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The Work of Rod Madocks   Novelist and short story writer


Homage to Vivian

I often think of Vivian Maier when I take my camera out into the city. She was an incomparable photographer who lived in solitary obscurity in Chicago. She took thousands of street photographs which she never showed to anybody. Her images were often of children and street bums. Lonely figures reaching to the lens. Vivian seems to have been motivated to take the photos solely for the aesthetic thrill of catching the moment. See


Homage to Vivian

Here is my own homage to Vivian Maier.

Mountain Lion

I've just bought this awesome photo fom the States. An iconic image of two hard hombres stretching out their victim. One has a Colt 38 wedged into his chaps. It makes me think of DH Lawrence's wonderful elegy to a Taos mountain lion, written at about the same time this photo must have been taken. It describes how he met two hunters in the New Mexico wilderness who had killed a mountain lion. The poem ends with these lines " And I think in this empty world there was room for me and a mountain lion/ And I think in the world beyond, how easily we might spare a million or two humans/ And never miss them./Yet what a gap in the world, the missing white frost-face of that slim yellow mountain lion!"

Here is Robert Culp doing a fine reading of the poem:

On Flora Robson's Knee

I have not met many famous people. One I did meet was Flora Robson. I was aged about 10. It must have been in 1960 or 1962 , I was returning from Cape Town with my parents on a Cunard Liner. Flora Robson was travelling on the same ship follwing a theatre tour of South Africa. According to my parents, she sat me on her knee. My mother told me that she said to Miss Robson that I was a lovely boy. She apparently replied, "He is lovely because he is loved." Staring at her picture , I think I can remember the incident. I can remember the circle of onlooking adults in their dinner jackets, Flora Robson's tawny slanting eyes looking down at me, the colour of sherry left in the glass. She must have been about 40, already a confirmed spinster, destined never to marry or have children. I'm now much older than she was then, I also now know the feelings of curiosity and regret  when I find myself close to children. Maybe like Flora Robson, I wonder what life would have been like with a child of my own.    

Without Contraries

"How wonderful that we have encountered a paradox. Now We can make some progress." Niels Bohr

I was an awkwardly precocious youth. I read the Metaphysical Poets all the time in that old orange Penguin edition by Helen Gardner and I seemed to revel in the violent yoking together of heterogenous ideas that I encountered on those pages. I was disinclined to study and was happy to accept that things could be both true and false at the same time and so there was little purpose in applying myself to the fixed polarities of the traditional school curriculum.  I performed spectacularly poorly and still have a report that records that I once came 59th out of 60 boys in my year. I think the 60th was poor Kelly who had epilepsy and was tortured  by the other boys who liked to watch him throw lavish fits on the dormitory floor each night.  The Headmaster wrote at the bottom of the same report , Madocks continues to hide his light under a bushel. The school eventually began to think that I might be what they called in the withering terminology of the time - subnormal. I was sent to see an educational psychologist who looked puzzled after trying to test me. In the end he just said, "I think you are an unusual fellow with excess imagination." He didn't know the half of it. My head seethed with conflicting savage thoughts. Scission and dissonance dominated. I was in opposition to just about everything. My favourite drawings which I scrawled on my school papers were not the ribald cartoons of my contemporaries nor yet the Heinkels getting shot down by Spits of the other boys' graffiti. No, my efforts seemed to keep refiguring the snarling face of the double-headed god, Janus who was always looking both ways. I liked to quote with approval , pathos einai panta biastikon- the soul is always violent. It came from the Stoic philosopher Chrysippus. I was particularly enthusiastic about him after finding that he supposedly died of a violent fit of laughter after he had seen a donkey eating a load of figs. Maybe the philosopher was seized with hilarity imagining the inevitable exploive effects on the beast? Guided by Chrysippus and other Stoics like Heraclitus , it seemed clear to me that the deepest truths about life could only be plucked from the horns of paradox. I only half-understood it all but I was determined to live in that ambiguous oppositional world , not to die by what Osacar Wilde called "creeping common sense." So, I grew up to be a cunning fox who knew many things, not a dumb hedgehog hunched over his unitary truths . That's why I applaud F. Scott Fitzgerald's approval of contradictory ideas. Like him, I keep beating on in my own little boat whilst being borne back ceaselessly into the past. Even though my boat might go backwards I carry on repeating William Blake's, "Without Contraries there is No Progression." It's a sort of mantra for me . I still believe that a man is wise who knows that he knows nothing. I still look on with wonderment at the deep emnities of the English. It seems to me that the English have far too many worrying things on the horizon to keep on despising each other. All of my friends from the educated elite have the same sort of set views and a shared dislike of their ideological enemies.I live alongside them but not of them. In reality, I'm indifferent , utterly indifferent to their notions of fairness, class warfare, liberality, rule of law, compassion for the underdog etc. I suppose these ideas have value but I can also appreciate the reverse propositions. I am a reed vibrating with the contradictory winds. Most ideas seem true in their own way but they live side by side with their sleek and dangerous opposites. I have sometimes considered that I'm an instinctive Hegelian in my processes of thought. I can venture a little way down the normal narrow tightrope of accepted ideas but sooner or later I find everything trembling with dissonance . Nabokov once quoted with approval, the French expression, Du choc des opinions jaillit la verite. Jaillir, that's a good word. It means a spurting or spouting forth, a wobbling jet. Shaking like blancmange on a plate, that's my brain quivering with the effort of apprehension in the dialectical battle to grasp the world. I tend to perceive things like an upward spiral, I tread the first spiral of the thetic upstroke, everything seems sound and straightforward for the moment. Then I am skidding on the slippery antithetic downstroke until the convulsive jump at the end that fuses the two opposites  in a leap of understanding. Well, that's the theory. Most often I just flit between opposing notions of the world , happy to live in that latent interface. of course, sometimes I have a nostalgia for everything being straightforward. a longing for thought as a pellucid logical arrow. I might even read a few pages of Aquinus and swim briefly in the cool , calm teleological flow then I lurch back to the broken waters of my old faith. what did F' Scott Fitzgerald mean in his famous quote about "Two opposing ideas"? He gave an example in the same passage fom "The Crack Up" : "One should for example be able to see things as hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise." He also clarified it in a letter he wrote to his daughter shortly before his death. "Life is essentially a cheat and its conditions are those of defeat and the redeeeming things are not 'happiness' or 'pleasure' but the deeper satisfactions that come out of struggle." He'd become quite a grim old fellow once his talent had been washed away by all those gin rickeys, hadn't he? But he stuck to his guns to the end. He kept on rejecting the goal-orientated artefacts of thought and belief  and instead embraced Heraclitean flow, turmoil, the potency of striving.  As for me, I'm still Spartacus. Or maybe both Spartacus and anti-Spartacus. No, wait I'm going to change my mind! that is not it at all. What I meant to say was, OK . I'll tell it straight. I'll start by saying that "All novelists are liars". I am a novelist. How's that? Did you know that Chrysippus apparently wrote 23 books on the liar paradox? 

