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Archive for the ‘on my bookshelf’ Category

onchesilbeachThe story opens in 1962 with a young couple, Florence and Edward, honeymooning in a hotel, near Chesil Beach, in Dorset. It’s their wedding night, and we first meet them at dinner, each privately contemplating the imminent consummation of their vows.

It’s clear they’re deeply in love, also clear there’s a conflict that bodes ill for their future. Edward is more sexually experienced and is almost swooning with desire at the prospect of completing himself with the woman he loves. However their courtship thus far has been rather chaste, but his love and his anticipation of their future lives together has made the waiting bearable, while at the same time stoking his expectations. Florence on the other hand is sexually repressed and secretly appalled by the idea of what’s to come, but through her love for Edward, she hopes she can manage sufficiently to at least get by.

The consummation is a disaster. Florence is left feeling disgusted, and Edward humiliated by her disgust. She rushes out of the hotel, runs along Chesil Beach, eventually huddling down in the fold of a smooth worn tree trunk that’s been washed up and here she considers her future. Meanwhile, Edward sets out to find her. This is the culmination of their story, the details of which are told in retrospect as we go along, finally to arrive at this critical moment when Edward catches up with her and they begin to talk.

Florence might easily be branded the guilty one here, but what crime is it, to be frigid? Yet it might also be said she deceived Edward over her distaste for intimacy throughout their courtship, that if she’d come clean with him he might reasonably have thought twice and married someone else. But at the opening of their foreplay we see she is not entirely disconnected from her carnal nature, that if Edward had only been more patient and, dare we say, a better lover, the night need not have ended so badly as it did.

His attempted rapprochement with Florence does not go well either, neither seeming able to say what they actually mean. The hurt gets in the way of their love, and the wrong words keep coming out. Finally, Florence, filled with self loathing and guilt, rejects her sexual nature, telling Edward they might still be together but he would have to find “that kind” of pleasure elsewhere, with other women, a suggestion Edward finds appalling. The marriage is over.

The story concludes with a brief flash forward to their futures, lives maturing along entirely separate lines. They do not see each other again after that fateful night, yet Florence still thinks of him, and he of her, both looking back over their lives from that moment in their youth, their love still invisibly binding them. The power of the story, for me at least, is the feeling that if only he had said this or she had said that, or both been more open, patient, understanding, their love would surely have led the way to a fulfilling life together. It was a prize worth the fighting for, but they allowed it to slip through their fingers.

The regret I felt on closing the book was palpable, and I am still thinking of it, wondering how I would have dealt with the situation, had I been in Edward’s place. How would I have viewed Florence’s frigidity and her eventual disgust? It’s seems churlish I would have rejected her out of disappointment at her lack of skill or even any vestige of apparent aptitude in that department. Surely, I would I have tried to find other ways of loving her, perhaps seeking to melt her over time into an appreciation of the desires she was clearly capable of, had I only been sensitive enough to realise it. Or maybe, like Edward, the humiliation I would have felt in that moment would have been too great a hurdle for my younger, Ego weighted self to overcome. But of course, neither of these characters actually existed and it’s a testament to McEwan’s prowess that he can so easily convince us that they did. I don’t know if that tree ever washed up on Chesil Beach, but I imagine it did, and I imagine Florence still sitting there, and I’m walking towards her, wondering what to say. And this time I’d better get it right.

Altogether, an emotionally powerful story of two very human characters, all the more poignant for not ending well, as is always the way I suppose.

But don’t let that put you off.

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watchwordThe Watchword technique is method of self analysis. Its origins are obscure, but find themselves formalised in this 1990’s title by Michael Daniels, senior lecturer in what was then Liverpool Polytechnic’s Department of Psychology. The book has a very Jungian grounding, and aims to give the reader a clear picture of the forces at play in the currents of the psyche – where we’re going, what’s holding us back, what are the dominant forces driving us, what areas we need to work on, to let go of and so on.

