Weâ€™re well in to autumn here at Slightly Foxed
and the season is passing by in a whirl of literary conviviality. Weâ€™ve been down to Whitehall to toast next yearâ€™s Gladstoneâ€™s Library writers in residence, up the road in Shoreditch to The Bookclub for a turn at an evening event dedicated to magazines (where we think the hipsters enjoyed hearing about SF
but it was quite hard to tell behind all the beards and craft beer bottles) and back and forth to our bookshop on Gloucester Road for a flurry of author talks and launches.
One especially jolly occasion was a party to celebrate this yearâ€™s Slightly Foxed Best First Biography Prize shortlist (winner to be announced on 4 November). Our little shop was fit to bursting with the literati, with Biography Club members, authors, agents, publishers and friends there to toast the prize and listen to the shortlisted authors read from their books. Weâ€™ll be sharing some photos from the evening and a recording of the readings on our website next week, so do look out for those.
Following all this excitement, weâ€™re now looking forward to a few quiet weeks to prepare ourselves for what we hope will be a busy and fruitful winter season. Gail and Hazel are soon to send final proofs of the winter issue up to Smith Settle, which is just as well as the bindersâ€™ parcels of the autumn issue are fast disappearing. Those of you who subscribe will have already read it but for any readers of our newsletter whoâ€™ve been thinking about trying Slightly Foxed
we can highly recommend the current issue. Of course we think each issue is a good one but this one seems especially full of excellent writing and interesting recommendations. Many readers have written in to say how much they enjoyed Maggie Fergussonâ€™s piece on Patrick McGrath, and have been inspired to read his novel Asylum
as a result, so for this monthâ€™s extract we thought weâ€™d share it here. We hope youâ€™ll enjoy reading - or re-reading - it.
Further down the page youâ€™ll find links and information about our bookplates and a few Christmas present ideas, as well as our usual selection of recent readersâ€™ comments and news of a special T.S. Eliot event hosted by our friends at The London Library at one of Londonâ€™s most charming historic venues next week. Read on!
Itâ€™s odd to feel nostalgia for a place youâ€™ve never set foot in, but thatâ€™s what I feel for Broadmoor. In my imagination, I can pass through the main gate into the maze of red-brick Victorian buildings, cross the courtyard and walk down the long corridors of the menâ€™s and womenâ€™s wings. I can turn the heavy brass doorknob and step into the office of the chief medical superintendent, with its huge desk and its watercolours by Richard Dadd, the gifted artist who, in 1843, murdered his father, believing him to be the Devil. And in my memory I can still hear the siren â€“ plangent, baleful â€“ whining through the Home Counties mist.
Since its foundation in 1863, Broadmoor has been home to the most dangerous criminal lunatics in Britain â€“ Ronnie Kray and Peter Sutcliffe, for example â€“ and many assume that it must therefore be situated on some blasted heath, miles from civilization. In fact, itâ€™s in Berkshire, a stoneâ€™s throw from several institutions of rather different kinds. It used to be said that you could be educated at Wellington College, pass out of the military college at Sandhurst and end your days in Broadmoor without travelling more than a mile or so in any direction. I grew up and went to school in Ascot, and Broadmoor was a looming though invisible presence for my siblings and me, lending a thrilling frisson to the safe monotony of our suburban childhood.
The siren was tested weekly, so when we heard it on a Monday morning it was, despite its mournful tone, reassuring: â€˜10 oâ€™clock, and allâ€™s wellâ€™. But very occasionally the banshee wail struck up at another time of the day or week, and then we knew that some crazed villain was on the loose. And of course we half-hoped that he or she was heading straight for us. I first remember this happening during evening study in the autumn term, just after I started at my secondary school. Tradition had it that an escaped Broadmoor patient had once made a beeline for St Maryâ€™s Convent, Ascot, so in a well-practised drill the nuns pinned up the outer skirts of their habits and set off to patrol the grounds, armed with hockey sticks. Reverend Mother, meantime, visited the junior school to give us a pep talk. If we happened to meet a â€˜gentlemanâ€™ on the way back through the rhododendrons for supper, she said, we must be sure to engage him in conversation. â€˜You should say something perfectly natural, like, â€œAre you a caddy from the golf course?â€â€™
Schools nowadays pride themselves on keeping teenagers permanently stretched and occupied, but things were different in the early 1970s. We were bored; and Broadmoor inspired a dreadful fascination. What was life there like (could it be odder than ours in the convent)? Were the men and women obvious, raving lunatics, or were they calm-seeming and crafty? And how was madness defined and diagnosed? Ian Brady and Myra Hindley had committed the Moors murders in tandem; yet one was in an asylum, the other in prison. Why?
None of these questions was answered, and as I grew up and moved away from home â€“ and out of earshot of the siren â€“ they faded. But they didnâ€™t entirely disappear, and over lunch one day in the autumn of 1996, I mentioned my fascination with Broadmoor to the novelist David Hughes. Had I read Patrick McGrathâ€™s Asylum, he asked in response. No? I must! McGrath had grown up at Broadmoor, where his father had been appointed medical superintendent in 1957; and, though his fictional asylum wasnâ€™t named, there was little doubt that it was based on his childhood home. The novel was just out, and getting rave reviews. I bought it immediately.
