Just over a century ago a novel was published that offered the nation a stark picture of the lives of white working class men. The release of the book was posthumous, its author Robert Tressell (Robert Noonan) having died of TB three years previously. The name of the book was of course The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Its centenary just a few years ago saw it race back up the booksellers charts.
Widely famed as a relentless argument for wholesale socialist revolution its contemporary readers, those up for the challenge of 600+ pages, are likely already committed to the cause of the left. But it doesn’t follow that they’re working class. In fact, if those contemporary readers are Labour Party members then they are more likely to be ABC1’s, by a factor of around 7:1. That’s a problem, because looking into the world of the working class from any other perspective is likely to produce a distorting effect.
Therefore, a considerable jolt awaits contemporary readers of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. It is the way that Tressell not only sympathises with the perils and predicaments of his working class characters, but how he ruthlessly challenges and chastises them too. If he were alive today Tressell would be left feeling quite uncomfortable amongst ‘comrades’ from either Progress or Momentum.
Why? Because within the contemporary worldview of the left, across the spectrum, there is no shadow of doubt that the reason people are poor is simply because an unjust system makes them so. Today’s Tressell might easily find himself at the centre of a Twitstorm for daring to suggest that there are poor people who are complicit in their own fates by making terrible choices, or that their poverty is further entrenched through a refusal to develop intellectually.
This however, is just how Professor Green picks up Tressell’s mantle. In his new documentary series for Channel 4: Working Class White Men, he manoeuvres, more gently, but quite distinctly, within the Tressell pattern. He takes us on a journey into the homes and the hearts of today’s working class white men. He gains unique access because he is one of them, as was Tressell. He speaks their patois. He mirrors their posture and gesture. He knows when to press and when to pause. He is willing to listen, but also to spar.
Programme One features wide-boy Denzil, approaching thirty and living with his gran. There’s also aspiring mathematician Lewis, planning on improving his lot via a place at Cambridge. Most salient for me was lost-soul David from Bolton. I found myself really concerned for him, perhaps because we have quite a lot in common. His first job was in a scrap yard, as was mine. At his age I had the same fondness for baseball caps and baggy sportswear. I’ve also spent most of my life living in Greater Manchester. And until getting married at 27 my life, like his, was mostly lived on anonymous estates.
David is the Oliver Twist of this story – an orphan trying to find his way in a hostile world. Befriended on the street by a ‘father-figure’ with dubious connections, in this case to the Far Right. Again, the symmetry with The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is remarkable:
“He was conscious of a growing feeling of indignation and hatred against foreigners of every description, who were ruining this country, and he began to think it was time to do something to protect ourselves.”
That could easily have been Green’s narration, but it’s actually Tressell’s; a description of the interior world of one of his working class men digesting a story read in Sun equivalent The Daily Obscurer. The observation and the corresponding challenge are re-presented in Green’s show. He reflects on his altercation with a Britain First march by calling out the lies peddled by the ‘old elites’ who benefit from the present system. He is also clear that the white working class men swallowing them also have the option to wake up and resist.
Like Tressell, Green’s narrative makes it clear that he believes systemic oppression is real, and that these young white men have been caught in its teeth. But he doesn’t stop there. In each case study, there is a common emphasis on the part that individual agency and community support play in setting the course of a life. The odds may be short, the barriers tall, the setbacks frequent, but every day brings choices. In acknowledging the existence of these opportunities, some seized, some blown, Green affirms dignifies his subjects as fully human. At the same time he also exposes the incompleteness of middle class left-liberal thinking.
For Green, the suggestion that living life on the lower rungs of the socio-economic ladder means being wholly at the mercy of ‘the system’ is an insult. It’s an insult that as someone who has woven a prosperous life from working class roots he clearly takes personally.
So do I.
Matt Wilson is co-ordinator of Blue Labour North East and a former Labour Party parliamentary candidate. He has spent the last two decades working in some of Britain’s most disadvantaged communities.