The brilliant thing about book clubs is the encouragement and opportunity to read books outside your comfort zone – that’s how I found myself reading The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell.
It’s a thick book written over 100 years ago and viewed by some as a classic. It has much to say in favour of socialism and the edition I read had an introduction by Tony Benn. However it is possible to push the politics to one side and read it as a piece of social history.
The story centres around a group of painters and decorators living in poverty. They are in and out of work depending on the season and very badly treated by their rich, fat cat employers. Health and safety is non-existent and this is long before the safety net of the welfare state and the NHS. The book follows these wretched men and their families over a twelve month period, contrasting their circumstances with those of their bosses.
I found the first chapter hard going – there were far too many characters introduced all at once. But I persevered and the subsequent chapters focused in on individuals which made the going easier. I became fond of Owen, the deep thinker of the group, and young Bert, who worked for nothing in an exchange for an ‘apprenticeship’ which taught him only the skills of being a dogsbody. I also felt for their wives, who often went without food so that their children and husband could eat.
Verdict: It took me three weeks to read the book and only 30% of the book club members stuck with it all the way through. It made me incredibly glad that I wasn’t born 100 years earlier into a society that had to live hand to mouth. The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is not a ‘good’ read but I’m very glad I’ve read it – in the same way that I’m often very glad I’ve been to the gym even though pounding the treadmill or doing sit-ups was not a good experience.