Asylum will be a treat in store for some, so Iâ€™m reluctant to give away too much of the plot. But, in broad outline, it revolves around a catastrophic affair between Stella Raphael, the beautiful, wayward wife of the deputy superintendent of a high-security mental asylum, and Edgar Stark, a psychiatric patient of â€˜restless, devious intelligenceâ€™ and powerful sexual magnetism. Stark has been hospitalized for treatment after murdering and decapitating his wife, and then removing her eyes. When he joins a working party of patients to refurbish the dilapidated greenhouse in the Raphaelsâ€™ garden, Stella meets him and falls fatally in love. The opening pages of the novel transport us back to the long, hot summer of 1959. With all the brilliance of E. M. Forster in A Passage to India, L. P. Hartley in The Go-Between or Scott Fitzgerald in The Great Gatsby, McGrath makes us swelter in the relentless, mind-bending heat. â€˜The trees hanging over the garden walls seemed weighted with a peculiar dull heaviness . . . the grass in the meadow thick and high and the climbing roses blowsy in their second flush . . .â€™ In Stella Raphael, reason and inhibition evaporate. Caution is thrown to the hot wind.
We are planted in an era, as well as a season â€“ an era tantalizing to me for being just outside the scope of my own memory. Itâ€™s evoked in powder compacts and headscarves, cigarettes and endless G&Ts, but above all in the languid, dragging days of its married women. Today, Stella Raphael might be â€˜stressedâ€™; in 1959, sheâ€™s just bored. Her husband, Max, has provided her with a safe haven after a rackety Foreign Office childhood. Heâ€™s kind and decent, but lacking in moral or physical imagination; he channels his limited libido into his work. Edgar Stark, by contrast, makes Stella feel â€˜bold, original, freeâ€™. Into her predictable middle-class life he injects a shot of high risk, and it thrills her.
As the tension rises, and Stella seems to be speeding headlong towards the same gruesome end as Edgar Starkâ€™s wife, it would have been easy for McGrath to slide into melodrama. But the novel is narrated not by Stella or Max or Edgar, but by Dr Cleave, a forensic psychiatrist regarded by all three parties as an ally. Cleaveâ€™s tone is cool, unruffled, judicious: it keeps the horror controlled, and so heightens it. Only very gradually does one begin to suspect that Peter Cleave is the most sinister character of the piece.
And so, amidst the compulsive, page-turning drama, big questions are introduced. Where do the borders between sanity and madness lie? And does the practice of psychiatry have a particular appeal for those who need to demonstrate their own mental stability? The biographer Victoria Glendinning began her working life as a psychiatric social worker in a 1,500-bed mental hospital. She remembers seeing a group of psychiatrists advancing down one of the long corridors. The shambling patients flattened themselves against the walls as the medics sped by, laughing and chatting loudly, white coats flying. They were â€˜getting off â€™ (her words) on the weakness and inadequacy of others. They might have been a fleet of Peter Cleaves.
I turned the last page of Asylum with a sense of double satisfaction: itâ€™s a brilliant novel, and it had brought me as close to the real Broadmoor, surely, as I would ever get. But chance is a fine thing. A couple of years ago, I started working for The Economistâ€™s bi-monthly magazine Intelligent Life. One of my jobs there is to commission pieces of memoir. When I Googled â€˜Broadmoorâ€™, I saw that its 150th anniversary was approaching. Then I tracked down Patrick McGrath in New York. No, he said â€“ other than fictionally, he had never written about his childhood; and yes, this felt like a good moment to try. What landed in my inbox a month later was one of the most absorbing pieces Iâ€™ve ever read. It was filled with the kind of detail we hungered for as schoolgirls: descriptions of life in â€˜Block 6â€™, where the most disturbed male patients were housed; memories of the escape of Frank Mitchell, a member of the Kray gang, in the summer of 1958 (after he was caught, the Broadmoor children lined the route to watch his return in a Black Maria). Ian Brady, it turned out, had never been in Broadmoor: he was one of two men whom Dr McGrath considered not ill but evil, and refused to admit. Paragraph by paragraph, it became clear just how much of Asylum was rooted in truth. As a boy, eavesdropping on staff dinner parties, Patrick McGrath learned that a doctorâ€™s wife had been â€˜compromisedâ€™ by a patient sent to work in her garden, and that a female patient had, after dark, scooped out her own eyes with a teaspoon. â€˜Kentigernâ€™, the McGrathsâ€™ family home â€“ a draughty Victorian villa 110 yards from the main gate, composed of large, impossible-to-heat rooms and set in rambling acres of lawns and rhododendrons â€“ was the same house Max and Stella Raphael move into at the beginning of the novel. And there really were what I had assumed to be fictional doctor-patient dances, ahead of which female patients made themselves up from â€˜an old biscuit tin filled with a clutter of lipsticks and eye pencils, little vials of perfume, jars of cream and powder, all donated by members of staff â€™. Yet, more even than the detail of the piece, I was moved by its atmosphere. Patrick McGrath was too young, when his family moved to Broadmoor, to understand that others might think it a strange place to grow up. He passed his childhood â€˜in happy ignorance of it allâ€™. And he loved it. The vast grounds, with their woods and cricket pitch, were paradise for a small boy. The patients in yellow corduroys and donkey jackets, who built his swing and played football with him, were his first, firm friends. He looks back on it all with longing. If thereâ€™s one word that describes the tone of his piece, the word is â€˜nostalgicâ€™.
Romance in Broadmoor Â© Maggie Fergusson, Slightly Foxed Issue 47
Please read on for a selection of Christmas present ideas and to buy a copy of Asylum