If I were a rich man...

25th November 2005 at 00:00
Thoughts on wealth by the Victorian John Ruskin have been revived in a comic book

It's a fair bet that among most students' top 10 wishes, winning the National Lottery will feature. Well, now there's a chance for them to reflect on this particular piece of good fortune thanks to the publication of a comic book designed to bring home the thoughts of eminent Victorian, art critic, social commentator and polymath John Ruskin (1819-1900) - a man with singularly modern notions about the nature of true wealth.

How to Be Rich is an irreverent and entertaining take on Ruskin's 1862 essay on economics "Unto This Last", says Emma Bartlet, education and outreach officer for the Ruskin Foundation.

It is a part of the broader "Ruskin for All" programme, which may lead to further comic books and to the development of educational resources rooted in Ruskin's work and thoughts, and aimed at a wide range of curriculum subjects at key stages 2 and 3.

According to Ruskin "there is no wealth but life", but in How to be Rich we are introduced to someone for whom sudden fortune is an excuse only for conspicuous consumption. Darren Bloke, a family man and office worker, spends his windfall in all sorts of unwise and futile ways, and ends up destitute and alone.

"There are plenty of stories about people for whom a lottery win brings just alienation and sadness," explains the comic's writer, Kevin Jackson.

"And having reached rock-bottom, he has a Dante-like encounter with the spirit of John Ruskin, who sets about explaining where he has gone wrong."

This entails challenging Darren's assumptions about money, the primacy of profit and the importance of enlightened self-interest as a curb to rampant capitalism.

Ruskin's vision was to spot the damage unbridled mid-19th-century industrialisation was doing to the environment and the cost it was extracting from workers' lives. The comic updates these prescient arguments, forcing Darren to consider the implications to the world of wildly imbalanced global trade, corporations peddling junk food, and the horrors of the drug trade, to realise that alongside wealth it is quite possible to create "illth".

"One of the most revolutionary of Ruskin's ideas," says Kevin, "was the notion that there is a moral dimension to spending."

This is certainly one of the key messages that Ona Tallis, of the John Ruskin School in Coniston, in Cumbria, recognises as being of value in the comic. With her students, she has been trialling some of the educational resources that will appear in a pack in the New Year.

"The comic really underlines the implications of one's spending in a way that should make sense to young people - particularly those who would have a job understanding such ideas in a more conventional form," she says. "As a food and textiles teacher I was particularly impressed by the story in the comic contrasting the fortunes of a baker who adulterated his food with another who wants to provide a quality product. And the drugs tale should be of great use on any PSHE course."

The comic combines Kevin's witty script with Hunt Emerson's hilarious and detailed illustrations. Emerson is no stranger to rendering complex classics in cartoon form. "His version of Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner is a masterpiece," says Kevin, "and his illustrations for How to be Rich are funny, edgy and rewarding - they are full of detail.

Readers should keep an eye on the activities of Skittle the dog, who is up to something amusing in nearly every frame."

To the suggestion that Kevin and Hunt are involved in dumbing-down one of Ruskin's works, Emma replies that what they are attempting is really "knowledging up": "The project is entirely in keeping with Ruskin's own approach to education, which frequently involved the use of large illustrations in his lectures based on his own drawings or his wide collection of art and artefacts. Few of these painted panels have survived, but they really were the precursors of today's PowerPoint presentations."

That the comic may encourage children and young people to make detailed observations, not only of the pictures themselves, but also of the world around them, is also profoundly in keeping with Ruskin's outlook. In one of his books on modern painters, he said: "To see clearly is poetry, prophecy, and religion -all in one."

The comics are currently being launched in schools in the North West - the part of England with the strongest Ruskin associations. They come with a preliminary set of educational notes, which encourage everything from an historical research project into Ruskin's life and works, citizenship exercises concerning the NorthSouth divide, and PSHE activities related to diet and drugs, cigarettes and alcohol.

"It is important to remember that while this project is an attempt to introduce young people to some important moral ideas by stealth, Ruskin was himself no kill-joy," explains Kevin. "His family's fortune was derived from the wine trade and he was a believer in life's pleasures taken in moderation."

Jerome Monahan * Copies of How to Be Rich are available from the Ruskin Foundation at pound;35 per 50 copies (including pp and teaching sheets): Email: lindsey.walker@lancaster.ac.uk


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