Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait 1819-1905The Ego is our self constructed sense of self. It is a thought-form, so called because it is constituted entirely of our thoughts, thoughts about ourselves, about others, and about the world around us. It is in part, self defensive, assuring us, amid a sea of conflicting opinion and ambiguous social currents, that our way of thinking, our way of living is the correct one. It’s also inherently fragile, having left out all those things we deny we could ever think or allow as part of our identity – things like falling in love with someone of the same sex; feelings of friendship or even just basic respect towards someone of another race or creed; accepting that women are human beings; admitting sometimes we get things wrong; admitting other people’s ideas are as valid as our own.

Throughout all of life’s complexities and ambiguities, we can trust the ego to safeguard our position, and it will raise a storm of emotion when its superiority is threatened, when it fears exposure for the fraud it ultimately is. Then it will insist we take action, defensive or offensive. The ego can lead us astray, it can have us make fools of ourselves, it can cause us to incubate neuroses; it can make us hurt or even kill others.

One of the most powerful symbols for the ego is the gun. Take a look at the entertainment aisle next time you’re in town. Pick the top ten DVD’s and see how many carry a gun on their front cover. There he is, the hero, the “ego,” bearing a weapon in order to assault his enemies. It is the archetypal statement of superiority, that my ego has acquired the power to exterminate yours, that my argument shall ultimately triumph over yours, for no better reason than I am stronger or cleverer or more dangerous.

The young are easily seduced by the gun. They are persuaded by perverted cultural programming that it possesses not only a noble imperative, but also a romance. The young are also least prepared, emotionally, psychologically to have much of an idea about the ego, the ego being itself too strong and too big to be seen, masquerading as it does as the very root of our being. We think it’s who we are, that there can be no “us” without it. When threatened it will turn to weapons, and if no weapons are to be had, then fists will do, and failing even that then some malicious comments posted online will sate its appetite for a while.

And there’s really not much the gun-less can do. Fear of death will have me nodding readily to your tune. I may not be happy about it, I may resent it, and you may rest assured my own ego will ensure the first chance I get, I’ll turn the gun on you. And the hotter the revenge against your insults to me the better, for there is nothing quite so satisfying as the signs of a violent and horrifically painful capitulation on the face of one’s enemies. What? Got no gun? A Samaurai sword, or a knife will do. Plenty of those on the covers of DVD’s as well.

The strength of an argument, of reason, will always be outmatched by proficiency with arms, which makes me wonder how we ever progressed beyond a state of barbarism, to find the time to build cities and invent rich cultural lives as well.

A portrait of a lady reading a book. William Oliver II  1823As children we map our reality using as waymarks the things we touch – the walls of our house, our relationships with parents, siblings, friends, and we map it by the feel of our environment, by the town, city, or green under our feet, by the places we visit – by schooldays, Saturdays, market days, holidays. We map it by the experience of life, and although we are aware of a greater reality beyond what we can see and experience, we feel it more as a strangeness, a reality we can, as children, ignore. And we ignore it because it is a reality that need not be true. Any of it. Truth, rather, is wherever we are in the moment. It is what we can see and touch, right now. It is the story we are living. Right now. This and only this is the truth of us.

My childhood was a small, semi-detached house, built in the 1930’s, bordering meadows which are still mostly there today. It was a village from which the mines had already gone by the 1960’s, fallen to economic ruin, leaving only their sulphurous slag, glowing by night like something volcanic. But mostly it was green. It was corn and it was cattle. And it was big booted farmers selling vegetables door to door. It was duck-ponds in the corners of quiet lanes.

The technology of the broadcast media did not shape this reality much. It was more the window on an accepted fantasy, a world of stories other than my own, and of less importance: Stingray, Thunderbirds, Joe 90, Crackerjack, Jackanory, The Magic Roundabout. I don’t recall teatime news broadcasts using the lurid language they use today. I presume the bad stuff was held back until after the 9:00 p.m. watershed when we kids were safely tucked abed, that it was then the floodgates opened to dose the adult world with its night-time terrors.

I did not know what sex was until I was fourteen, and then only as a theoretical concept, gleaned from the less fantastical speculations of my fellows, and which turned out in the end not to be too far from the mark. And like the sex, the wider world too remained couched in mysterious terms, its unimaginable largeness filtered into more manageable grains through the medium of the stories others told.

