Will they ever go away? Doubt it somehow.
It is more than 100 years since Robert Noonan Tressell died (1911), and nearly 100 since his famous book was published in 1914.
The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists is a unique book. And sadly it is still totally relevant today.
Here’s an (abridged) Wiki extract about the author to save me re-writing it:
Robert Tressell was the nom-de-plume of Robert Noonan, a house painter. Born in Dublin (and baptised with the surname Croker), Noonan settled in England after living in South Africa at the beginning of the twentieth century. He chose the pen name Tressell in reference to the trestle table, an important part of his kit as a painter and decorator. Based on his experiences of poverty, exploitation, and his terror that he and his daughter Kathleen — whom he was raising alone — would be consigned to the workhouse if he became ill, Noonan embarked on a detailed and scathing Marxist analysis of the relationship between working-class people and their employers. The “philanthropists” of the title are the workers who, in Noonan ‘s view, acquiesce in their own exploitation in the interests of their bosses.
The novel is set in the fictional town of Mugsborough, based on the southern English coastal town of Hastings, where Noonan lived. The original title page of the book carried the subtitle: “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.”
He completed The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists in 1910, but the 1,600-page hand-written manuscript was rejected by the three publishing houses to which it was submitted. The rejections severely depressed Noonan, and Kathleen had to save the manuscript from being burnt. She placed it for safekeeping in a metal box underneath her bed.
After Noonan died of tuberculosis, Kathleen was determined to have her father’s writing published and showed it to a friend, the writer Jessie Pope. Pope recommended the book to her own publisher, who bought the rights in April 1914 for £25. It was published that year in much abridged form in the United Kingdom. The publisher removed much of the socialist ideology from the first edition; an unabridged edition with Noonan’s original ending was not published until 1955.
My partner first read it as an apprentice decorator. The skilled tradesperson he was working with recommended it to him. This, incidentally, was also the person who taught him chess in the lunch break, but that isn’t relevant to this post, apart from the teaching and learning aspects.
I was instructed to read this book, so I did. I’d never heard of it. Why would I? It’s a classic socialist novel about the working classes. Who cares about them? But, should you choose to embark upon it, it is well-written, thoughtful, clever, and a good read. It is pretty long too.
Some years later we were invited to dinner by a colleague who was working with me. We had been journalists and trade unionists together and now we were in PR. She cooked some pretty decent food, and was an excellent hostess.
Naturally the conversation turned to trade unionism. My partner had also been an active union member at British Leyland where he worked as a spray-painter, and on the dockyard in Sydney, where he would call an immediate strike if he considered conditions were unsafe eg inadequate ventilation working with toxic fumes in enclosed ship spaces.
‘You may be interested to read this book,’ she suggested. ‘You won’t have heard of it…..’ she prattled on.
Now she was pretty bright, but clearly brain had not been remotely engaged when telling a qualified decorator and trade union activist that he hadn’t heard of The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists.
I bit my tongue. For once. He was polite. No harm done. But assumptions huh? Not you are a decorator and a trade unionist so you may have read this? But rather, you do not have a degree or are a thinking person so therefore you won’t have read this book.
Hmm. It’s amazing how much we all mistakenly assume.
But back to the book. And why it is still so relevant today.
Clearly frustrated at the refusal of his contemporaries to recognise the inequity and iniquity of society, Tressell’s cast of hypocritical Christians, exploitative capitalists and corrupt councillors provide a backdrop for his main target — the workers who think that a better life is “not for the likes of them”. Hence the title of the book; Tressell paints the workers as “philanthropists” who throw themselves into back-breaking work for poverty wages in order to generate profit for their masters.
Well, surprise surprise, people are still doing it now. There’s a slight change in the backdrop, but the whole theme remains the same.
A) A self-employed and qualified tradesperson works for £80 a day. Everyone knows his rate because that’s what he quotes. He doesn’t quote per job. He doesn’t have to build in on-costs, eg insurance, tools, vehicle, holiday pay, sick pay, tax, social, blah blah because he is working on the black.
