Graeme McIver talks to Martin Chomsky the singer-songwriter, author and playwright who has produced RTP Downsized - a graphic novel aimed at the younger generation based on Robert Tressell’s socialist classic, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.
©Esther Frain Worldinstill
“the work possesses at least one merit - that of being true. I have invented nothing. There are no scenes or incidents in the story that I have not either witnessed myself or had conclusive evidence of”
Robert Tressell (Noonan) 1870 - 1911
In April 2014, a House of Commons Select Committee published an interim report criticising “Unscrupulous employers exploiting workers through zero hour contracts.” The Westminster Parliaments’ Scottish Affairs Committee noted that there had been an “alarming” increase in the use of casual labour – who are in some cases not being paid the legal minimum wage. The Committee found that around one fifth of all workers on zero hours contracts are paid less than their permanent equivalents for doing the same job whilst many receive less than the national minimum wage and a number turn up for work only to be told that there services are not required.
Using figures provided by the STUC, the BBC reported in the same month that 85,000 workers in Scotland were employed on these contracts. STUC General Secretary Graham Smith was quoted saying, “They are in effect tied to that employer waiting at the whim of the employer to know whether or not they are going to be working, how many hours they are going to be working and of course what income they are going to derive from that work.”
At the beginning of the year, The Low Pay Commission published findings in a report entitled, “Working for Poverty” which highlighted that for the first time in the UK the majority of people in poverty are actually in paid employment. In the reports introduction The Archbishop of York said;
“The nature of poverty in Britain is changing. The idea of ‘making work pay’ increasingly sounds like an empty slogan to the millions of people who are hard-pressed and working hard, often in two or three jobs, and struggling to make a living.”
In other industries, such as care work and the NHS it is not too few hours that is the problem, but the necessity to work in excess of 70 or 80 hours a week. Families in work are using foodbanks at ever increasing rates and pensioners, who have worked hard and contributed to the state all of their lives struggle to heat their homes in the winter on one of the lowest state pensions in Europe.
Meanwhile child poverty increases at the same time that the gap between the richest and poorest in society reaches Dickensian levels.
Welcome to the harsh reality of working class life in 2014.
Just days after the Commons Select Committee report was published, an event took place in Glasgow to mark the centenary of the publication of a book, the power, potency and relevance of which seems undiminished by the passing of a century.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Tressell described in vivid detail the miserable lives of a group of working class painters and decorators in the fictitious town of Mugsborough at the turn of the 20th century.
RTP Downsized was launched in Glasgow at the Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) on 23rd April 2014 to coincide with the centenary of the original book’s publication and to broaden out its appeal to a new audience.
Robert Tressell was the pen name of Robert Noonan (christened Croker), an Irish born sign-writer who had spells working in South Africa before returning to England to work in Hastings. Noonan tried to scratch a living to support his daughter Kathleen following the death of his wife. Poverty and ill-health plagued Noonan all his life and he died of tuberculosis in Liverpool en-route to what he had hoped would be a new, more prosperous life in Canada. He was buried in a pauper’s grave.
His daughter had salvaged her Father’s handwritten text after he had become so frustrated at his failure to get it published he had tried to destroy the manuscript. Kathleen sold the rights of the book for only £25 and in 1914, three years after his death, Robert Noonan’s (his nome de plume came from the trestle table used by painters) masterpiece was released for public sale. It has never been out of print since.
Despite the passing of the years the majority of the book is as relevant now as it was then. Passages can be lifted from the text and applied to the working environment of 2014 never mind 1914.
“And so it was for the ragged-trousered philanthropists of Mugsborough; incessant work under humiliating conditions, with the goal being to avoid starvation….there was no hope of advancement…after you’d been working 10 or 20 years you commanded no more than you did at first – a bare living wage – as you grew older you had to be content with even less; and all the time you held your employment at the caprice and favour of your masters, who regarded you merely as a tool to accumulate money – a thing they cast aside as soon as it becomes unprofitable.”
Noonan’s book is filled with rage. Rage at poverty, rage at injustice, rage at the capitalist system and very often Noonan also directs his anger at the main character’s (Frank Owen) workmates who failed to recognise that they were the oppressed victims…the ragged trousered philanthropists whose labour was given away so cheaply and who subsidised the lives of their “betters” with their toil and sweat. Owen is angered by their ignorance, by their xenophobia and their refusal to lift their horizons beyond drink, beer and betting.
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists can be a contradictory book. On the one-hand overwhelmingly optimistic whilst at other times you sense the author’s despair. Yet its towering strengths outweigh any inconsistencies and weaknesses.
Noonan’s socialist classic has been credited by countless numbers of campaigners and activists as having changed their lives.