Beyond that which we can touch, the world can only ever be a story. And only what we can touch can ever be the truth of our own lives, a thing verified, crystallised by the medium of an immediate, and tangible experience. The truth, or otherwise, of the wider world is always less certain, yet as adults, like imagination, these other stories – lurid, violent, dangerous, frightening – try to convice us they are part of the truth of who we are.

We think, as we grow, we should leave behind the simpler realities of hearth and home, that the world of immediate experience is not enough, that we should grow up, assimilate more of that which we cannot touch, more of the world as presented to us by the pictures and the words of the various media, that we should become conversant in the world of current affairs. But none of these stories are true, except perhaps in the most simplistic of terms and therefore pale into insignificance when compared with the authenticity of our own lives.

It is like those Hollywood movies that are “based on a true story” in which the details making up the whole of the truth are never allowed to get in the way of the telling of the story. This is not to say it is an outright lie, only that a truth can be spun in misleading ways. And stories always have morals, they have plots, they have a meaning and a purpose of their own, while life – real life – may not. We all know this.

And then the choice of which stories we listen to can itself suggest a truth about the world, one less than authentic than reality, creating false emphasis, pushing centre stage some events in favour of others, suggesting importance, urgency. These are the stories collected, edited for our convenience by the master storytellers, by the BBC, Russia Today, Fox News, events selected and spun, and while they may not be lies exactly, they do not tell the true story of the world, but more instead, and if we listen carefully, the story of the story tellers themselves.

But now we can move away from the edited stories. We can dig deep into the eclectic machinery of the Internet, keeper of all video memory, a marvellous, and quite endless source of story. Here the choice of what to feature large, and what to suppress is ours. We choose the truth of the greater world to suit ourselves. But is this any better?

My choices at present are the stories told by Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Corbyn, Julian Assange, Carl Jung, Stanislav Grof, Ken Wilber, Eckhart Tolle, but these choices are of stories no more true than any other. I might have chosen 9/11 conspiracies, UFO’s, David Ike, Donald Trump, and from these spun a story of the world as good or bad as any other, as essentially true or untrue as any other, though perhaps one that did not resonate as well with my own preoccupations.

I fell asleep last night plugged in to You Tube. I was listening to a lecture by Noam Chomsky, but a deep fatigue withdrew me from his story. And I woke this morning to a an autumn sun, and one of the last warm days of the year. I pulled a tree-stump from the garden, took a last cut of the lawn, repaired a gate, washed the car, and as the sun set I drank cold beer. This is my only authentic reality. I am not big enough to know the world in all its colour, in all its shape and size, and for me to try is to be eternally deceived, eternally swept from one incomplete view to another. I become lost in what even as a child I recognised, as being of less importance than the day to dayness of my immediate experience.

I have lived today slowly, measuring each breath, trying to savour each moment of the smallness of my being. It is the only reality I shall truly know. That I experience it, that I at least know my own story, is what I think I am meant to do here, to perceive at least the truth of that one thing, instead of seeking a somehow bigger, cleverer or more complex truth among the duplicitous tellers of all the stories of the world.

Beating and Breathing

flTo deal with daily stress, we have to be like a cork, buoyant, always floating to the top of life. Events swirl, they jostle, they jam and jar, and to be healthy and happy we must find a way to keep ourselves bobbing along, always rising above, transcending that which might harm us. Indeed most people, I think, are robust enough when it comes to resisting the abrasions of daily life, and they float very well. They are adaptable, resilient and eternally balanced, no matter what life holds in store. Others though, perhaps those caught more in the Gaussian tails of a so called mental normality – the introspective introverts (like me), the fiery extroverts, the worriers and the warriors both – we fellow shadow-landers all need to be more careful.

Stress is a sneak thief, creeping in at dead of night, stealing our self worth grain by grain, and covering up the fact that actually we have not been floating at all, that we have been sinking, and perhaps for a long time. We carry on, at first oblivious, then wake up one morning to find life has taken on a paler hue, taken on a strange and an unsettled quality. The pleasures become fewer, and of those few remaining, we deny ourselves the pleasure of them, because they no longer suit our moods, or we say we no longer have the time. And as the world becomes alien to us, we become alienated within it.

