New Ragged Trousers

My parents are both leftists, and so it was only natural that our book case contained a dog-eared copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. The spine was cracking, its antiquity proven by the sale price in shillings and pence. But strangely – because I at least attempted most of the books in those shelves – I never picked it out to read. It stayed in the shelf whille I soaked up the baroque grotesqueries of Mervyn Peake; the lurid visions of J.G. Ballard; the pugillistic prose of Norman Mailer.

I left home in the Highlands for Edinburgh, where, after an aborted attempt at Law, I studied Literature. I called myself a leftist but by the time I graduated, I still had not read the foundational text of British progressive thought. Despite his tragic life, in academic terms, Robert Tresell was not repressed enough to be Victorian, nor tortured enough to be modernist.

I must be one of the few readers to have been presented with their copy of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by a Tory. My enlightener was an English langauge teaching colleague, passionate about ideas and debate of all kinds. The edition she gave me was the new Penguin Classic, on the cover a cartoon of a defiant proletarian with cynical bosses looming behind him. It was the kind of ‘read-me’ cover my teenage self might have gone for.

Frank Owen’s battle to make his fellow house painters understand the nature of their exploitation engrossed me from the start. V and I discussed how, as English Language teachers, we were in a similar position. The school where we worked employed most of its teachers by the hour, with no guarantee of future work. The owner was in the process of selling up to a travel company keen to ‘expand its portfolio’ in the teaching market.

V’s solution was to get out and go it alone. She had built up a following of students, especially among the wealthy Saudis. She soon had more work than she could handle and reached the burnout point all teachers know. But she had bought a flat, and to keep her income up, she cleared out the spare room to rent on Air BnB. Her approach was a lesson in how to survive in the new economy – but I didn’t follow it.

Towards the end of 2015, I moved to Japan. Life had taken over; time had speeded up. I was now a husband and father. I had a full-time contract at a language school and my salary was decent, at least compared to those back in the UK. But, in trying to learn such a different language and culture myself at the same time as managing family life, I had bitten off more than I could chew. With a struggling exile’s inability to acclimatise to new surroundings, I kept my eyes on the news from home.

Through 2016 I watched from a distance as Brexit detonated and the Labour Party tore itself apart. The drive for Scottish indepedence, for which I had voted, seemed to be descending into bitterness. In the absence of a tangible impact in my surroundings, the effects were psychological: a sense of roots being torn away; of the vexed land I had left lurching further out of control. What hope for the Left? Precious little, it seemed, and so I did what most parents do: I let my daughter sustain me: her desire for stories; her need to be happy and to learn. What was the fate of the world compared to overcoming a phobia of swings?

But to care for a child is to imagine the teenager they will become. To hope they will be curious about the world; aware of its problems but excited by its possibilities. To think about the books they will read, that might help them navigate it. Novels like David Mitchell’s The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

The Thousand Autumns begins in 1799, with a Dutch clerk arriving on the trading post of Dejima in Nagasaki Bay. The Dutch are Japan’s sole European trading partners, and Dejima the only window where the closed empire allows contact with the outside world. Jacob is a pastor’s nephew, an admirer of Adam Smith’s vision of rational capitalism. He is about to discover what the theory looks like on the ground, in a deceptively peaceful setting, where mysogny, racism and corruption are rife, and currents of change in the world threaten the very existance of hsi employer, the Dutch East Indies Company.

The Thousand Autumns is a novel about the perils of global capitalism, set before Karl Marx was born. It doesn’t demonise trade or the entrepreunerial spirit per se. Its great theme is to know your enemy, and find solidarity against them, regardless of race, nationality, gender, education. It has more characters than a Shakespeare play and dialogue to match; it has a love story, a monstrous villain, and action sequences befitting a blockbuster movie, even more than Mitchell’s other magnum opus, Cloud Atlas, which got one.

As I prepare to return to the UK, I think the Left needs a new canon of texts: Ragged Trousered Philanthropists for the global, post-Marxist age. Not too many: I would suggest a maximum of ten, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet to fill one of the posts. These are the books we should be pressing onto our children, our lovers, our friends and colleagues; to make them hope and believe that the world in its present state can be changed.

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