Rye v Hastings? Dickens v Tressell?

27 May

Rye, East Sussex, looking down the hill and northward from St Mary’s Church

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On this site you don’t just get unerring political analysis leavened with travelogue and stunning nature shots. Oh no. You also get literary debate.

To my recent post, A little more on the US war machine – a reworking of an extended reply to a reader’s comment – I attached this:

PS, yes I very much enjoyed my mini-break in East Sussex. I highly recommend a visit to Rye, the picturesque port on the edge of Romney Marsh. T’was here that another empire, facing a strong challenge from Bonaparte, had plans to open drainage sluices and flood the marshes in the event of a French invasion. Then someone pointed out that it would be just like those wily frogs to sow rumours of an imminent attack, for the pleasure of seeing countless hectares of arable land and pasture ruined at great cost to perfidious Albion’s ruling class. The whole idea was hastily ditched – yes, I think ‘ditched’ is the right word …

Which drew this comment from a denizen of Hastings, one MrShigemitsu:

Rye is an insufferably twee, overly-precious hotbed of upper-middle class smugness, and the town, and its rural hinterland, are the reason why poor old Hastings has to consistently endure a Tory MP, even though it remains one of the most deprived places in the UK. From the awful Amber Rudd, to the even more egregious Sally-Ann Hart-less.

All self-respecting socialists should avoid Rye like the plague, get real, and come to Hastings – or “Mugsborough” – home to Robert Tressell’s ragged trousered philanthropists, instead! : )

As you can see from the smiley at the end of his comment, MrShigemitsu is engaging in good natured banter. And why not? If I can get away with non PC references to “wily frogs”, he can surely defend his home town by knocking its snooty neighbour.

All the same, I thought the issue merited further exploration:

Rye is indeed thoroughly bourgeois but with its fine church and views across the marsh – and more than acceptable pubs, in one of which I sank a maiden pint of Sussex Best – a pleasant place to spend a sunny afternoon. As for Mugsborough/Hastings, well, I went there too. TRTP? I gave my assessment in footnote 5 to my post of a month ago, Ukraine in La La Land:

One example [of the dangers of oversimplifying] is the attempt in Robert Tressell’s Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to wedge a vulgar articulation of the Law of Value into a workplace discussion within a realist novel in the Dickens tradition. Though the book is well worth reading for its depiction of non unionised labour mercilessly exploited in a seaside town at the dawn of the last century, as story telling it is inferior to Dickens in every possible way. And as political-economic treatise? The passage I have in mind has howlers arising from the attempt to shoehorn the most difficult chapters of Capital One into a lunchbreak workers educational. Specifically, they arise from understanding the appropriation of surplus value (the only account of profits to hold up under rigorous scrutiny) as the theft by individual capitalists of labour from individual workforces. In reality Capital as a whole confronts Labour as a whole, while profits tend towards distribution – despite fluctuating rates of value and surplus value production across industrial sectors – according to scale of investment. This was true in Tressell’s day and is triply so in ours, characterised by the globalisation, under conditions of financial imperialism, of Capital-Labour relations.

At this point Jams O’Donnell pitched in:

“Ragged Trousered Philanthropist” – I gave up on it in the 70’s after a dozen pages – it was so crudely/badly written as to be indigestible, despite its undoubtedly positive sentiments.

Had Jams persevered beyond page 12, he wouldn’t have made that seemingly trifling error of referring to a singular philanthropist, when Tressell’s central – albeit sarcastic – point is that the entire working class is collectively ‘philanthropic’ in donating unpaid labour-time to the capitalist class. The book’s title is The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

An easy mistake to make, and Jams does have a point about the author’s laboured and unrefined style. I replied:

To be fair Jams, TRTP has its darkly comic moments. Did you get as far as the scene where the foreman (in classic Dickens vein his name is Misery) who also has a tiny stake in the firm’s profits visits the house of a worker who just died in poverty, to snatch his body for a funeral with said firm?

Which betrayed my own lack of attention when, though I can’t – off top of head – say precisely where that scene does begin, it is certainly after page 12. Be that as it may, MrShigemitsu had this come-back:

At least the “philanthropists” don’t get improbably rescued by any deus ex machina wealthy uncles, or preposterously redeeming ghostly epiphanies on the part of Rushton! ; )

I was ribbing you really – but it is so frustrating to see the poverty and deprivation in Hastings and St Leonards alongside the smug wealthy hinterland and enclaves of Rye and Winchelsea – whose votes, because they are lumped together in the same constituency, always stymie any possibility of desperately needed left-wing parliamentary representation (though from where, and whom, is another matter, of course!)