If you’re of a New Agey, self analysis, Jung-fan bent, you probably already have a number of methods for getting inside your head. Tarot cards are popular, as are Runes. For a long time I favoured the I Ching but, like all oracular devices it can be misunderstood and, like the Tarot and Runes, is somewhat tainted by an occultish aura which does not appeal to everyone.

Oracles do not foretell tell the future. It’s a common misconception. Instead, they read the psychical landscape and make projections from it. They grant us a look inside our heads, revealing what might otherwise be hidden. All methods have their attractions and drawbacks and we should feel free to take them up and set them aside as and when the mood takes us, never adhering to them too slavishly, but rather listening to our own instincts for what’s right at the time. In this way the Watchword technique can be looked upon as another thing to try, perhaps when answers are failing you elsewhere. The method is direct, and carries none of the occult baggage associated with other methods, though this is not to say its intuitions are both startling and mysterious.

The technique involves writing down sixteen words – whatever comes into one’s head – then pairing them off and looking for an association with the linked words, then pairing these off. Reminiscent of a Jungian word association test, and dream amplification, what we end up with is a grid of highly charged words which, like dream symbols, represent the archetypal forces, or a kind of psychical weather forecast. As a method I find it very powerful, though as Daniels cautions in the book, it is not something to be read too literally or follow too slavishly.

So, our sixteen seed words are boiled down by a process of association into a square matrix which we then interpret using a form of directional symbolism. In short, the up and down directions indicate progressive and regressive tendencies, the left and the right involve the more subtle interpretation of inner (left) and outer (right) psychological urges. The overall balance of the square therefore comes to represent a map of the forces within us and the complex dynamical churn between them. A further pattern of three words emerges in the centre of the matrix, the middle one of these being taken as the ultimate direction implied from the interplay of all the other forces in the mix.

While this may sound dubious to anyone not versed in symbolic or archetypal thinking, I find the method has an uncanny way of homing in on the key dynamics. The answers arise from our own thought processes, it’s just that some of them are normally hidden from view and the method tries to tease them out. At its most basic level the Watchword technique can be treated as a word game, as a bit of fun, and when beginning with it, it’s perhaps best to treat it as such. But at its deepest level it can aid us in coming up with some profound insights into our own strengths and failings.

A more individual analysis of the words we’ve chosen can also reveal our Myers Briggs type, and the book goes into this in some depth, but I’ve found the technique less reliable in that respect, probably due to my own failings in grasping the symbolic significance of the words we use, better to use the Myers Briggs method itself, but in all other respects this is a valuable tool for anyone on the path towards self discovery.

 

 

 

 

 

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gatzbyIf you’re studying this at college and want something to plagiarise  for an essay, be warned: I failed Lit at 16, so what do I know? Go read the Spark Notes or something.  But anyway:

I possess just one of those “how to write a novel books”. It’s called “How to write a novel” and it’s by the British novelist, John Braine (Room at the top, Crying Game). Like all Braine’s novels it’s beautifully written. It’s also full of fairly useless advice for anyone writing today. I bought it in 1979, thinking it would help me to get a novel published. It didn’t work, but as anyone who’s tried it knows, writing a novel is one thing, publishing is quite another. Anyway, John urges us to learn from the best, and it’s hard to disagree with him on that one, and one of the novels he quotes from is The Great Gatsby.

Sad to say I didn’t take John’s advice until recently, but that’s okay because reading the Great Gatsby won’t help you get published either because the publishing world has changed a lot since 1925. What it will do, however, is show you how good a novel can be, yet it’s also one that’s impossible to ape because few of us can write as well as this, even when we’ve been shown how.

The story became popular again around 2013, on release of the movie adaptation starring Leonardo De Caprio and Carey Mulligan, as no doubt it became popular around 1974 on release of the previous movie starring Robert Redford and Mia Farrow. I’ve not seen either film, but came across the novel in a charity shop while scrabbling about for another title to make up the two-for-a pound-offer. Thus the Great Gatsby rose from the bargain bin, and spoke to me.

It’s not a long novel. I read it one lazy Sunday afternoon while waiting for a computer to rebuild after a dose of Malware. (You’re right, none of this is relevant) Focus Michael. Stop waffling. Your reader has other things vying for their attention.

