Tuesday, May 19, 2009

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists tells the story of a group of working men who are joined one day by Frank Owen, a journeyman-prophet with a vision of a just society. Owen's spirited attacks on the greed and dishonesty of the capitalist system rouse his men from their quietism. The book is recognised as one of the most authentic novels of English working class life ever written, a masterpiece of wit and political passion ... although it is Owen's forbearance rather than his radicalism which moves me. His capacity for suffering is almost masochistic, so I depicted him with an emaciated Christ-like aura as he endures the harassment and intimidation of his overseer (left) and employer (right).

With the recent anniversary of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' publication, and a star-studded Radio 4 serialisation, sales of the book surged. In the midst of a dire economic climate, it confounded expectations by reaching number six in the Amazon Movers and Shakers list. Last month the actor Ricky Tomlinson caused a further spike in sales when he commended the book on BBC1's One Show. A former plasterer and a union activist, Tomlinson believes Tressell's message is timely. "Nothing's changed. People are still getting killed in the building industry. There's hardly any safety work, hardly any hygiene conditions. Toilets are as rare as rocking-horse shit." Penguin have re-designed the cover (using a revision of artwork created in 2004) and a reprint will be shipping in a couple of weeks.

Commissioned by Jim Stoddart for Penguin.



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