A fine review by the poet, Alan Baker in ‘Litter Magazine’ , Jan. 2020.
“Our Tan: Memoir of a Destroyed Life” by Rod Madocks, pub. Shoestring Press. 218pp.
This book is about Tania Blair (our Tan) a woman with two young children in the desperately deprived town of Peterlee, County Durham. She survives two abusive male partners, is devoted to her kids, but relies increasingly on alcohol to cope with the pressures of life. She has her father and stepmother nearby in the Yorkshire Dales, affluent, articulate and caring people who provided support for their daughter and stepped in to help Tania when her dependency on drink threatened to overwhelm her. And then Social Services get involved. Quite simply, they destroy Tania’s life; the way in which they do so, and what it reveals about Britain today, is the subject of this book.
But this is no sociological study. Madocks had known Tania since girlhood and was close friends with her parents. He portrays her as a rounded, fully human person. Some of the most poignant parts of the book are those which present us with Tania’s own hand-written lists – two are of her daily itinerary, detailing the bleakness of life in that chilly northern town, and one is headed POSITIVE THINGS ABOUT LIFE, which, with its small hopes, fears and loves, is very moving. The book also recounts the devastating effect of the affair on Tania’s father and stepmother, who, despite being grandparents of her children were, inexplicably, denied access to them, despite being, to an outsider looking in, more than suitable carers. Again, one of the most heartbreaking pieces in the book is a letter from Tania’s father to Social Services, which I quote in full:
“My daughter’s mental state has deteriorated since leaving my care to the point she does not care if she lives or dies. My daughter, whom I love dearly, has gone from being a loving, caring person to someone who does not care what she is doing or saying from one hour to the next and I firmly believe she will die very soon. Please help me.
Madocks casts a cold eye on twenty-first century Britain, on Social Services and on the arcane and secretive Family Courts. He is full of understandable and righteous anger, and he has a haughty tone at times, somewhat like one of the poets he quotes, Geoffrey Hill.
There’s a passage toward the end of the book where Maddocks is walking through the blighted town centre of Peterlee when a boy asks him to buy some cigarettes for him. The boy says “I’ve got the coin”. That phrase gave me a jolt of recognition, because it’s one I would have used as a kid in Newcastle. It tells you that Maddocks knows this region well. He’s not a native of county Durham, but through his close friendship with the Blairs, he writes as an insider. After he refuses the request, the boy calls him a “fooka”, which causes Madocks to reflect on these people of forgotten England:
“Oh, my poor people, my lost tribe with trackie bottoms tucked into our socks. Made to live in places like Peterlee, hated by the metro-libs who prefer to embrace the wider world and who spurn the indigenous. I nonetheless honour them, “who bought no landmark other than their own graves”.
That last quotation is from a poem by Hill. Madocks gives us extensive reflections on the background to Tania’s treatment by Social Services. At one point, he refers to the grooming gangs in Rochdale, and contrasts the attitude of the authorities – failing to take action against the gangs for fear of inflaming racial tension – with that of Social Services’ attitude to the poor of Peterlee. Madocks maintains that there a mindset within our institutions which is sensitive to the needs of ethnic minorities and other groups, but which despises the culture of the northern white working class. Before you dismiss such a thesis, I’d recommend that you read this book; at the very least it’ll cause you to pause for thought.
Madocks describes how the institutional juggernaut crushes people in its wake:
“The public servants they had at first seen as allies had shown themselves to be deeply hostile. They now knew what Peterlee folk knew already. [Social Services] were busy remaking society as they thought fit and they soon got rid of those who did not comply. Social Services were used to winning. No one had much of a chance against them because they were virtually immune from legal challenge. Those dowdy servants of the state with their meagre qualifications and low status were all powerful in the sphere”.
I usually only publish reviews of poetry on this site, but I made an exception in this case because this is an unusual and important book; if you want to understand what’s happening in the former industrial areas of Britain crushed by ten years of austerity and ruled by a distant elite, as well as the whole Brexit phenomenon, you should read it. In Madocks’ words:
“It’s strange that so few writers seem to want to interrogate the life of the workless English. They are left in their ghettoes, left to fail at school and to get called “the underclasses” or “Chavs”. They have become an embarrassment and sometimes an entertainment. Fit only for comical appearances on talent shows, for reality TV exposés and of course, they are the hunting ground for Social Services.”
But most important of all, this book is a moving tribute to “our Tan” – a real person whom the reader quickly comes to care about – and to the sort of life that is rarely documented except by statistics in official reports.
copyright © Alan Baker,2020
Judges’ comments: ‘No Way To Say Goodbye’ is set in a high security mental facility for the criminally insane. Jack Keyse works there, intent on tracking down the presumed abductor and killer of his girlfriend Rachel who disappeared without trace. The grim reality of sex offenders and their obsessions and histories is authentically and chillingly exposed here. The most frightening thing about the book was the obsessions of Keyse which turn out to be not so very different from some of the patients. A sense of edgy despair pervades this very tense novel.