Ricky Tomlinson the actor is well known for his portrayals of the characters Bobby Grant in Brookside and Jim Royale in the Royale Family. It was whilst serving a prison sentence for trade union activity in the 1970’s however that the Liverpudlian saw his life change after reading the book.
“It was given to me when I was in prison in the 1970’s, it was given to me by the governor of the prison…He said to me, “you shouldn’t be in jail, I want you to read this.” And honestly, it changed my whole way of thinking, my whole way of life, it was unbelievable.”
Noonan’s novel was credited with helping Labour achieve a landslide victory in 1945. Tony Benn said of its author;
“He gave us a torch to pass on from generation to generation. He gave us a lamp to light the way.”
George Orwell praised the author’s ability to capture, “the actual detail of manual work and the tiny things almost unimaginable to any comfortably situated person which make life a misery when one's income drops below a certain level." He considered it "a book that everyone should read" and a piece of social history that left one "with the feeling that a considerable novelist was lost in this young working-man whom society could not bother to keep alive."
In a bid to introduce the ideas and writings of Robert Noonan to a whole new generation, author, playwright and singer Martin Chomsky took on the onerous responsibility of creating a graphic novel, a comic book for children of all ages and named it RTP Downsized.
Described by the late Tony Benn as “a truly fantastic project”, Martin edited down Noonan’s original 800 page text into just 88 pages including illustrations and graphics.
Lead singer of the 90’s Liverpool band The Farm and Hillsborough Justice Campaigner Peter Hooton said; “Great news that this classic has been adapted for younger readers – its message today is as relevant as it was 100 years ago.”
Whilst Scots actor Tam Dean Burn said of the project, “I can’t think of any novel more worth highlighting for the 21st Century. Martin Chomsky is doing a brilliant job of ringing out loud and clear how Tressell’s work still chimes with the times."
RTP Downsized is a brave and ambitious attempt to bring Noonan’s novel and its socialist ideas to a new generation. Martin Chomsky has deliberately edited the original text in order to place young Bert White, the painter’s apprentice, in a more central role. Although obviously a completely stripped down version, the new book manages to maintain the integrity of the original.
The iconic chapter entitled, “The Great Money Trick”, you might say Noonan’s idiots guide to Marxist theory of surplus value, maintains a central role in the new version. Owen uses slices of bread and the painter’s knives to brilliantly explain how the capitalist system keeps making profit for the bosses whilst the workers barely scratch a living.
The most striking and appealing aspect of RTP Downsized however is its art. Lyndon White’s striking images bring a new dimension to Noonan’s narrative. From Esther Frain’s wonderful cover design, to the texture of the paper and the unique fonts used in the printing the book is a lovely object in of itself.
I caught up with Martin Chomsky to ask him about RTP Downsized;
©Esther Frain Worldinstill
GMc: How old were you when first read the RTP and what effect did it have on you?
MC: I was 16 or 17. I already knew that I was a socialist before I read it but once I read The Great Money Trick I was like: 'Ah, so THAT'S how they do it!'
GMc: I think part of the brilliance of Tressell (Noonan) was his ability to communicate complex, political ideas with simplicity and clarity. The Great Money trick for instance explains Marx’s theory of Surplus Value and remains a fantastic illustration of how capitalism works. Why do you think it is about his writing that has given the book such longevity?
MC: It's universality. I said at the time of Tony Benn's death that time may kill the messenger but it can't kill the message. Tressell nailed capitalism's contradictions succinctly and eloquently, and The Great Money Trick is simply timeless. But overall its longevity is down to how it makes you feel when you read it - however politically aware you think you were beforehand, no one ever forgets the feeling they got while they were reading 'The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists' for the first time. It's a life-changing experience.
GMc: This year marks the centenary of the publication of RTP...what do you say to those who would dismiss the book as without relevance 100 years on?
MC: The sad fact is that it's even more relevant now than it was then. At the time I first read it, the UK had a fantastic opportunity to build a better society, but it fell for Thatcher's lies and we regressed. Workers' conditions are now every bit as pitiful as they were in Tressell's day, which is actually quite tragic.
GMc: What was your main motivation for producing the Downsized version of the book?
MC: The original's huge, and very much a product of its time. There's no way people, especially youngsters, in this day and age can be expected to read all 800 pages. Also, when I launched the RTP Downsized project at the Robert Tressell Festival in Hastings it struck me that the audience was, with respect, ancient. I thought: if I don't do something, this idea's going to die out with them.
GMc: Did you find support from the left/trade unions easy to come by or was it difficult to get the project off the ground?
