for workers. The book begins with a group of workers who are working on the renovation of a house called The Cave under the auspices of their cut-throat employer Rushton’s (although as the book unfolds we find that Mr Rushton and his colleagues are relatively ‘good’ employers compared with others in the town of Mugsborough where the novel is set). Rushton’s underling is the appropriately-named Hunter (and as you read on you will find many an ironic or fun-poking name for his characters) who coerces and spies on his workers in the hope of catching them out doing something they shouldn’t so he can dismiss them and replace them with cheaper labour. And there’s always an army of half-starved ill-clad men hanging about desperate for work and willing to be paid less than the going rate than the ‘old hands’. This inevitably results in a working atmosphere of resentment, fear, suspicion and backstabbing among the men who are overseen by the foreman Crass. Crass is in many ways in an enviable position, though he has to do a lot of cozying up to the bosses. In turn, the workers themselves try to get into his good books to prevent themselves from being considered for dismissal. Rushton, Hunter and many of the other town’s big employers are also influential in the business and religious affairs of the town. When self-educated Frank Owen, tries to explain the causes of poverty to his fellow workers, he is mocked and ridiculed by most of them. They are resistant to change and opt for the status quo because they don’t believe in an alternative, in spite of their lot being a miserable one: their families half-starving and dressed in rags and dilapidated boots. However, Owen’s arguments – as well as those of one of his fellow workers, Barrington - are persuasive and the men cannot put together a cohesive argument against those of Owen. All in all, Tressell portrays a rich portrayal of brutal working life and poverty as it was at the time and many of the tragedies that resulted. But there is also plenty of humour in the interplay of characters who are as alive and relevant today as they were then.