The wide open spaces and skies of Rye Harbour bird sanctuary are wonderfully healing though, maybe for your next visit…?

He – I’m assuming cis-gender from choice of pen name – is right of course. I replied:

Agreed, MrShigemitsu. I took the time to wander both towns and, as you imply, Rye Harbour and Romney Marsh are more interesting than the pretty and exquisitely sited – on a small hill overlooking flatland, marsh and tidal creek – but smugly well to do town.

As for the difference between Rye and Hastings, it strikes me as akin to that between Bath – also picturesque, and steeped in Roman and Georgian history, but snooty and pretentious with it – and bustlingly vibrant Bristol. Both are well known to me.

Agreed too on Dickens’ propensity to apply magic solutions – like kind and well heeled Mr Brownlow turning up in the nick of time to see Oliver Twist saved and Fagin hanged – to problems only too real, and painted in his monumental works in such vivid strokes.

(That said, the Ragged Trousered Philanthropists has its own version of Mr Brownlow in the form of the rich ‘toff’ who, after pretending to be “one of the boys”, delivers a stirring speech on workers’ exploitation before opening up his wallet to pluck the main hero and his family from the abyss of destitution.)

Nor am I being entirely fair in comparing an honest if amateurish attempt to show the conditions of the English working class, circa 1900, with the work of a genius. Literary snobbery aside though, ditto a simplistic take on value appropriation, it seems to me that Tressell has the mirror opposite fault to Dickens’ over-reliance on magical resolution. Tressell’s frustrations surface repeatedly in the novel as exasperation, contempt and mistrust of the very class whose exploitation he charts so graphically, if at times clumsily. (We get a pretty strong taster of that contempt in his choice of pseudonym for the town of Hastings.) Where the maestro applies unreal solutions to real problems, Tressell ultimately has no solution at all. Of itself that isn’t a criticism. I’ve never seen the sense in insisting that, if we’ve no solution, we’ve no right to trouble folk with the problem.

(If I did, I could hardly do as I do, could I? The only “solution” this site offers is that, to borrow from my flawed but brilliant erstwhile spiritual teacher, we must face everything and avoid nothing. )

But his tendency to channel his frustration into a despising, different but no less real than the contempt the bourgeoisie hold, of those ‘philanthropic’ workers? That I do criticise.

And there are those deluded souls who say the age of the literary salon is dead. Not while there’s a steel city scribbler drawing breath it ain’t.

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11 Replies to “Rye v Hastings? Dickens v Tressell?

  1. Rye: Mapp and Lucia. Wasn’t the TV series, based on the Benson books, set there? Did not Henry James live and write there? And I have a vague idea that Ford Madox Ford and Jo Conrad (the great Ukrainian writer) had something to do with it.
    As to Hastings: I once spent a weekend there with the @@@ Socialist Society. We went down to the church that “Tressel” had done a mural in. The comrade who knew everything about him was a South African-as was, basically, Noonan/Tressel himself, politically- his father had been in the Johannesburg Commune, an uprising of which I know nothing.

    • Mapp & Lucia was indeed set in Rye. Versatile Miranda Richardson – one minute playing it for laughs as Blackadder’s hilarious Elizabeth 1st, next a deadly IRA operative in The Crying Game, then a Hampstead housewife in Damage – is Elizabeth Mapp, the upper middle class queen bee doing superficially genteel battle with an incoming alpha female in the shape of Anna Chancellor’s Lucia. Wonderful stuff.

      And, yes, Henry James lived and wrote here too. Didn’t know about FMF and Conrad though.

      Thanks for the info on Tressell. While I assumed the name an alias – Tressell/trestle – I didn’t know his real name, nor of the Johannesburg Commune.

  2. In my defence, all I can say is that it was 50 years ago – I may have stopped at page 5 or page 50. But I reiterate that the quality of the writing was so bad that I couldn’t go on with it. But if you’re going down the literary salon path, there’s plenty of controversy to be raised there.

