The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists leads surge in popularity for leftwing books
Classic novel turns surprise bestseller as radical reads fly off the shelves
* Vanessa Thorpe, arts and media correspondent
* Saturday 2 May 2009 12.26 BST
If you want a fast-paced thriller to read this bank holiday, then Robert Tressell‘s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not going to fit the bill. Yet the bulky novel, once known as “the painter’s bible” and written in 1910, is leading an unlikely surge in the popularity of classic leftwing titles.
Sales of the book received a boost last year, following a star-studded Radio 4 serialisation of the work that featured Bill Bailey, Timothy Spall, Johnny Vegas, Paul Whitehouse and the MP John Prescott in a cameo role. This year, in the midst of dire economic forecasts, the book is still confounding expectations, peaking at number six in the Amazon Movers and Shakers list.
“It has really surprised us,” said Simon Winder, a publishing director at Penguin. “We sold many more than usual of our Penguin Classics edition last year, with sales going up from about 3,000 a year to more than 5,000, and this year it is carrying on the same way. It is incredible for such a serious classic. And there are several editions out there from other publishers, too.”
One of the key chapters in the novel, which tells the story of a group of painters and decorators in Edwardian Hastings, is called The Great Money Trick and sees the hero, Frank Owen, try to demonstrate the hollowness of the capitalist system to his workmates. Ironically, the author, who died of tuberculosis three years before the book was published in 1914, now appears to be pulling off an unexpected “money trick” of his own.
Last month, on the anniversary of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ publication, the actor Ricky Tomlinson caused another spike in sales when he praised the book on BBC1’s One Show. The star of The Royle Family, a former builder and a political activist, believes Tressell’s message is still relevant. “Nothing’s changed. People are still getting killed in the building industry. There’s hardly any safety work, hardly any hygiene conditions. Toilets are as rare as rocking-horse shit,” he has written.
Tressell was the pen name of Dublin-born Robert Noonan and his book is based on his own work as a signwriter and decorator. In the summer of 1910 Noonan left Hastings for Liverpool, intending to sail for Canada, but he was admitted to hospital and died early the next year. The heavily edited novel that was eventually published three years after his death had lost much of its revolutionary politics but sold quite well for a while. The aftermath of the slaughter of the first world war and the publication in 1918 of an even more stringently edited edition made the book popular once again among the working classes.
The historian Tristram Hunt, who edited the Penguin Classics edition, argues that the novel, although long-winded, will always appeal to those whose lives are dominated by the search for work: “It takes a bit of work, there is no doubt about it, but it is a rewarding read and at a time when more and more people are going to be unemployed or lacking work, people are turning to this book again. It is a celebration of work and of the self-fulfilment work can give,” he said.
Hunt, who has just published a biography of one of the architects of communism, Friedrich Engels [see also here], points out that copies of Tressell’s work are borrowed at least as often as they are bought. The writer Alan Sillitoe, he said, once recounted being handed a copy in Malaya by a Glaswegian radio operator who told him it “won the ’45 election for Labour”. Hunt sees the fresh hunger for Tressell’s work as “part of a wider trend”. “There is lots of other leftwing theory out there which is selling well, and we are also seeing sellout meetings about communism being held at Birkbeck college.”
Other titles doing well at the moment include Signet Classics’ Common Sense, The Rights of Man and Other Essential Writings of Thomas Paine, and Woodrow Wilson and the Roots of Modern Liberalism by Ronald J Pestritto, from American Intellectual Culture.
“People are craving something,” said Winder. “We have really noticed it with our Great Ideas series too. We are suddenly selling oodles of them. An author like Ruskin, for example, is suddenly very popular. We seem to have accidentally radicalised a whole generation of students, which wasn’t a deliberate plan at all. We are still selling things like Rousseau’s The Social Contract and the Communist Manifesto too. There is no way you would have thought this five years ago – it would have been a joke. There is thirst for political ideas, particularly from the left.”
The manuscript of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has been in the care of the Trades Union Congress since 1958 and can be seen on the TUC History Online website.
Len Phelan previews Robert Tressell Day next Saturday marks 100 years since the death of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists author: here.