And that’s the first point: Fitzgerald does not waffle. There is a pared back, austere beauty to the prose, not a single wasted word, not one superfluous comma. And there’s a crispness to the dialogue that wakes you up, makes you listen. It lends a focus that shames my own work, shames our own times, waffling and smudging and blurring our way to dimly grasped conclusions.

So, here it is, says Fitzgerald with a clap of his hands: Let’s get to it.

In the opening of the story our narrator rents one of the last remaining “modest” properties on Long Island (NY), which just happens to be next door to a mansion owned by the titular Jay Gatsby, an enigmatic multi-millionaire whose doors are always open to riotous, celebrity studded parties – parties he seems to take only a peripheral interest in. The rich and the famous flock to Gatsby’s mansion and there they adulate him to his face while whispering dark things behind his back, making up stories of a shady past to fill in the blanks. At first we know little of Gatsby. Instead we are shown how the high society Gatsby entertains is rotten, built on money, greed, and low morals.

Our narrator hovers on the fringes of this world, by turns seduced and disgusted. He’s befriended by Gatsby – but for a reason. The narrator’s cousin, Daisy, is a girl from Gatsby’s past. But the war intervened, Gatsby went off to fight and when he returned Daisy, a dizzy, rich, society girl, had married more into her class. By contrast Gatsby was self made from humble origins, and Daisy, though she was the love of his life, had not the character to wait for him.

Everything Gatsby has since done (hints of shady dealings), his yearning for success, his millions, his mansion, all are aimed at turning Daisy’s head and winning her back from a philandering no good cad of a husband. Gatsby is thus revealed as a man driven not so much by the desire for money, power and fame as more simply and elementally by love. His massive, legendary parties are bait, aimed at luring Daisy through his door and rekindling their past.

But is she worth it?

The story is a simple one, of the type you could precis on the back of an envelope, hone down to a paragraph then sell it as a catchy idea to a publisher. It’s all the more powerfully told for the brevity of its prose and the sharpness of its focus. I won’t spoil the tale for anyone coming to it for the first time, but it leaves us in no doubt as to the vacuousness of a society dominated by money and privilege, and the falseness of relations forged under such a shallow, self seeking milieu. It this sense it speaks also to the present day as much as it did to the roaring twenties, when it was written.

John Braine’s book on how to write a novel isn’t much use to a writer writing now, but I do agree with him in this respect: when reading Scott Fitzgerald, a writer knows he is in the presence of a master, one from whom he has much to learn. Studying The Great Gatsby won’t help you get a novel published, nothing will, but it will help you write a better one. And if you’re not a writer, this is a story well worth the reading anyway, for no more reason, as with all good stories, that it’s a good story, and well told.

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souls-codeDr James Hillman (1926-2011) was a renowned post-Jungian analyst, depth psychologist and latter day guru of the human development movement. His books offer ideas that draw on early Western (Greek) philosophy and mythology. If we want to understand, to accommodate and direct the forces of the psyche, says Hillman, then we do well to think on what the Greeks wrote about their gods.

I find him difficult, but if one perseveres bits of him stick. In the Soul’s Code he tells us about Plato’s myth of Er, part of his magnum opus, The Republic, in which we are acquainted with the idea of a personal Daemon, an internal, psychical companion who carries the map of our lives, according to a plan laid down before our birth.  Our future then, according to this myth, is not determined so much by the environment we are born into as by a kernel of potential, like an acorn, that will grow into what it was meant to be regardless of any adversity we face in life, or possibly even because of it.

Our task in life is to live out the potential of the acorn, to allow it to grow down from the fertile earth of the deep psyche into the blossom of material realisation through the physical entity that we are. But the Daemon also has the power to bend and shape events to suit the attainment of its ambition for us. So,… we miss the bus, the car gets a flat tyre, we miss the crucial meeting, we lose our job; seen from the Ego’s perspective as personal disasters, such upsets can now be re-interpreted as part of a grander plan, releasing us to pursue another path, one closer to what the Daemon has intended for us. It’s a catch-all – so even the bad hand we are dealt can be greeted with a philosophical acquiescence. It was simply meant to be.