He needs that £80 a day/£400 a week to live and cover his rent money.
Most people he works for know this. And that’s why they knock him down even further and tell him what they will pay him at the end of the job. Not the rate he sets, what they consider they are willing to pay.
He isn’t working for himself at all. He is devaluing himself, his skill, his trade, for the benefit of people who want the cheapest possible job and don’t want to pay the going rate. Don’t want. Not can’t.
B) Speaking of the going rate and people who don’t want to pay…
It’s good working for people who are bringing home a million quid a year or more and object to paying £10 a hour (as in the above example – an eight hour day at £80 works out at £10, yes?). Apparently that is deemed an expensive hourly rate. We aren’t talking about someone working on the black now, we are talking about a legitimate business with all the additional costs that incurs.
But, wait, there is a cloud on that silver lining. Free coffee. Sandwiches (they never appeared and they were unlikely to have been vegetarian). Water.
Hell’s teeth. It’s great being employed by the rich and famous of the world. Trouble is, I know the price of coffee, sandwiches that don’t appear, and water. And those prices are not enough to justify a dirt cheap rate of £10 an hour. We can take our own.
But while ever people will work for £10 an hour these very rich people will milk them to the extreme.
Because in Tressell’s words, some tradespeople don’t even think ‘a better life is for the likes of them’.
C) Another rich person, we’re talking millions again. (There are a few of these rich gente in Gib). Wants some wallpapering doing. Calls us in because the previous quote is too expensive. Surprise surprise. Thinks we are desperate and will be cheap.
Well, the previous quote, IMNRHO, was far too cheap anyway, so I whacked in one a lot higher. We didn’t get the job. Some illustratory figures:
Original quote – £1500
My quote – £2000
Quote they were going with – £300.
There was more than a week’s worth of work there. The wallpaper alone was worth far more than £300.
D) How about the multiple shop-owners? With a nice large flat in an upmarket block? Some time ago, someone we knew (not a painter) charged nearly £300 to paint a feature wall and got that job – he employed someone else for significantly less to do the work.
We priced a large feature wall, to be sealed, lined, sized, and hung with expensive paper at somewhere around £500 – for two people to do the work.
‘I’m afraid that’s a little expensive for us.’ In our half a million pound flat.
E) A colleague from work some years ago. An accountant.
‘I got a quote from an electrician to do the work in the evening, but he wasn’t any cheaper than the firm he works for.’
Which translates to, ‘I’m quite happy to support the black economy and rip everyone off so long as I get a cheap price out of it, so I am very cross that he wasn’t any cheaper, because the one who needs to come out of this one best is ME.’
Well, sweetheart, pay the going rate in the first place. I don’t think that was why she stopped writing to me. Or maybe it was?
F) Another colleague from work.
‘I just need a little man to do those small jobs.’
Do you have any idea how much those small jobs cost in equipment? It took ten minutes to drill a hole in the wall the other day with a £500 drill set.
These are not £5 or £10 jobs. The price of that kit has to be built in.
G) Time and labour
The irony is, that the faster you are, people want to pay you less. Spend two hours drilling a hole manually, and that’s a tough job. Deserves at least thirty quid unlike the ten minute job with the power drill.
Paint and paper quickly? Nah, you don’t deserve anything. It hasn’t taken long so why should you charge so much?
Hello? Because we are efficient?
But the person who takes twice as long has worked so hard for their money – they deserve more? Wake up customers. People drag jobs out to make them look complicated.
I know. We should drag them out too.
But why? Why buy into your grasping, uneducated, pennypinching view?
You want the job done? Great. Price for the job. But not that we are here from sunrise to sunset and beyond and grateful for fucking coffee and non-appearing sandwiches.
And to any tradespeople out there, yes, I know there is a market economy and a price for the job. So set it.
Stop working for people who want to keep you down.