Cynicism and grumpiness are my usual warnings. Take heed they say, take refuge from this. But I have not been listening, and the last few weeks have yielded that unwelcome sense of alienation. It came upon me suddenly while conversing with a friend, a quite unrelated feeling of tension, of oddness. An innocuous statement then became like a trigger, and it filled me with an abrasive tingling, like broken glass in my veins. Suddenly, I was running out of beat.


Another old watch arrived today, courtesy of a successful bid on Ebay. It’s a vintage Favre-Leuba, Swiss made, circa 1963. It’s had some work, and it’s showing wear here and there, but seems to be running all right and will at the very least tidy up to a slightly better condition than that in which I found it.

But like me, this little Favre-Leuba is out of beat. There is a lopsidedness to its tickings, a bias to its balance. I have dismantled it, cleaned it, examined it, assessed the bits I can replace, identified the bits I must accept more as the unavoidable scars of its life’s history.


With any timepiece, indeed any oscillating thing, we must deal with both the rate and the beat. The rate determines accuracy, determines the authenticity of one’s life’s direction. But the beat is also important, the degree of swing from left to right, from in to out, up to down, yin to yang. Any excess in either direction and we encounter problems, we deviate, we get lost, we stop, or a friend says something innocuous, inoffensive, and a wave of weirdness washes over us as if at the rising memory of a bad dream.

The yin and the yang of the Favre-Leuba is dealt with by a small adjustment of the balance. Provided we have no excessive wear, the rate should then be reliable under any number of positions and circumstances. The beat of a human life is a little more mysterious, the causes of its imbalance harder to pin down, but as a rule the danger lies in excess of Yang.

Yang is hot. It will burn us up, dry us out, render our gut acid, and make our blood boil. While the balance of a watch is contained in the oscillation of a wheel and a spring, the balance of a life is held in the elasticity of the nerves, therefore also partly in the mind. And it is in the mind we must make the necessary adjustment. Reaction and relaxation. These are the clues.

Reaction is tension, it is the preparedness for flight, for aggression, for action. Many of us live in this state all the time. It becomes habitual, and what is habitual over time we accept as normal, unchangeable, even if it is a normality that will harm us. Blood pressure. Heart. Anxiety. Panic. These are the symptoms.

Relaxation on the other hand is the letting go. It is the unfreezing of tension. It is the softening that allows a body’s natural, inner self to reassert itself. It is soothing, healing, calming. And it can be willed.

When we are ill, we are not cured by drugs. They can help, but ultimately it is the body itself that returns us to wellness, to neutrality. This is how the healing arts work. They create space, create the room within us for the miracle that is the human life to work more as it should.

Another thing that strikes me about this Favre-Leuba is its size. It is barely an inch in diameter, and as such flies in the face of the brutality of design and the sheer weight of many a modern man’s watch. It weighs just 25 grams.

The modern man must carry so much weight around these days, much of it imaginary, though we imagine it to be real, purposeful, with all the dials and clickers to prove it. But open up a modern watch and it is mostly space, like the space inside an atom, which renders an atom mostly nothing, but apparently real, at least for all practical purposes. But its solidity is never-the-less an illusion.

The vintage watch is more a cutting back. For all of its antiquity, it’s simplicity, it will still carry the time, the purpose, the direction of a life, but with less weight, less fuss and bother, and there is no more worthy an example of this than this old Favre-Leuba, plagued as it is with the aches and pains of its long journey.

While I tinker and explore its workings, nudge back its beat, fine tune its rate, I feel a slow returning to myself, the palms less tingly, the heart less frozen by unseen terrors, the broken glass melting back to blood. It needs a new strap, the tiniest dab of paint on the dial to hide the bit silver showing through. And I shall wear it, take pleasure in it for a while.

To see the signs of imbalance in ones self is an important step, for then we might stop and wonder what it is we are missing. Better that than not to stop at all and plough on into sickness and oblivion. But what it is is usually to be found not in the details. These are the distractions, and shall all be transcended once we have remembered the single vital thing, the thing we have forgotten.

And what we have forgotten is often simply how to breathe.