MC: My first port of call was crowd funding. But although that gained me a fantastic illustrator in Lyndon White, it didn't help finance the project. The funds came from unions, individual donations, and fundraisers such as comedy nights and race nights. I wouldn't say it was easy to get the project financed, but people who'd already been moved by the book rallied round fantastically well - individuals and union branches alike.
GMc: The book is revered on the left by socialists and progressives...it has an almost mythical status...were you concerned or worried about the reaction there might be to a re-working of the original?
MC: I expected a mixed reaction, but with all due respect, it was never the purists I was aiming at; preaching to the converted might gain me some kudos as a writer but it won't change society. I was aiming at the non-reader, the non-voter, the politically apathetic and those not even old enough to vote.
Besides, I'd worked with Reg Johnson, Tressell's last surviving relative, on a Tressell biography for some years prior to RTP Downsized so I had an amazing insight into both the book and man.
As someone who'd served their time on the shopfloor and written about it in between gruelling shifts, Reg recognised that me and Bob were cut from the same cloth. When I told him about RTP Downsized, although he was old and ailing, he said to me: 'Martin, what a marvellous idea. Do with it what you will'.
From then on, my prime directive was to do Robert, Reg and Robert's daughter Kathleen the justice they deserved.
GMc: What has been the reaction to the book since it was published both from left circles and the wider public?
MC: Amazingly positive, right across the board.
GMc: How long, from initial idea - to the printing of the book did it take to get RTP Downsized published?
MC: A year almost to the day. No sooner had the germ of the idea crystallised in my mind than I realised that the centenary of its first publication was 12 months away. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I was unable to pass up. It made the last few weeks of the production process particularly stressful, but it was worth it. The launch at the CCA with a live reading was a magical experience; it was just a shame that Reg never lived to see it happen.
GMc: The book is a beautiful object in of itself. Tell us about the art in the book and its importance to the narrative?
MC: The whole artistic process was aided by Tressell's ability to paint extremely vivid pictures with his words - he somehow managed to transpose his brilliance as a signwriter onto the page. Lyndon had never read The RTP before he embarked on the book, but he nailed it really well. There were points where I had to give him notes, like the clothes or hair styles but for the most part he was fired up by the importance of the message. I'd set myself a target of doing Tressell's work justice, which - given how talented a signwriter he was - was a big ask. It wasn't easy, but I think we got there in the end.
GMc: Can you tell us a bit about the artists and designers who helped you produce the book?
MC: As I say, Lyndon came to it through Kickstarter, but also intrinsic to it was Dave Terrey, whose experience and skill with the page layout and production was invaluable. Esther Frain's cover artwork is astounding, and her support and patience throughout the whole twelve months could never be underestimated. Finally, Stuart Gould at UK Comics helped realise all the pdfs, jpegs and word documents into something tangible. His choice of paper gives the book a beautiful feel that does both the text and illustrations full justice.
GMc: The original book is a hefty tome...tell us about the editing process of moving from a substantial novel to a smaller, punchier version. How difficult was it to decide what material to leave out?
MC: Having already worked on the Tressell biography I already had a good idea of which bits would work and which bits wouldn't. Given that RTP Downsized was aimed at younger readers, I also shifted the focus of the narrative onto Bert the apprentice. I was keen to take out the more despairing elements of the original too, largely because we need hope now more than ever. And if you look closely at the illustrations, you'll see that we start off with quite a limited colour palette, which widens and becomes more colourful as the story progresses.
Even the typewriter font is deliberate as Tressell had his manuscript turned down while he was alive because it was handwritten, not typed - a typewriter being a luxury he could never afford.
GMc: Tell us about your new project - a stage play about Robert Noonan?
MC: It's not just a stage play, it's also a film script called 'The Graveyard Shift', which I've been working on with actor and director Davie McKay (Braveheart, Rab C Nesbitt, High Times). It's not just a period piece either; it's bristling with an urgency and relevance to today's youth. In tandem with that, myself and Davie have also devised a live interactive version of RTP Downsized, which, funding permitting, we hope to take into schools, workplaces and prisons.
There's also an audio version of the book to be published before Christmas featuring a full ensemble cast, and we're also seeking finance for an animated film of RTP Downsized, with the aim of it becoming a staple of children's holiday TV - something akin to 'Animal Farm' or 'The Snowman'.
GMc: Good luck with your future projects Martin and thanks for taking the time to talk to The Point.
Related articles in The Point
Martin Chomsky Introduces the Idea for the Book in 2013
Adrian Crudean reviews The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists to mark the Centenary of its publication
RTP Downsized website: www.rtpdownsized.co.uk
Buy the book;
Esther Frain’s work can be viewed at: www.worldinstill.com
Lyndon White’s work can be viewed at: www.lyndonwhite.com
The Chomsky Allstars website: www.chomskyallstars.com