But we can also resist the daemon, resist the call, run capriciously and contrary to the Daemon’s aim. When this happens though, we will at some point feel resistance, feel a gnawing dissatisfaction with our lives and our tireless wants. Persist long enough in a contrary direction and the Daemon will make us ill, or even kill us off altogether, write us off as a bad job, and start afresh.

To realise the Daemon’s plan is to live the life we were intended. The challenge though is divining what it is the Daemon wants for us, and knowing if we’re on the path or not. Personal happiness is not the key, for many who have lived Daemon haunted lives do not end their lives well. Their achievements may stand out, make history, save lives, bring comfort to millions, while their own lives end in apparent ruin and ignominy.

What I find confusing about The Soul’s Code is Hillman’s use of remarkable lives as illustrations of the Daemon at work. He does this, he says, to magnify the phenomenon, to render it visible to analysis but, though he tells us the Daemon is at work in all our lives, the temptation at a first reading is to conclude only those names lit up by fame have listened well enough, and the rest of us are losers.

I’m sure this isn’t what Hillman is saying, or maybe it is. I find much in him that’s contradictory, elusive, beguilingly and beautifully poetic, rather like the psyche itself: alluring, intangible, ambiguous, shape-shifting. There are no firm handles, no answers, nothing to gain purchase, nothing one can test by putting into practice, no ten step plan for contacting your Daemon and realising your full potential. He is the dream to be interpreted, and like the all dreams perhaps not taken too literally.

I’m not unsympathetic to the idea of a personal Daemon. Indeed I think I met mine once, during a brief, spontaneous moment of transcendence, when I recognised myself as being interconnected with everything. Everywhere I looked, there I was. And the Daemon was there, felt, rather than seen, a formless presence reminding me, wordlessly, that as remarkable and unlikely as this vision of seemed, I had always known it to be the truth, but had forgotten it. I had drunk, as Hillman might have quoted, from Greek Myth, from the waters of the Lethe.

But the puzzle for all of us is what I feel Hillman did not address in any depth, and I’d hoped he would – this being the sense of our own importance, our own mission, which is at complete odds with the reality of a small speck of life played out in an infinite, cold and unfeeling universe. In company with our Daemon we feel how interconnected we are with world, that man and world cannot not be said to exist at all in isolation from the other. But in my case, my awareness underlined how much this was, my universe, my journey, that the Daemon and I are alone in working towards our purpose, no matter how insignificant a thing that might appear to be on paper. The Daemon is the captain of my vessel, while my ego-self, the thing I think of as me, is more the sole deckhand, as we sail the tempestuous seas of fate and mischance.

But where does this leave you?

In the working out of my journey are you merely the personification of my own fate and mischance, to be used by my captain as an object lesson – friends, lovers, family,… ill or well met, the whole damned lot of you? And how about the man who talks to himself on the bus, and whom I’d rather avoid? Is he a God in disguise, come to test my own godliness, my own compassion? Are you all merely the humours and the godlings come to test and steer, as in those old Greek stories.

Are you not really there at all?

Perhaps I should have listened more to those Greek myths as a child, for as Hillman teaches, there’s probably many a metaphorical clue in there I’ve missed that would be of help to me now. But the Greeks, like Hillman are not exactly an easy read, and diligence seems rewarded with only more questions, while the answers, far from clear, seem lacking altogether.

Or I could just leave it to the Daemon, and hope I’m on the right path anyway. Then none of it matters and the acorn of my life will, out in spite of all my protestations to the contrary.

I leave you with a taste of the late great, Dr James Hillman (1926-2011):

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IMG_20160206_224252The genesis for this book was a TV interview by the journalist John Freeman, for the BBC in 1959. It was to be the last book to bear Jung’s mark, though it is in fact a collaboration between Jung and several of his closest colleagues in the psychoanalytical movement at that time – namely Joseph Henderson, Marie Louise Von Franz, Jolande Jacobi and Anielia Jaffe. Snatches of that original interview appear on You tube from time to time, to be shot down by the copyright police, then to reappear. You can try here, but the link may be broken any time. It’s an important interview. Freeman sounds somewhat dated with his BBC accent, even a bit stuck up, but his respect for Jung is clear and his questions are spot on. Jung is utterly compelling.