Baoding ballsTai Chi and Qigong are now very popular exercises in the west. Derived from Chinese martial (fighting) arts, they are also practised for their positive effects on mental and physical health. These benefits manifest as: improved vitality, flexibility, stamina, and a sense of well being, all of which makes them a valuable antidote to the stresses of modern living. The literature also talks of healing injuries and chronic conditions that defy conventional medical intervention. Calmness, a positive outlook, and an alleviation of the symptoms of anxiety and depression are also reported. So what’s not to like about it?

Well it depends if all those benefits have been proven, or are merely anecdotal and for a long time western medical science has taken a dim view of it, not even bothering to investigate them. Why?

Wel, due to differences in language and culture, it was long believed in the West that the Chinese attributed such benefits to a mysterious phenomenon called Qi (Chee). Since Qi could not be adequately theorised, let alone detected by the prevailing Western Scientific paradigm, Qi and any health system that is derived from it is bound to be dismissed as hocus pocus.

It’s not surprising therefore that scientific studies of Tai Chi and Qigong are few, and for a long time about the only documented benefit was that the practice reduces the risk of falling over. This might seem rather obvious, that the practice of movement will aid in the development of a heightened sense of balance, but it is important we be able to maintain this sense well into old age, where a simple fall can have serious consequences. Tai Chi, with its slow, gentle, low impact movements is the ideal solution and worth practising for this factor alone. But is that it? Is that as much as Science will concede?

Well more recent studies suggest practitioners of Tai Chi and Qigong are also at less risk of hypertension, and that practising while ill can aid recovery, or minimise symptoms, in particular of Arthritis, also the body’s physical reactions to harsh treatments for cancer. This suggests there is more going on, that the practise is impacting the body at the biological level. But does this also open the door to dubious claims regarding the properties of Qi?

Not necessarily.

My own conclusions, based on a reading of the various literature, both learned and popular, as well as my own practice, is that Qi is the manifestation of a colossal misunderstanding, both linguistic and cultural. It is western practitioners who have effectively invented Qi in its current and least understood form, namely a subtle energy that cannot be detected or measured, and have promoted it as a fiddle factor responsible for all manner of otherwise unverifiable phenomenon.

While it’s almost certain there are subtle aspects of energy we do not yet understand, it is not necessary to involve ourselves in speculation upon them before we can make sense of Tai Chi and Qigong. It is better to think of Qi as another way of expressing biological and mental process that are already accepted in the west.

The body uses Qi in order to support life. It is the energy that powers thought, as well the processes in the body, Qi that energises the muscles that grant us power and motion. It is also the energy that repairs injuries and fights illness, restores us to the natural blueprint of our original biology. When Qi is weak, all these things are impaired. When Qi is strong, we possess these things in abundance.

What we appear to be describing here is Qi as a life force, and not in dissimilar terms to the new agers and so called Qi masters, but let’s take a closer look:

Qi is gathered from the environment, but what we gather is not a subtle energy, more simply oxygen. Another vital aspect of Qi we gain from food, namely glucose. The natural processes of the body combine the oxygen with glucose to create energy at the point of use, that is at the cellular level. It is the circulation of the blood which carries the components of energy to wherever they are needed. Motion, healing, normal function all draw upon our energy reserves. If energy is lacking, function is impaired. If circulation is impaired, the components of energy, the oxygen and the glucose, cannot get to where they are needed.

Tai Chi and Qigong combine movement, breath and mindful focus in such away that regular practice naturally and gently improves the levels of oxygen in the blood, and the degree to which it is circulated. But where Tai Chi and Qigong differ from other exercise systems is in their emphasis on an induced relaxation response. In other words we relax the body by mentally willing it. This engages the autonomic nervous system, enabling to it to carry out its primary function of restoring the body to a state of balance and it is in this state that healing takes place naturally.

There are many books on Tai Qi and Qigong which begin with the unproven assertion that Qi is a subtle energy, then proceed to build a thesis on top of it. This requires the reader to buy in to what is essentially a belief system, one which unfortunately cannot always be adapted to answer the questions raised during practice. For many years it was a stumbling block in my own study, and it is only by a return to a more grounded analogy I have been able to make any real progress.

