Page 45 Review by Jonathan
"The whole thing is hopeless.
"It's folly to hope they might understand the cause of their suffering.
"To me, both the symptoms and the cause are clear.
"But they have learned to think less of themselves, and don't trust their own wits.
"They wholeheartedly trust those who rob them.
"They can't see it, and they don't want to see it!
"The trouble is they must choose between evidence, and the stories they've been told.
"They feel safer trusting their masters than themselves
because it's been drilled into them.
"They're always saying "the likes of us."
"All they want is to follow the very people who take advantage of them.
"They're like foolish sheep seeking protection from a pack of hungry wolves."
Sound familiar to you, dear politically savvy reader? It should... because it certainly still holds true today. But whilst it might well sound like someone wondering how the Great British public could possibly vote for a government that's going to wilfully and quite deliberately deliver a no-deal Brexit that benefits no one but themselves and their chums
never mind gleefully not having a single care in the world about the poor kids going hungry in the midst of a global pandemic
it is in fact a summarising polemic delivered by one of the wiser members of the cast of Robert Tressell's acclaimed treatise on the evils of Capitalism and the virtues of Socialism written way, way back in 1914.
Delivered by the world weary Owen towards the conclusion of this acerbic assault on the working conditions and general drudgery perpetuated on the vast majority of the population by the few with all the cash, it's a heart rending summation of a situation that is seemingly impossible to change, due to the tacit acceptance of the sufferers themselves. Consequently Owen, afflicted with TB and struggling on a daily basis to make ends meet along with the rest of his co-workers at Rushton's decorating firm, can't see how real change is ever going to be possible and fears for the future of his family when he eventually, inevitably succumbs to consumption.
Set in the fictional Mugsborough (based on the coastal town of Hastings where the Irish-born Tressell settled), lorded over by a cabal of councillors with their snouts in every trough, this is as powerful and peculiarly British as Raymond Briggs' anti-war epic WHEN THE WIND BLOWS. Yes, it's unremittingly bleak in tone, but there is also occasional much-needed comedic relief to be found amidst the depressing and inescapable deprivations of working-class Victorian life where retirement is basically either an early death or if you're lucky, depending on your perspective, a one-way trip to the workhouse which occurs when, irony of ironies, one is effectively too old or infirm to work and thus pay your bills. Imagine working all your life only to end it in little more than a prison work camp... Sounds too fascistic to possibly be true? Well, it happened here.
Meanwhile, the Mugsborough councillors comprising: Mr. Sweater (draper and Chairman of the Tramway Corporation and the Grand Hotel, oh and also the Mayor), Mr Rushton (decorator and Chairman of the Waterworks), Mr Didlum (house furnisher and Chairman of the Public Baths) and Mr Grinder (greengrocer and Secretary of the Organised Benevolence Society) is our government in microcosm, with their cronyism and corruption and self-congratulary back-slapping and back-handers.
They have so many greasy, pudgy fingers in so many pies, you'd think it would get in the way of continuing to stuff their fat faces and line their deep pockets, but their greed for capital is insatiable and uncaring in its collateral destruction. I should add, of course, that none of them actually do a day's hard work themselves, instead employing marginally more well-paid weaselly lackeys such as Mr Crass and Mr Hunter to oversee and control the pitifully paid hoi polloi, who they try to interact with as little as possible and always with distaste.
The one voice of reason on the council, the unfortunately named Dr. Weakling, is constantly shouted down and belitted by the others. He tries to take a stand for the common good of the working class, but outnumbered and drowned out, he has no chance to achieve anything at all, instead growing ever more dismayed and irate at the outrageous and shameless selfishness of his fellow councillors.
Meanwhile, our motley crew of painters and decorators spend their long days trying to eke out the precious work, not out of laziness, but to try and maintain paid employment for as long as possible, whilst bemoaning their lot during hastily taken lunches. Two of their number, the aforementioned Owen, and the enigmatic Barrington, endlessly endeavour to educate the rest of the gang, and by extension us readers, on such topics as the crafty "money trick" the Capitalists use to accumulate their piles of plunder and the mechanisms by which a Socialist utopia might be achieved, if only the working man could be persuaded not to keep gratefully doffing their caps and accepting the status quo. The gents, though, seemingly have ever so many good reasons as to why the real problem lies elsewhere, including, of course, with cheap foreign labour. Good to see how times have changed
Some of them choose to frugally save every single penny they receive, insufficient as to meet their needs as it is, whereas others, perhaps understandably, seek temporary solace in alcohol and a brief escape from their harsh reality down the pub.
I have to say I had some doubts at first regarding the ending, which seems unrealistically charitable, almost as though Tressell felt the need to finish the thinly fictionalised version of his life with a happy ending. Or at least a positive punctuation perhaps
However, the more my mind kept returning to reflect upon it over the course of a couple of days, I actually realised it is the perfect ending, offering some shred of hope as to how things would need to change if true change were to ever come about, and who would need to change in order for that to happen.
Indeed, I found myself so intrigued by the ending, I did a little reading about the original publication and discovered that not only was Tressell a single father who was absolutely paranoid that his daughter Kathleen would be sent to the workhouse should anything happen to him, but that the original publishers only published two-thirds of the manuscript and gave the novel a depressing ending. It wasn't until 1955 that the original manuscript was published in full. I can only therefore guess some all-knowing editor thought along the same lines as I did perhaps, but still, a fascinating decision, presumably made with a view to ensuring the novel had the maximum impact. I'm delighted, though, that the Rickards have obviously chosen to go along with the original!
It's a wonderful adaptation, I must say. Despite, at its beating heart, being a pamphlet with a very political agenda, I found myself completely engrossed in the individual stories of our woeful workers and practically boo-hissing every time the odious cigar-chomping fat cats appeared on the page. Even when Barrington and Owen go into full sermon mode, much to the disinterested despair / bemused befuddlement / irate indignation of their cohorts, it's so well illustrated and explained, you can't help but almost scream at the head-shaking workers to wake up! Sophie has perfectly balanced the personal and the political elements, seasoning the scathing satire with sufficient sentiment to ensure the hearts as well as the mind of the readers, are won over.
Artistically, Scarlett has come on tremendously since their first graphic novel... also a Page 45 Comicbook Of The Month... MANN'S BEST FRIEND. There's an element to the facial expressions of the fat cats, and in particular the choice and style of colour palette, that has the perfect period end-of-the-pier postcard caricature feel. Except here, of course, the punchline is that the joke falls firmly on the common man and families whose downtrodden desperation is captured so painfully in their beaten expressions and broken body language.
Anyone who wishes to be educated in how far we have come in the last hundred years... and precisely where the current powers would still like us to be if we blithely and blindly accept it... should really read this and be moved to action.