“This book …should help restore the reputation of this nearly forgotten World War Two poet”
This is one of the strangest books I’ve ever read and one of the most irresistible. Madocks is a genius, not only in the story he relates but the way he presents this bizarre account. It’s not surprising that Madocks has a history of working in maximum security psychiatric institutions. According to information on the book’s back cover, the Crime Writers’ Association calls Madock’s fiction, “chiilling and authentic”. Quite so, Told by a young American poet, it weaves the curious and frightening tale the poet unravels after buying an obselete wire recording machine and a box of spools at some junk shop or yard sale. The poet gets the machine working again and starts listening. What he learns will haunt his days and nights forever. The recordings are of a long dead doctor speaking with one of his patients, John Henry Lee, also known as “Babbacombe Lee” named from the part of England he was from, Devonshire Beach, which the locals call Babbacombe. Madocks brings Lee to life and it is unsettling. Lee’s voice, for instance. “I’d never heard anyone speak like Lee. It sure was a weird accent. Real hard to understand his creepy way of speaking. There was another voice on the recordings. A flat Midwestern voice that cut in now and then. It had a sort of indistinguishable accent, a bit like Walter Cronkite’s I guessed that voice must have been Doctor Kaiser’s” Babbicam’s twisted story begins in England in 1878, and the descriptions of place will also give you chills. It’s pure drear; it’s mostly poor; it’s a hard life for most. The poet complements his review of the spools of recordings with a lot of Internet research and travel to England and other places, and the story begins to consume him. But he can’t stop, not until he gets to the bottom of it. It is in his quest for answers to the Babbicam conundrum that the poet learns much about himself and his own family. He begins to see parallels. I love the way Madocks has crafted this story. It is complex, multi-faceted and disturbing, and I could simply not stop reading it. The book’s cover itself will stay with you for awhile after you read the last page. Those eyes, those penetrating yet empty, soul-lacking eyes. This is one of the absolute best books I’ve consumed this year. I highly recommend it. I plan to let it ruminate for a few months and read it again, maybe during the long, cold nights of January. I also plan to read more of Madocks, whose background is also tantalizing. He was born in Rhodesia and has lived in France, Texas and England.
“Refreshingly authentic…fascinating and intimate.”
Deborah Harvey on the Gloucester Road
Helena Nelson on Sinead Morrisey
Searching for Sappho in Lesbos
Tom Phillips digs down in Sofia
Catherine Peters on boasting
On poetry and the divine
Celebrating women poets
Philip Lyons on broken Britain
John Lucas on Frost and Bishop
P. Gross and L.Saunders in dialogue
Pippa Hawkins looks after husband
Paul Matthews responds to James Harpur
No.7 Spring 2019
“Broken Britain” by Phillip Lyons
‘“Our Tan” is an angry book and Rod Madocks accosts the reader with his need to tell Tania’s story , much as the Ancient Mariner needed to tell his own. Like the Wedding Guest, I could not choose but hear.’
Our Tan is a crushing account of England’s inept social services. The case in point is Tania’s; a young mother at ease with animals and nature. Madocks, a family friend, experienced their struggles with the authorities before and after Tania’s premature death. The rigged system depicted is one of business jargon over professional judgement, where any criticism is deflected by processes designed to shield the status quo. It’s a heart-wrenching, head slapping true story of the damage done by misguided meddlers. One particular exchange, between a social worker and Tania’s father, will live long in the memory, while the inclusion of Tania’s own words provides a devastating reminder of a young life lost. More than a work of personal retribution, this book explores the wider social injustice and how public services are devouring the poverty-inflicted working-class. With Our Tan, Madocks has reinforced his standing as one of Nottingham’s most interesting modern writers. John Baird
Amazon review February 2019. An anonymous heroic reader
Read it, believe it and join the fight against it. It could be you. Or someone you know and care about. And that’s both issues covered in this book: alcoholism or the abuse of child protection services in this country. I’m a baby boomer and I identify strongly with the know it all, middle class attitudes described succinctly in this book. I turned my back on my middle class background and chose to live happily among the hard, earthy, complicated working class people of Co Durham and it’s now my home. I love these people and wouldn’t want to live anywhere else but the injustices they endure are many fold – from bearing the brunt of austerity measures to appalling and unfair type casting to being buried alive beneath the unwanted interference of the do gooders actively trying to erase their very way of life. I feel profoundly sad for all those affected by the tragedy that is this book but we all have a duty of care to know what’s happening around us so we must read it. Well written, gritty and very dark.
Goodreads website, 2019, a nice review from the poet Neil Fulwood
A former front-line social worker himself, Madocks’ years of experience – and frustration at the corporatised ‘group-think’ mindset that came to replace seasoned professionalism and common-sense decision making – inform this excoriating account of the death of his friends’ daughter, the disenfranchised and economically depressed town (Peterlee) that dragged her into its abyss, and the abject failure of social services to provide the right support. Social services intervened, but did so in the most judgemental, destructive and irresponsible manner, their actions a catalogue of wrong-headedness and stubborn refusal to work with her wider family. And when everything went to hell and there was redress to be sought, the closing of ranks and the impenetrability of their complaints process was the final insult. Madocks takes up the gauntlet: ‘Our Tan’ is a visceral takedown of the system, a battle-cry against liberal ideologues and the PC apparatchiks who value concepts over people. It’s an angry and brutally necessary book.