The relatively new field of Quantum Biology may yet yield theories of life that will use a language reminiscent of the old “new age” notions of Qi, but it’s early days and certainly a long time before the first text books appear along those lines, if indeed they ever do. For now though it is not necessary to take that leap of faith. The current biological model, crude as it is, is sufficient to explain what practitioners have known all along, that Tai Chi and Qigong are good for you.

About a thousand words

shadowmanHaving been a blogger now since 2008, I still have difficulty defining exactly what a blog is for, and why I keep one. And while keeping one, I find it impossible to predict which of the things I write about will stick around in the collective blogsphere, and which will sink without trace. What’s also mysterious and sometimes disappointing is why I should care.

I wrote recently about my car being mistaken for another which went through the Dartford tunnel without paying the toll. I was consequently fined for this misdeed, even though I’ve not been near the Dartford tunnel in twenty years – so I went on a bit in the blog, dissolving the indignation I felt at being incorrectly fingered. It was a cathartic process which led to a short blog piece, plus a more philosophical acceptance of the absurdity, even an eventual smile.

But that piece didn’t appear at all in the listings of Google or Bing or Yahoo. I had thought it might touch a collective chord among others who had been incorrectly fingered in the same way, but it was not to be. Only regular followers saw it, and my gentle rant has now sunk without a trace, like a stone dropped into the deep. Even searching directly for it with the title in quotes will not yield it. I was miffed. I was even prepared to believe the great search engines of the cloud had been nobbled by the technocracy in order to prevent news of my dissent reaching a wider audience.

Ah, if only I were so influential!

So, blogging cannot be about the rant, more something within ourselves that is released by the act, rather in the same way that talking to a stranger can relieve anxieties. It cannot be about setting fire to the world with the white heat of one’s rage, or even the friction of one’s abrasive personality as we jump up and down in daily indignation. We will simply wear ourselves out, thinking perhaps to make the whole world sit up and cry in sympathy, when in fact no one is listening, or really cares that much.

Is blogging then more about the now? Is it about what fascinates us, irritates us, puzzles us now? And like all such ephemera, should it be let go of and moved on from at once? In writing about it, are we merely exploring the feelings we feel right now, and when we hit “publish”, in doing so, do we merely jettison the bag we have been filling with crap, then watch it bob along on the ocean waves until it’s out of sight? Is it, ughh, merely a purgative process?

Jihad! Yes, you heard. It’s a much misused term these days, and I shall have to be careful with my context here or unwelcome ears on both sides of the divide will be pricking, but my understanding of it, and of the Dalai Llama’s incidentally, is that Jihad is a war primarily with one’s own recalcitrant nature. Is the blog then a useful part of waging personal Jihad? We winkle out the warring factions in our selves, as if they were parasitic worms wriggling in our guts, and then we forget them, we leave them by the wayside to shrivel in the sun. But do we do this willingly, and without regret? Or is each piece lost this way like shedding a piece of one’s skin? And we have only so much to go at before we are dust. Is blogging as a means of personal Jihad, of spiritual development, simply too exhausting?

In 2008 I wrote about the opening of the mowing season, and I wrote about my old Ensign B17 mower. In seven years, I don’t think that piece has been visited once. Like my rant about the Dartford tunnel, it is buried in the deep sediment of the internet, but it hardly matters because neither piece was ever going to change the world. Other pieces do stick though. They become linked to other bloggers’ thoughts, like grappling lines hauling them clear of the sedimentary layers to appear again and again in my stats of links clicked: Tea Tree Oil and Verrucas. Malt vinegar and nits. Soul Spirit and Self. Time-slip stories. Is Lulu.com a Scam? These are not rants, nor are they pieces of personal Jihad. These are informational pieces, curiosities that chime with the curiosity of others, bits of experience passed on.

Is this piece informative then? Or is it merely another of those blogging about blogging pieces? How pointless is that? Or worse, is it perhaps one of those pieces about getting noticed, or not, and why it doesn’t matter? I’ve written plenty of those, write about them all the time, why going unnoticed, or not, in life, or in writing, does not matter. But here the lady doth protest too much! If it did not matter, I would not write a blog about it. Instead I would confine ramblings along those lines to my private journal, instead of inviting connection.

