copyright © Alan Baker,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