The Other History

By Bell, Fraser | Canadian Dimension, July-August 1997 | Go to article overview
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The Other History

Bell, Fraser, Canadian Dimension


Although this three part - series concentrates on the working - class experience of the 20th century, writers like Robert Tressell, George Orwell and Jack London owe a debt to a semi-submerged literary tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages. The old anonymous Border Ballads, the tracts of the Levellers, Cobbett's Rural Rides; the songs of the navvies and sailors; the broadsheets, doggerel verse and limericks, all make up a "proletarian literature," which is real and vital enough even if the Literary Canon has by and large excluded it.

These various chronicles of working life may vary in subject and place, but their common characteristic is a strong note of dissent. Style is generally subordinated to subject and the enemy is always the same: Old Corruption, The System, Capitalism, The Establishment. At any rate, those voices of the past have not been stilled by the passage of time and army of literary re-dressers has never been disbanded or lacked for recruits.

If, as E.P. Thompson points out in The Making of the English Working Class, "Class is defined by men as they live own history...," it is also defined by the written and oral record those men have left behind. The stories they tell are passionate, farcical, humourous, tragic, satirical. The works discussed here are not just political tracts. They are fine stories, always with a hard edge to them. In the final analysis, they are well worth reading for their own sake


The chroniclers of working life in this century are a mixed lot whose class credentials are not half as important as the authenticity of what they have written. Orwell, a product of Eton and the Imperial Indian Police, described himself, with his usual punctiliousness about these matters, as a member of the upper lower middle class. Yet his account of the Lancashire miners, his stories of "spikes" and life on the tramp, still retain their vigour and poignancy sixty years after their publication. Upton Sinclair was also impeccably bourgeois but his novel, The Jungle, is still the outstanding "muckraking" classic about the immigrants who slaved in the Chicago stockyards of the early 1900s. Finally, Robert Tressell, a genuine working man, whose only novel was written from his experiences as a painter and decorator in Hastings (the Mugsborough of his novel) and who was to die only three years before the abridged version was published in 1914.

It is fitting then that this series should begin with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, the first and most powerful novel about working class life in the 20th century. According to Alan Sillitoe, who wrote the introduction for the 1965 "unabridged" edition, Tressell's novel won the 1945 General Election for the Labour Party.

Whether or not this is true is beside the point. The generation which grew up between the world wars "believed" it to be true. "Philanthropists" was one of those novels which everyone knew of even if they had not read it. For example, the name "Nimrod" (or Hunter, the "chargehand" of the painters and decorators) became part of the working class argot of the day. Nimrod was always the lousy gaffer, the bully-boy foreman of the building site who made your life a living hell and acted as informer for the bosses. Tressell's book, in other words, entered the consciousness and shaped the diction of a generation. For many it was their first exposure to socialism and perhaps after all there is a cause and effect between the novel and Clement Attlee's victory in 1945.

Of the Mugsborough painters and decorator, Tressell writes with a mixture of despair and sympathy. Unlike Orwell and Sinclair, Tressell did not have a romantic or sentimentalized view of the working class. If anything, he regarded his fellow workers as thick-headed and wilfully ignorant. "From their infancy they had been trained to distrust their own intelligence, and to leave the management of the affairs of the world to their betters; and now most of them were absolutely incapable of thinking of any abstract subject whatsoever.

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The Other History


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