Ah yes, connection! All too often I forget blogging is also a community. The connections we invite are with followers, and those we follow, or will follow and who we hope will follow us, and I am shamefully neglectful in that sense, inviting others to read my stuff, while rarely finding the time to read theirs. If I sought argument, or consensus, I would make more of the community, spend as much time commenting, and liking and following, as I do writing. But I don’t. I just write. A lot.

My,… writers are complicated creatures.

Possibly also mad.

So what is it? What is blogging about? Obviously I don’t know. Not entirely at least. But what I do know is there is always going to be a gap between the reality of one’s life and one’s aspiration, and the road from frustration at that gap to the magnanimity which closes it, is always going to be about a thousand words.

Thanks for listening.


portrait of the artists wife - La Thangue - 1859-1929So, I’ve just come across this new, prestigious prize for fiction. It’s unusual in that it invites entries only from writers self-publishing online, and who generally give their work away. The aim of the prize is to lift the profile of the best in online writing talent, and to persuade the reading public that good fiction can now be found outside of the bookshop, and that you don’t always have to pay for it. For the writer there’s also the chance of recognition and a big name agent picking up their work.

There are two categories, one for short fiction – anything up to 10,000 words, and one for long fiction, being anything longer than that, up to a limit of 250,000 words. This is an international competition and will take place annually, entries invited from January each year, with a closing date of April 1st.

The shortlist of 6 works in each category will be announced in September, and the ceremony announcing the winner will take place in London, in late November. Shortlisted entrants will be invited to an awards evening at a glitzy London hotel, the whole event being presided over by a famous literary pundit, keynote speech by a celebrity author.

The rules are as follows:

There are no specific genres, so basically anything goes. Except:

No sex. No violence. Period.

You must not be making any money from your writing.

You must have self published at least one piece of work online.

The submitted work must be new – i.e. not previously published, self or otherwise.

Writing may be submitted in any language.

Entries will be accepted via email only, and as attachments in .docx, rtf and OOF formats.

The judges’ decision is final.

The prize, in both categories, will be the adulation/jealousy of your contemporaries, also publication in an obscure online journal at the discretion of the judges. In keeping with your decision not to write for money, you will be given no money for winning. However, winning the WINDSOR prize is a guarantee of the consolidation of your invisibility and will be sure to confirm your place among the tens of thousands of your contemporaries currently all jumping up and down and shouting “look at me, look at me!”

Given the cost of hiring the venue, paying the judges, and the celebrity master of ceremonies, speakers etc, each entrant is required to submit a non returnable fee of £1000 with their MS. The ceremony may be cancelled at any time, without reason, entirely at the discretion of the judges, in which case the winning entries will be announced instead, without fanfare, in an obscure online journal.

Any takers?

You are almost guaranteed not to win, and even if you win there is nothing to be gained by it. My advice then is to plod on as you are, the prize in this case being each extra thousand words completed, also those moments when the work comes alive suddenly after weeks of feeling like you’ve been wading through treacle. And again there’s the moment when you know the work is finished, and the moment when a new one starts to take shape in your mind. There’s no money in it, no adulation and, in proportion to the population of the known universe, not many people are likely read your stuff. But it costs nothing, and it’s okay, you know? You can still call yourself a writer.

WINDSOR: Writers in Desperate Search Of Recognition.


Be careful out there.

rtpI was given this book in 1983, a time when British Socialism was on the wane and Thatcher’s blue revolution had already lit the touch paper to a firework of freemarket capitalism. It was odd then to be given a book of this nature, one that explains how and why Socialism came about, at a time when Socialism seemed to have burnt itself out in a muddle of lunacy.

The story is written in the decade preceding the first world war and concerns a group of painters and decorators in the employ of the unscrupulous firm of Rushton and Company. Day to day, they are at the mercy of the ruthless hire-em and fire-em foreman, Mr Hunter, or Old Misery as he is known behind his back. Jobs were scarce. Then, as now, it was strictly an employer’s market, the only difference being that then to lose one’s job was an infinitely more serious matter with bastards like Old Misery literally holding the power of life and death over you and your family.