The result was an even bigger mailbag for Jung and the realisation there was a hunger for his ideas outside of the rarefied and to some extent privileged realms of psychoanalysis. It was Freeman who later approached Jung with a view to him writing a book, this time aimed at a general audience – the book that was to become “Man and his Symbols”. According to Freeman, Jung listened to him patiently for a full two hours, then said no. For Jung all of this was coming at a time in his life when he knew his own time was running out.

Then, Jung had a meaningful dream. In the dream he was speaking to ordinary people in a marketplace – literally to the man in the street – and the people understood him. So, he had a change of heart, decided there would be some value in writing such a book after all, but insisted it was to be a collaboration. He would write the opening keynote section, titled “approaching the unconscious”, while the remainder would be left to his closest colleagues.

Jung passed away in 1961, ten days after punching in the final full stop. The book itself wasn’t published until 1964.

Jungian psychology has a potentially wide application, far beyond the analytical couch. Private analysis is strictly for those who can afford it of course, and this is to be regretted, but anyone with sufficient motivation can uncover the basics and the basics are this: if we want to restore a sense of direction and meaning to our lives, if we want to understand the world in a truly global context, we have to re-establish relations with our unconscious mind, and we can do this simply by paying attention to our dreams.

In our conscious lives we identify objects by the names we give them, but the dream deals with symbols. Symbols are objects too but their names are not as important as the emotional charge they carry. The dream speaks to us in the language of symbols and we can learn a great deal about our selves by paying attention to our dreams and the symbols that arise. But there’s more – for Jungians the unconscious mind has both a personal and a collective dimension. On occasion then we find things surfacing in our dreams of a deeper, mythic nature. These things may be of significance to us personally, or they can be prescient of happenings in the world at large. No one teaches us our old stories any more, least of all what they mean, and for Jungians a knowledge of myth, of the stories told since the earliest of times, is invaluable in understanding what is going on, both inside the individual, and in all the trouble spots of the globe that suffer under man’s influence.

There are many decent introductions to Jung, but I find this one the most accessible. His work is widely embraced now by the self-improvement movement and there’s hardly a single new age fad that is not in some way reliant on ideas that first came out of Jung’s head. But a reading of his deeper works does make for occasionally disturbing reading. The book was written at a time of dire tensions between the West and the USSR – an escalation in weapons technology that threatened to wipe out the world ten times over. But for the cold war of 1964, you can read the middle eastern crisis of the latter day, and the analysis, in Jungian terms is the same, and compelling, that what ails the West, then and now, is a loss of soul, that what we see nightly on the TV news is merely a reflection of the very thing we are incapable of seeing in ourselves. The message of Jung, outlined so succinctly in  Man and his Symbols is as relevant today as it ever was.

Much of the thinking of Jungian psychology does not chime well with the rational world and he can attract the most vehement and irrational criticism. If you are of a rational frame of mind, yet drawn to psychology at all, it will probably be the work of Freud you prefer. But for the soulful and the spiritual wanderers, and for those just trying to understand the ills of the world from a global perspective there is much in Jung to guide your path, also to explain the experience of your own life and to guide you around the occasional pothole.

So, how in touch are you with your own unconscious? Well,… tell me, do you recall what you dreamed of last night?

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I CHingThe notion of a life’s path is central to ideas of human development, be they secular or religious. But it’s not obvious what that path is, especially when we can only say we’re on it when we’re not deliberately trying to steer our course. And our Ego likes to steer, likes to gain knowledge, skill, and to compete against other egos in order to secure wealth, power and sex. These are the aphrodisiacs of the material world, a world that divides us, as it did in primitive times, into mere predators and prey. There can be no other way, we’re told – no surviving life without combat. It’s evolution. Simple.