All of the above may or may not be true but I can live with that. All things are a-flowing as sage Heraclitus said.

"Ich hatt' einen kameraden, einen bessern findst du nicht" .

A photo from my collection of unpublished WW2 images. As the war generation passes away then their hidden photos float up to the surface like debris from a drowned plane. An unknown Wermacht soldier took this photo of his downed Kamerad. I think the rifle with the bayonet in the background belongs to the photographer . The killed man still has his Kar 98 slung on his shoulder.  It's probably taken in Russia 1941. Why did he stop in the heat of combat to snap him like that? Morbid shutterbug curiosity? Maybe he did not trust his mind to register the horror of the moment? Or were that Leica generation just so detached from everything that happened in their destructive wake?

Black Bart

I've long been fascinated by the figure of Black Bart, the poet stage coach robber.

He was born Charles Bowles in Norfolk, England in 1828. He came over to New York State with his family as a child. He took to the goldfields as a restless young man then served bravely in the Union Army during the Civil War. he returned to the goldfields after the war but did not prosper and it was then that he began to harbour a grudge against Wells Fargo. He took to robbing stagecoaches in northern California in the 1880s and became famous for the verses he left at the scene of his robberies.  one of my favourites reads: "i've labored long and hard for bread/for honor, and for riches/ But on my corns too long you've tread/you fine haired sons of bitches!" Bowles was an enigmatic figure, he eschewed violence or impoliteness to his victims and preferred to outdistance posses by loping along on foot for incredible distances despite being in his late 50s when he committed his crimes. One of his most poignant sayings to a stagecoach driver was "Hurry up the hounds. It gets lonesome in the mountains." he got his finger shot off by a Henry rifle in 1883 and was eventually caught and did gaol time. He came out in 1888 , doffed his hat to the waiting Press then vanished , never to be heard from again.  I think I feel a novel coming on...

Den Heldentod gestorten
It's rare that you find an image that so perfectly captures a moment in history. I recently bought this remarkable pic off the Net.  It shows a WW1 German grave-digging party. The shot is atmospheric enough with those horses appearing from the mist-shrouded woods behind and the men relaxing for a moment as they dig the pits that will hold their comrades and maybe themselves. The person taking the photo has annotated it on the back. It says "Mai 1918 am 2 Juni 1918", This precisely places the picture as being most likely taken close to the Chemin des Dames in France during the last German offensive of the Great War. The battle  became known as the 'Third Battle of the Aisne'. It lasted from mid May and was called off on the 2nd June 1918. The offensive had ground to a halt as newly-arrived American forces began to bolster the Allied front, The Germans knew that defeat was just a matter of time after that. The annotator has also added the words "Den Heldentod gestorten" - an enigmatic phrase which I think  means "The crazy hero's deaths" or "the heroic deaths of the deluded ones". Maybe the same goes for all wars. 

ubi sunt qui ante nos in mundo fuere?
Where are they who were in the world before us? The vulnerable ones with bewildered faces, the proud, those that trampled on others ? Those that loved too much or too little.  I'm always surprised at how incurious my fellows are about the past. They scurry about their lives while I seem always to feel that I am walking on the upturned faces of the dead. 
A photo from 1917 of a German infantry company. Someone has marked in blue those that had been killed up to that point in the war. Now, of course, all the faces are blue.