Our hero Frank Owen is alone in his understanding of the causes of the deprivations and humiliations he and his colleagues suffer. His frequent brew-time lectures on the evils of unbridled Capitalism are met with derision. It seems to Owen that his workmates are blind, that even though they grumble and suffer terribly at the hands of their money-corrupted masters, they are at pains to maintain the status quo, to “know their place”, to even vote for the very system that perpetuates their oppression. Thus Tressel labels them the titular philanthropists, making do with rags and starvation, so their masters can thrive and grow fat.

Clearly a political book, Tressell’s work is a classic for all students of the history of British politics, left or right, and for anyone seeking a more visceral understanding of the origins of Socialism and the trades union movement:

A snippet:

Owen saw that in the world a small class of people were possessed of a great abundance and superfluity of the things that are produced by work. He saw also that a very great number – in fact the majority of people – lived on the verge of want; and that a smaller but still very large number lived lives of semi-starvation from the cradle to the grave; while a yet smaller but still very great number actually died of hunger, or, maddened by privation, killed themselves and their children in order to put a period to their misery. And strangest of all – in his opinion – he saw that people who enjoyed the abundance of the things that are made by work, were the people who did Nothing: and that the others who lived in want or died of hunger, were the people who worked. And seeing this, he thought that it was wrong,…

Re-reading the story now, it’s comforting to know the likes of poor Owen and his crew would be spared many of the indignities and premature deaths they suffered in those day, Socialism now having won the fight for access to free healthcare, welfare, paid holidays, a state pension, and strict health and safety legislation. Such things did not exist at the time of writing. But while much has changed, it’s striking how some things remain the same, such as the ease with which a country’s ills are apt to be blamed by certain factions of the press on all these “damned foreigners”. It’s also interesting to see how the principles of Capitalism, carried to their extremes ensure that a decent job of work never gets done, that it will always be scrimped, and bodged, the cracks papered over in pursuit of maximum profit. Tressel’s book also serves as a sober warning that the gains of Socialism over the last hundred years cannot be taken for granted, that they can be lost, and in this way the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists gives us a glimpse of a world to which we risk returning.

Socialism has enjoyed something of a reawakening this summer, and for those perhaps confused by it all, or who are too young to have lived it the first time around, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is an enlightening text, one that will explain much of what is going on today, the same as it did a hundred years ago. But this not a dour political treatise. It is a story, engagingly written, with a clear, concise prose and characters both sympathetic and repulsive. Nor is it without its moments of wry humour, all be it usually at the expense of the employers.

We have wonderfully blunt and descriptive names for characters such as Slyme and Crass, also Mr Oyley Sweater, Didlum, Grinder and the monstrous Sir Grabball (Bt). We are left in no doubt where Tressell is coming from, but it’s also sobering that he has no sympathy either for the working man, who, when presented with the means of awakening and doing something about his suffering, makes no effort to do so.

The Church, Private Rent Landlords, the drinks industry, corrupt councils, the tendency among the more affluent classes to dismiss the poor as shirkers and scroungers, all these things come under the microscope as social and cultural vultures which in some way demonise and prey upon the working man, and here too, the book has maintained its relevance.

Owen is depicted as a bit more of an artisan than his fellow painters. For him are reserved the jobs that require more skill and an artist’s eye, not that these attributes are appreciated by his employers, at least not to Owen’s advantage, who is left as impoverished as his workmates. His employers value him only to the extent his skills can be exploited to undercut the work of other firms. Sickly and possibly even consumptive, Owen’s future looks bleak. What then of his wife? What of his young son? What future for any of the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists when they are only a twist of old Misery’s bad temper away from being laid off, and no Welfare State between them and starvation? Tressell says we would be better dead than suffering this kind of life, and it’s hard not to disagree with him.

This book still arouses and inflames opinion. Whether you agree with it or not will obviously depend on your politics. If you are to the left you certainly will find nothing here to disagree with, if you lean to the right, you might gain some insight into the reasoning and the suffering that underpins the passions currently arrayed against you. The problems of inequality and economic tyranny in society are not, as has been alleged recently, “yesterday’s problems”. They are cyclical, born of the natural swing of the democratic pendulum between the parties of the rich and of the poor. It remains to be seen if we are doomed to repeat history, or if the forebears of Owen and his crew can redress the imbalance and prevent that pendulum from smashing us in the face.

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