    For example, I’m an avid fan of Ezra Pound’s ‘Cantos’, despite Pounds notorious and proven anti-semitism. The reason I am drawn to them is also probably not acceptable to anyone of a Marxist/materialist bent (although I think I’ve said before, here, that I don’t see Marxism and non or even anti materialism as necessarily being incompatible). Anyway, one of the reasons I appreciate Pounds Cantos is for their lyrical and vivid portrayal of an ethereal world which is described in words like these:

    Then quiet water,
    quiet in the buff sands,
    Sea-fowl stretching wing-joints,
    splashing in rock-hollows and in sand-hollows
    In the wave-runs by the half-dune;
    Glass-glint of wave in the tide-rips against sunlight,
    pallor of Hesperus,
    Grey peak of the wave,
    wave, colour of grape’s pulp,

    And the waters richer than glass,
    Bronze gold, the blaze over the silver,
    Dye-pots in the torch-light,
    The flash of wave under prows,
    And the silver beaks rising and crossing.
    Stone trees, white and rose-white in the darkness,
    Cypress there by the towers,
    Drift under hulls in the night.

    Possibly a bit rich for some tastes – although I find it enchanting. It could possibly be justified in a Marxist sense as giving us a glimpse (unintended by Pound, of course) of living in a future [Marxist] Utopia. But is such stuff, and the other positive qualities in Pounds writing, sufficient to counter the weight of his Fascist and right wing views? I’m prepared to say yes, but others may justifiably differ.

    • Beautiful words. Alas, great works of art are not the exclusive preserve of Good People. In a post on Bob Dylan, I referred to Pound as “a fine critic when taking time out from cheering on fascism”.

      DH Lawrence was victim of the ‘cancel culture’ long before the expression – like that of ‘virtue-signalling’ – had been coined. Likewise the greatest comic writer in the English language, PG Wodehouse. I’m minded of Lenin visiting a Moscow university, circa 1920. Ringed by a group of awestruck students he asked, “do you read Proust?”

      “Oh no”, they chorused. “Proust is a bourgeois. We read [some long forgotten Bolshevik writer].”

      Lenin smiled. “Proust is better.”

      George Orwell (of whom I also have very mixed feelings) put it best. In Benefit of Clergy, his essay on Salvador Dali, he picks up on the cognitive dissonance – another term yet to be coined – which led those who liked the surrealist’s paintings to deny his abhorrent persona, and those who loathed the man to deny his artistry. “Why”, asked Orwell, “is it so hard to appreciate that Dali is a great artist and an appalling human being?”

      • PS no need to speak of “in my defence” when, other than a missing “s”, you stand accused of no crime!

        • You’re behind the times Phil. ‘Thoughtcrime’ is the new go-to accusation. I am appalled by the way that any dissent from the establishment view on the current crisis is howled down. Nations of sheep. However, I believe it’s a sign that ‘they’ are getting desperate, what with the success of the Russian Army, the failure (indeed blow-back) of sanctions, the fact that most of the world community backs Russia, and the continuing rise of China. Things in fact are looking up – and I say this in spite of a previous doom laden post here – if (BIG if) – we can avoid the collapse of the environment.

          • Funnily enough, ‘thoughtcrime’ was coined by Orwell in 1984 – the book I mean, not the year, since by 1984 the year he’d lain in his grave close to thirty-five years.

            Yes, even WashPo, Guardian, Bloomberg etc are now reporting Russia’s gains in Ukraine. RT gets harder and harder to access, though I got in yesterday using the Tor browser and DuckDuckGo.

  3. I remember TRTPs fondly, mainly I suspect for it’s bleak description of an un unionised workforce leavened by almost pantomime humour ( decorating firms called ‘Rushton’ and ‘Slapiton and Leavit’). Flawed though the methodology and messages are, I also had considerable respect for the attempt to communicate complex areas of knowledge and theory in an accessible way about how capitalism works. The same challenge faces us today – we don’t seem to have cracked this do we?

    Phil, you are right to be critical of Tressle’s contempt and exasperation for the exploited class and again it is too easy to fall back into this today (eg re Brexit voters) but this is also true of middle class liberal / left ‘progressives’ who allow themselves to maintain a world view grounded in the mainstream media. True they have more of a material reason to do so than today’s working class but even their probably superior education leaves much to be desired when it comes to analysis and critique of the capitalist system.