Not true, says the Book of Changes.

The Book of Changes, also known as the I Ching or the Yi Jing, is a strange, beguiling text, evidence of which first appeared in China’s Shang Dynasty, around 1600 BC, though it certainly predates this period. It came to the west in the late 19th century via the translation by James Legge, and largely ignored except as a cultural curiosity, but was taken up by the Jungian psychoanalytical movement on publication of the influential Wilhelm edition in 1929. There have been many editions since the Wilhelm Edition, but none so influential, striking as it did at the heart of European intellectual thought.

It then became a companion to 60’s counterculture, and is still widely used today. While its core structure has remained untouched since antiquity, the language of its interpretation changes to suit whatever culture it finds itself taken up by. I have several versions of it, and wrote my own interpretation, The Hexagrams of the Book of Changes, available here, as a way of furthering my grasp of its curious concepts.

What we normally think of as our life’s path, says the Yi Jing, the path we can see and plot and manage, isn’t really our path at all, but simply our life situation. Our true path is more of an internal journey towards awakening. Our life situation is only relevant to the extent that we are able to adjust our relationship with it in order to prevent it from subverting the more vital inner path. The material world is a world asleep. Hold solely to material values, and you will remain asleep also. To awaken is to realise, viscerally, the deeper nature of reality and our place in it. To this end the Yi Jing is an indispensable guide.

What makes the book unique is its interactive nature. You talk to it. You can ask it things, and it answers. The answers are complex, perceptive, and personal. There’s a lot of debate about exactly who or what it is we talk to when we talk to the Yi Jing. Some deify the book, picturing in their minds the spirit of a wise old sage, like Lao Tzu perhaps, and that’s fine if it’s how you want to see it. But everyone’s relationship with the book is going to be different.

My own feeling is that when we consult the book, we open the way to a deeper part of our selves. We ask our question and are then directed to certain apparently random passages and subtexts, the combination of which forms a narrative for reflection and interpretation. The answers then emerge in our own minds, riding in on a wave of sudden insight. In some sense the book can be seen as an oracle, but this is to seriously underestimate its potential, and for me its real strength lies in its use as a psychological tool, a thing that shakes the unconscious mind in order to release personal insights.

I don’t know how it works, and I no longer think about it. The ego cannot crack it, but neither can the Ego accept the Yi Jing without explanation, so there opens a divide. On the one side we have explanations from devotees of the book that range from the vaguely plausible to the frankly crackpot, and on the other a sour scientistic rejection of the book as merely the work of an emerging, pre-rational culture. Others say we simply read into it whatever we want to hear, and that’s also fine, though this does not explain the fact that if one is open enough, one always rises from the Yi Jing knowing or feeling something one did not know or feel before. Another of its useful characteristics is that it will never shy away from telling us what we don’t want to hear. It’s not an easy book to know, certainly not without devoting time to developing a relationship with it, and many may find it simply impenetrable, banal, or even repulsive.

When I read back to my earliest conversations with the Yi Jing, I come across as a very different person, my questions very much concerned with my place in the world: job, relationships, house, kids, cars, holidays, financial ups and downs, struggles for publication,… and the answers read like repeated attempts to make me see I had the whole world upside down, that actually, none of it mattered, that the confusion and the frustration we so often feel in life is based on faulty thinking, our anxieties arising purely from a resistance to events over which we have no control.

While we have no choice, as beings in flesh, but to operate at the material level of reality, the Yi Jing tells us we should always do so in cognizance of the inherent limitations of material being, and in the knowledge that a greater understanding of the meaning of “being” comes from exploring the shifting patterns of our inner selves. As a guide to such things, I have found the Yi Jing is without parallel and is one of the most insightful guides to life ever conceived.

Not bad for a book coming to us from our Neolithic past.

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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 seemingly 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 days, 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 today.

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 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 political pendulum between the parties of the rich and of the poor. It remains to be seen if we are doomed to repeat history of Tressel’s day, or if the forebears of Owen and his crew can redress the imbalance and prevent that pendulum from smashing us all in the face once more.

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