The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists

Whenever anyone asks me what my favourite book is, I answer without hesitation – The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists by Robert Noonan (pen name Robert Tressell).

Noonan was a house painter, and wrote the book in his spare time. It was written over 100 years ago, but the descriptions and story have a depressing familiarity. It could have been written last week. It tells the story of a house painter and his workmates, as they struggle to find work to stay out of the workhouse. They are the working poor, in some cases, dreadfully poor, and Noonan hides nothing from us. On the original title page, Noonan wrote “Being the story of twelve months in Hell, told by one of the damned, and written down by Robert Tressell.”

Noonan was a single father, and was afraid of the things he described in the book – not finding work, poverty, and ending up in the workhouse. It is semi-autobiographical, which makes it even more depressing than if it were true fiction. The horrors described in the book actually happened, and if you have every worked, you will probably recognise your boss, superiors or employer in some of the characters. I did!

The book explores the relationship between the working class and the employers and ruling class, and analyses the way the latter exploit the former. The “philanthropists” are the members of the working class who contribute to their own exploitation by siding with their bosses, accepting their lot and position in life, and helping to perpetuate their misery.

Noonan submitted the manuscript to three publishing houses, but it was rejected by all of them. He became so depressed, he tried to burn it by throwing it in the fire. Luckily, his daughter rescued it, and kept it under her bed.

Noonan died of TB in a Liverpool hospital in 1911 at the age of 40. He was penniless, and was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave in Liverpool. The grave was discovered in 1970 and is now marked. I visited a few years ago, and there were flowers by the gravestone. It’s a kind of pilgrimage site for local socialist and labour activists. Noonan never got to see just how popular and influential the book would become, especially to the labour and socialist movements in the UK. George Orwell called it “a book everyone should read”. It’s free on Kindle!

The Poet

Photo by Mati Mango on Pexels.com

You, the hour, are deserting me,

wounding me with the beat of your wings.

Alone: now what use my mouth?

What are my days and nights to me?

I have no sweetheart and no house,

nowhere that is my home ground. All things

into which I give myself

grow in riches and give me out.

Rainer Maria Rilke (Translated by Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland)

Slowly, but surely….

Photo by Tirachard Kumtanom on Pexels.com

My second novel is slowly, but surely, coming into being. Well, in my head, if not on paper. It’s a novel I started and gave up on five years ago. I now know why I gave up. I was going in the wrong direction. Now, the pieces are falling into place, which is a sign I am heading in the right direction. At last.

This novel involves philosophy, so it will require quite a lot of research. I have a Master’s degree in Philosophy, but it is around 10 years since I got that. I have forgotten a lot of what I learnt, and I have given many books away, but fortunately, I kept hold of the ones I’m going to need.

The main issue is going to be weaving the story together. It goes back and forth between the past and the present. My first novel was set in the present day, in the present tense, so it was quite easy to structure. This one is going to be a bit more difficult. I need a good chunk of time to sit down and plan it out thoroughly before I start writing. I work better if I have a plan and know where I’m heading. Maybe that is part of the reason why the book floundered five years ago – I didn’t really have a plan.

Unfortunately, right now, I don’t have the chunks of time that I need, as my publishing and translation businesses are keeping me busy. Still, I add to the story in my mind as I’m running, or driving. I’m building the world that I will eventually bring to life. One could say that having no time is just an excuse, and there is some validity in that. However, my publishing and translation activities involve constant writing, so by the time I’m through with them, I have no creative energy left. I seem to only have a certain amount each day, and once it’s used up, it’s gone. I’m also studying for some exams in my translation fields which takes up time.

Still, I’m getting there, slowly…but surely…

Morning light

There’s something special about the morning light. The delicate way it falls on trees blossoming in the early spring, the contrast with the shadows cast by the local shrine, the dappled patterns it paints on the forest ground… Here are a few more pictures from my Sunday morning stroll.

Plum blossom viewing

I went for a stroll around the castle park this morning. It was a little cold, but there was warmth in the sun’s rays. Spring is almost here. There are plum blossom trees scattered around the park. I love the plum blossom. It features in my novel In the Shadows of Mountains. The main character has a plum tree in her garden. She prefers it to the more celebrated cherry blossom, calling the latter a braggart, and a show off, demanding to be seen. The plum blossom, however, just blooms silently and in stillness. And it smells divine.

Masaoka Shiki

Matsuo Basho is the most famous haiku poet in Japan, but there is another haiku master who was just as prolific and talented – Masaoka Shiki.

Masaoka Shiki was born into a samurai family in Matsuyama (Ehime Prefecture) in 1867. He is said to have written 20,000 haiku, as well as poetry in other forms, and essays. He started writing haiku when he moved to Tokyo in 1883. He enrolled in the philosophy department of Tokyo Imperial University in 1890, but soon changed to the Japanese literature department. Around this time, he started to write haiku under the name “Shiki”.

“Shiki” is another name for the bird hototogisu, or “Lesser Cuckoo”. He chose this name, because in Japan, this bird is said to sing until it coughs up blood. Suffering from TB, and coughing up blood himself, he thought this name appropriate. He was diagnosed with TB in 1889. He was bedridden during his last years, but continued to write haiku and tanka from his sickbed.

His most famous work is arguably

柿食えば鐘が鳴るなり法隆寺

Eat a persimmon

and the bell tolls

Horyuji Temple.

During a visit to Horyuji Temple, he stopped to eat a persimmon, which is an autumn fruit, and as he took a bite, the bell of the temple rang, and he could sense the season in its echoes.

He developed into a master poet, and has a lasting legacy in Japan. There is a museum dedicated to him in Matsuyama City in Ehime. In 2002, he was inducted into the Japanese Baseball Hall of Fame. He was a keen player of the sport, until his illness took its toll, and in 1889 co-wrote Japan’s first novel about baseball – Yamabuki no Hitoeda. It was serialized over a year, and remained unfinished.

His life was tragically short – he died of TB in 1902 at the age of 34.