    The challenge seems to be the same as confronted by Tressle – how to communicate succinctly and accessibly the enormity of the situation which can cut through the relentlessness of pro capitalism ideology / propaganda.

    Like you, I don’t feel I have much in the way of answers – but that doesn’t mean we should stop trying!

    • Hi Bryan. In important respects I think those “middle class liberal/left ‘progressives'” the most deluded of all. And this from one who, though of working class origins, is decidedly of that milieu himself.

      I spoke of a major aspect of that delusion a fortnight ago in Why the times they are a-changing. (That post also sets out the temporary conditions which saw millions like me, born and raised in working class homes, climb into the middle class.) I now see bright young things with PhDs and/or exciting new ideas and technologies entering my own erstwhile profession, academia, on far worse terms than I and my peers enjoyed. It’s vital, as you know, not to lose sight of the fact that while there are differences between white collar and blue, both have this in common: their sole way of providing for their families is to sell their labour on markets they have no control over. Capitalism is vile but we’ve got so used to its merciless logic, it seems the problem is life itself. It isn’t. The wheels which grind down a young lecturer – or house doctor, or for that matter call centre worker or Deliveroo cyclist – also trash the planet and have now brought us to the brink of WW3.

      I agree too in your implication that Tressell’s book, for all its faults, is to be commended for the many things it does get right. Indeed, my objection to his vulgarising of the law of value is not, I hope, that of a purist snob. It’s that those who rush in – I’ve been guilty of this myself – to simplify arguments it took Marx hundreds of thousands of words to set out bring music to the ears of those apologists for capitalism known as economists! And not just economists either. How many times has some smug professor or Guardian writer trashed the law of value via strawman arguments – e.g. that a workerless factory negates it – on the basis of half-baked but widely circulated oversimplifications?

  4. Dear SCS, whilst immensely flattering to be the (partial) subject of one of your posts, my tongue-in-cheek reference to Trussell and the Philanthropists as motivation for a trip to the rough and ready Hastings than the cloying comfortableness of Rye, has somewhat overshadowed the more political point I was attempting to make!

    As I said in my previous commentary, I deeply resent Rye, mostly because it lies in the same constituency as Hastings, and which, since I have lived here, has always skewed the vote to the Tories, in spite of the poverty and deprivation to be found in the greater parts of Hastings & St Leonards.

    At the 2019 hustings in Hastings (!), we were introduced to our Tory Prospective Party Candidate, in the form of Sally-Ann Hart (hereafter to be referred to, and in perpetuity, as Sally-Ann Hartless), an ex-commercial lawyer, who lives in an agreeably large house, somewhere outside Rye.

    As an example to give you the measure of the woman, when a question put to the panel from the audience enquired as to her policies for additional job creation for Hastings (sorely needed), she declared that one way to achieve new jobs here would be to abandon the minimum wage for disabled people (!!), so that employers would be more likely to offer them jobs, as they would only have to pay them a couple of pounds an hour(!!!)

    The entire audience in the atrium of the local college was in uproar at this, and cries of “shame on you” echoed around the hall. With no self-awareness, or ability to “read the room”, she brazenly persisted in this eugenic nonsense – utterly oblivious not only to how appalling the proposal was, but seemingly unaware too of precisely *why* the crowd found it so egregious.

    Well, thanks to being lumbered together with Rye, Winchelsea, and the farming hinterland (plus the Starmerite “People’s Vote” backstabbing, which no doubt induced the Brexit-supporting Hastings working class to, this time, lend their votes to the Tories to “Get Brexit Done!”), Hartless is now our MP – increasing the Tory majority to 4,043 (from just 346 in 2017)

    I fear it will never change – and Hastings will always be an island of poverty, in a sea of wealth and comfort, with no enthusiastic parliamentary representation to effect change.

    For now, to my best knowledge, disabled people in Hastings and elsewhere are still earning the minimum wage, and over… but not for much longer if our MP has anything to do with it.

    Best, MrS.

    (PS – Hi Bevin! Great posts on MoA!)

    • Understood, Mr Shigemetsu. I had noted that your central point was electoral unfairness. Whether through deliberate gerrymandering at local level, or the unfairness in general of a FPTP electoral system, Hastings – which as you say and I have seen is one of the most deprived towns in Britain – gets saddled with a tory MP.

      Forgive my opting to take it in a different direction.

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