The Mystery of Von Friedeberg's Sword
70 years ago today this 3rd May two German staff cars arrived on the British front line near Wismar on the Elbe in the closing stages of WW2. In the cars were senior German officers arriving to negotiate the surrender of all German forces in Western Europe. They were led by Grand Admiral Von Friedeberg , second in command to Admiral Donitz who now headed the German state after Hitler's death. The British unit that met the Germans was 6th Airborne Division, an elite outfit that had fought their way from the Normandy invasions to meet the Russians on the Elbe. My father was a major commanding the tough paratroopers and he had to rescue the Germans from their rough treatment by his men who had taken the officer's caps, medal and side arms for souvenirs. Von Friedeberg thanked my father and presented him with his officer's dagger. My father kept the weapon and always called it 'Von Friedeberg's sword'. Friedeberg went on to sign the historic surrender documents the next day. It is said that they showed him newspaper photographs of the atrocities recently discovered at Bergen Belsen camp and he became visibly distressed and killed himself soon after by taking poison. It has only recently been discovered that Von Friedeberg in fact had Jewish ancestry. I took the sword out again this 70th anniversary and only now realise that it is in fact a Luftwaffe dagger not a Kriegsmarine one as you would expect for an Admiral. Perhaps the weapons became mixed up when Dad's men snatched them from the Germans. It's odd because no Luftwaffe officer is recorded as being with the delegation. So, Von Friedeberg presented a sword that was not his own , perhaps he was used to duplicity since he hid his Jewish blood from his colleagues and maybe from himself. 

"To see into the life of things" W. Wordsworth . 'Tintern Abbey'
I live close to the little village of Shirley in Derbyshire where a great literary family the Powys once lived. I take care to visit a few times each year and give silent thanks for the lives and work  of John Cooper Powys, Llewelyn Powys and T.E. Powys, who, each in their own way, saw into the life of things.  I feel that they  have passed on that gift to me , like today watching a hoverfly alight on the eryngiums, and feeling a thrilling sense of opening a door so I could feel the presence of "something else, , deeply interfused, too deep for tears, too deep for words, too deep for reason" (J.C.P.) 
There's no such thing as a mild winter on the high fells of Derbyshire. I walk slowly and painfully after three months laid up with a spine fracture. Al Alvarez said that the mountains are no place for a man over 60. The farmer loads up sheep carcasses caught in the snow drifts of the high moors. They act as a momento mori for me. Et in arcadia ego. I, Death, am also in Arkady.

I hear that the German-Jewish artist Milein Cosman has died  at 96. The obits in the papers describe the  remarkable career of a woman who lived out to the full her  proclaimed goal of making art  her religion. Milein specialised in drawing classical musicians but few of the obits mention that poetry lovers would know Milein better as the muse of the doomed young poet, Sidney Keyes, whose collections ‘The Cruel Solstice’ and ‘The Iron Laurel’ won the Hawthornden Prize for 1943. Keyes met Milein at Oxford in 1941 and adored her from the start. Unhappily, Milein could not return those feelings but the two remained friends. A number of poems chart Keyes’ unrequited love – most notably the poem “Not Chosen (For Milein)” where the poet describes himself as “look not too closely as I move beside you — my feet are shackled and my neck is roped.” Keyes knew that his prospects were not good as a young infantry officer, he was unhandy with weapons and too deeply intellectual to make an efficient soldier. Nevertheless, he sailed with his regiment to North Africa in 1943 and recorded in his Notebook that he kept a photo of Milein by his bunk. He died after two weeks at the front, heroically leading his men in the Tunisian mountains. The poems that Keyes did leave are remarkable enough, in one poem “Letter to M.C. , 31.vii. 41” he writes, “we must create our peace, our war is private./ For while you face the canvas and my hand /walks on paper, we can take/ No rest or comfort, but must learn…courage.” Milein had the courage to live her artistic life to the full and later wrote a generous memoir about her friendship with Keyes that was appended to the 2001 edition of his Collected Poems. It is to her great credit that she overcame the painfulness of not being able to return the searing passion of a gifted poet and allowed him to keep on communicating with her to the end. Farewell, Milein, artist and muse, we owe you so much.


My new book 'OurTan: Memoir of a Destroyed Life' will become available from March 1st when I am heading up to North Yorkshire for a launch event where this book is set. When I finish a book I let it go free to travel where it wills and to abide in the minds of receptive folk. 

Buy these books:

Ship of Fools book cover

No way to say goodbye book cover