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The Review - FEATURE
Published: 8 January 2009
John ?Rhodes' bedroom
John Rhodes’ bedroom
Uncharted Rhodes – the lost man of letters

John Rhodes, a familiar face at literary gatherings and author of countless poems, novels and plays, died in obscurity. Now his unpublished work seems destined for a council skip, writes Simon Wroe

ON the morning of November 27 last year, a cheap plywood coffin slipped into the flames at the Islington crematorium in East Finchley. No relatives attended; the casket was unmarked.
Only four people were present besides the pallbearers, and even they might have struggled to say they had really known John Rhodes, the gentleman in the box.
A thin, stooped man who wore slippers whatever the weather and walked with the aid of a fallen tree branch, Rhodes died as he had lived: in obscurity and destitution.
He left no will, only a bewildering array of papers, notes and other writings piled up in his tiny, council-owned basement bedsit in Lambolle Road, Belsize Park.
Taking pride of place, in two ancient filing cabinets next to his bed, were thousands of meticulously recorded observations and snippets of conversation spanning more than 40 years, all dated, referenced and typewritten on single-lined cards right to the paper’s edge.
Over the decades this Borgesian library of records has acquired almost mythical status among Hampstead’s literary crowd, a group that tolerated Rhodes’s oblique manner and undertaker humour more than most.
Many of the area’s writers, actors and intellectuals know about it; and if they’ve heard of it, the chances are they’re in it. Yet no one has read it.
Now, as council officers prepare to clear the damp Victorian flat, this archive of bohemia may soon be consigned to the removal skip of history and the strange, shambling figure of John S Rhodes will recede forever into the shadows.
His unkempt demeanour and crab-like, sideways shuffle made some call him a madman, but underneath the grubby glasses and battered square hat was an Oxford-educated scholar with a love of Proust and Shakespeare’s sonnets. Until his death in October aged 71 from cancer, complicated by chronic bronchitis and self-neglect, he wrote compulsively. Plays, novels, hundreds of poems, and an epic decade-long study of comparative religions from ancient rituals to Marxism were all bashed out on an old Corona typewriter in his kitchen, the gas cooker on for warmth.
And there was method in his madness. He kept an umbrella pinned to his light tan overcoat all year round in case of rain and was a regular at St Peters Church in Belsize Square, where he would scuttle in five minutes before the end of mass and eat all the biscuits put out for the congregation, pocketing for later any he couldn’t manage. If the priest poured more he would hold his hands out, as if receiving communion, to catch them straight from the packet. The choirboys called him “The Biscuit Man”. Whether he believed in God was never clear, though many who knew him remarked on a “searching” quality, a yen for something beyond the limits of his experience.
Rhodes was, more literally than most, a man of letters. And postcards. Anyone who knew him received dozens every year ranging from the witty to the insulting or downright bizarre. One – on a Samaritans card – advised: “If you ever win a large amount of money, remember to get a receipt.”
“Of course, even though ‘cold and grey inside’, people cannot hold up your ego forever. At the age of 47 plus they expect you to do that for yourself,” moaned another.
One asked simply: “Well, how much kindness do you want?”
Other recipients, such as utilities companies and the publishers of The Hobbit (a book he loathed unconditionally), got the sharp end of his pen. He began a letter to an NPower manager: “Dear Mr Griffiths, I had just received my giro when a bill was received. Spoilsport.”
An irate letter he wrote to The Spectator when he was barred from The Flask pub for showing the barmaid an erotic poem is believed to be his only published work.
“It was very much one-way traffic. He never expected it back. It was a compulsion, a form of control,” says Leonie Scott-Matthews, the founder of Pentameters Theatre. When Rhodes looked after her children he would leave little memo notes around the flat reminding himself to shut the door or feed the baby. Similar notes, minus the baby references (Rhodes had some girlfriends but no children), cover his home too.
Apart from a brief jail sentence for conscientious objection, Rhodes lived most of his life less than a mile from his childhood home in South End Green. His father, HTF Rhodes, was a popular crime fiction author who claimed to have written the first account of The Satanic Mass. This solemn, overbearing man terrified Rhodes; as a boy he would cower behind the kitchen door, listening as his parents fought.
He attended Burgess Hill, a famous progressive school in Hampstead, where the academic Peter Vansittart taught him. When he was 16 he suffered a mental breakdown brought on by his father abandoning the family for another woman. This, friends believe, was when his social problems began. From the 1960s he was a familiar figure at Hampstead literary gatherings, often to be seen jotting in notebooks during plays or while people talked to him. Years later those same people might get a postcard or a telephone call from Rhodes, asking them “what precisely” they had meant by a comment they made on a Tuesday afternoon in 1974.
His voice was aristocratic and wild in pitch, the sentences starting triumphantly high and diving to a low mutter halfway through.
Even after his father died, Rhodes senior continued to exert a strong influence on him. He initialised his forenames for writing as his father had done and carried a crumpled newspaper obituary of him wherever he went.
A stern picture of his father hangs in his flat; another of his mother sits apart at the foot of his bed. The only other decorations are a religious etching by his grandfather, a watercolour by an aunt, and an old photograph of an uncle in seafaring garb. There is nothing to place his home where he lived for 29 years, or Rhodes himself, in the past century. No TV. No telephone. He eschewed all media and “kept his mind his own”, according to his friend, the poet Alan Smith. He even used the archaic long-tailed character for the letter “s”.
Rare visitors to his home would bring their own bread and butter; a rusty hacksaw served as a bread knife.
If one characteristic came to govern Rhodes’s existence, however, it was the awkwardness he displayed around people. He was frequently speechless with rage over a perceived rudeness, though it would have been a very thick-skinned friend to call his own behaviour polite. He woke up one actress, whom he barely knew, with an early morning phone call saying only: “Hello, I just wondered if you’d like to sleep with me?” A friend’s elderly mother received a postcard with a picture of a hearse on it. “It won’t be long now,” read the message.
The stories are numerous, and occasionally apocryphal. One yarn circulates that he was banned from a Hampstead pub for correcting the landlord’s syntax. Another time, having been warned about a bellicose man who drank at The Flask, Rhodes sidled up to him at the bar and silently passed him a note. It asked: “Are you the man who bites people’s heads off? If so, by what right do you do it?”
Several of his works end with characters striving to finally explain themselves as death closes in. In the last line of his untitled novel, an old man collapses as a young woman tries to save him: “But all he did was to repeat ‘Ah Molly…’ and turned to smile at her – but the smile faded as a descending curtain, and he died.”
Rhodes also died with the secret on his lips, but his is not yet a tragic tale: he may still be understood by the work he left behind.

The ashes of John Rhodes will be interred at the Hampstead Cemetery extension in Church Row at a memorial service in March

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