11 February 2008

Robert Tressell and Lionel Britton

Lionel Britton's novel Hunger and Love has several similarities to Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, a well-known book about house painters: it is a working-class novel, it has much humour, and it contains a number of didactic digressions; perhaps even more significantly, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists is set in Hastings on the East Sussex coast, where Britton spent some months renovating a house in 1934–35 (1).

The house was 'Netherwood' on The Ridge, and the choice of location was almost certainly symbolic: Tressell cast a large, avuncular influence over the working-class movement. It was a large, run-down property bought by the actor and playwright E. C. Vernon Symonds to convert into a left-wing haven for meetings, trade union conferences, or simply as a guest house. Britton received free board and lodging in return for manual work, and was eking out the remainder of his advance from Goslit for the Russian translation of his novel. But he hated almost everything about Netherwood. Below is a passage by Britton from a letter to his friend Sinead Acheson: it gives a flavour of the cuisine at Netherwood as seen by Britton, with some of the more stomach-churning pages of Hunger and Love lingering in the language:

'They’ll cook a saucepan of porridge and serve up the same porridge every day for a week. They’ll buy a piece of meat, and a fortnight afterwards they’ll be serving up the same piece of meat. The butter can easily be six to two months in the larder before it’s eaten up. They leave the vegetables soaking all night, stew them until they’re ready to take them off – an extra hour of so means nothing to them – and serve them up full of water' (2).

The house has been demolished and is today generally only remembered as the last resting place of Aleister Crowley.

(1) Robert Tressell, The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists (London: Richards, 1914 (as 'Robert Tressall'); rev. Lawrence & Wishart, 1955; repr. Paladin, 1965)

(2) The letter is held in the Lionel Britton Collection, Special Collections Research Center, Southern Illinois University, Carbondale, IL.

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