The shipyard painter, political activist and razor-sharp cartoonist Bob Starrett has just written a new book The Way I See It on his eventful life and times. Below we reprint one of his stories and review an essential read
Since its publication, socialists have justifiably conferred biblical status on The Ragged Trousered Philantrophists.
Robert Tressell's tale of life for craftsmen and building workers in the early part of the 20th century, while working in the mythical yet all too authentic Mugsborough, reveals clearly the exploitative nature of capitalism.
Townsend Production's theatrical adaptation of the novel is a highly entertaining night out - audiences at recent sell-out dates organised by West Lothian trades council certainly enjoyed witnessing two actors at the top of their craft.
But like any good show it truly resonates when people identify with its core messages. So much so, that Unite Scotland are now helping to sponsor the play's entire run at the Edinburgh Festival while also using this engagement as a tool for building trade union education and activism.
This is a timely move on the union's part, given the increasing struggles fuelled by the austerity agenda. More and more people now understand how the current economic crisis is being used as an opportunity to intensify inequality and concentrate even more wealth produced by the workers into the hands of a few.
Many of the gains made in the course of the 20th century are being shed and it appears David Cameron and George Osborne want to take us back to the days of Mugsborough.
Softening-up exercises like the report by venture capitalist and Tory donor Adrian Beecroft give the game away. He makes no bones about it, recommending changes to the law to enable people to be fired on the spot.
If that means people being sacked by bosses who simply have taken a personal dislike to them then that's apparently a "price worth paying."
Our welfare state is facing an unprecedented attack with the very poorest and most vulnerable being targeted as the Tories plan to slash welfare budgets by £20 billion. Perversely, the wealth "appropriated" by the super rich is increasing exponentially.
Over the last decade the "top" 1,000 people have seen their riches soar by £250bn, record levels of wealth for the few. The great money trick in Tressell's book is still thriving 100 years later.
The writer was ahead of his time in seeking explanations why and how such injustices happen, touching on the cosy relationship between business and politics and how inequality and the accumulation of capital is facilitated by politics and legislation.
Look no further than the eurozone crisis to see how, while suppressing democracy, governments and supranational institutions prop up and help capital amidst its own ineptitude.
The inspiration and roots of Tressell's story are fuelled by anger at increasing social inequality and the need for an alternative, better way. Many of the story's key themes still resonate over a century later - the game hasn't changed much since the early 1900s. Certainly that's what Unite will be trying to highlight with its support of the show. Prior to its Edinburgh run, the union will also be hosting two special events on the themes in the book on July 5 and 31 in Glasgow and Edinburgh respectively. They'll be enjoyable debates with a serious message at the core.
Townsend Productions have done working people a great service by staging this play, which provokes questions about the world we live in today and how the levers of power are controlled, whether you are a trade unionist or not. Above all, it'll be a really enjoyable show.
by Neil Gore
Townsend Productions was founded as a collaboration of professional actors and artists to produce a new version of Stephen Lowe's 1978 adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, based on the seminal book by Robert Tressell.
This new version was to have just two actors but endeavoured to maintain the power and passion of the original play.
It would become, by necessity, a piece of storytelling too. But there were enough moments that were "handleable" by two actors.
The tours have been very successful and the reaction to the production has been overwhelming. The aim of producing a two-hander was to enable us to be more flexible in terms of where we could perform and maximise the type and number of venues open to us. As we're a small outfit, we wanted to ensure the whole project is compact and manageable so that we could reach as many people as possible.
It works very well. We have performed to packed houses in village halls, trades clubs, arts centres, and theatres large and small and found that there is a desire across the country to see political theatre.
Many people come because they know or have heard of the book, or because it was dear to a family member. But everywhere we go the play is striking a chord with the personal experiences of our audiences and is also encouraging many to read or reread the book.
Performing the play as a duo has created many challenges in terms of stage logistics and multi-role playing. But this only makes the whole experience of watching the show a deeply theatrical one, as both actors do everything - play all the characters, operate the lights, become puppeteers and musicians, literally, at the drop of a hat. The project has been of particular interest to the unions and most have supported it through sponsorship or booking the show for conferences
For them it would seem to be a way of creating debate about issues that are of current interest to them through the issues of the past - clearly, very little has changed - in an accessible and enjoyable way.
Unite Scotland have clearly seen this potential and are backing the show at the Fringe Festival in Edinburgh this year, joining in our aim to be a festival highlight and to reach as large an audience as possible there and beyond the fringe.
The play runs daily at noon during the Edinburgh fringe festival from August 1-27 at the Assembly George Square Two. The free events Revisiting The Themes Of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists -An Evening Of Working Class Debate, Entertainment, Beer And Sandwiches are open to all on July 5, 5th Floor, John Smith House, 145-165 West Regent Street, Glasgow 2, from 6pm to 9pm and on July 31, Committee Room 1, Scottish Parliament, Edinburgh from 6pm to 9pm. To confirm attendance at the Glasgow event, contact Peter Welsh in the Unite Scotland campaigns unit on 07810 157-931 or email@example.com.
For the Scottish Parliament event contact Tommy Kane on 07947 826-808 or firstname.lastname@example.org
For more information on the play visit www.townsendproductions.org.uk or Twitter @raggedtour
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