Out of the dark

Patrick McGrath is resigned to being labelled a Gothic writer but is far more than that. His latest book, about the Spanish Civil war, is partly inspired by living through four years of Trump

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Despite spending most of his career exploring the darker sides of human psychology, Patrick McGrath says it’s more prosaic matters that are currently keeping him awake at night.

‘I began to see commonalities among these sorts of characters whose interest really is in total power.’

“To be very honest, it’s simply the fear that I can’t come up with another good story,” the 71-year-old bestselling author confesses to Big Issue North. “You think: Have I still got it? Can I still keep going? Is there another good idea in me? And that worries me because I don’t think I’ve finished yet.”

McGrath’s latest work, Last Days in Cleaver Square, is thrilling proof that the author is far from through and has lost none of his ability to enthral, entertain and hold the reader anxiously captive with his tight, atmospheric prose.

Set in London in the humid summer of 1975, the novel is narrated by Francis McNulty, an aged poet and veteran of the Spanish Civil War, tormented by grief and guilt, who is being haunted by an apparition of the dying and decaying Spanish dictator, General Franco.

“I had recognised him at once,” says McNulty early on in the book. “He had his back to me, but I couldn’t mistake him even in a gabardine raincoat and a bowler hat, that corpulent little monstrosity.”

Over the next 200 pages, McGrath expertly weaves a gripping, often unnerving story about memory, trauma and ageing that quickly takes hold and doesn’t loosen its tight grip until its tensely dramatic finale.

Like many of the writer’s best-known works, the story is told through the eyes of an unreliable narrator, meaning that the reader is never quite sure if they’re being deceived or lied to. In McGrath’s previous novels, his central characters have typically been psychotic or mentally ill in some capacity, but in Francis McNulty’s case his unreliability comes simply from old age. A jovial, exceedingly polite and humble McGrath jokes that he didn’t have to look far for inspiration.

“I thought: ‘Well, I get forgetful. I lose my glasses on a regular basis. I can’t remember the name of something that I knew yesterday. It was a sort of prediction of where I might be in 10 years,” he says with a chuckle.

Born in London in 1950, the eldest of four, McGrath’s fascination with the complexities of the human mind stem from his early childhood. Aged five, his family moved into the grounds of Broadmoor Hospital, where his father worked as a medical superintendent. He remembers being “really quite a small boy” sat at the dinner table surrounded by psychiatrists openly discussing work.

“I think that sowed the seed of an interest in the way that the mind worked and in the way that the mind could sicken and go wrong. That fascination with human psychology has never left me and I think is still very much what pushes me to find new and interesting facets of what can happen with the human mind,” he says.

At 13, he was sent away to a Jesuit boarding school, first in Windsor and then, when that school closed, Stonyhurst College in Lancashire. He ran away at 16 and refused to return, subsequently studying at Birmingham College of Commerce. Upon graduation, his father found him a job in Ontario, Canada working as an orderly in what was then known as a lunatic asylum.

For the next 10 years, McGrath drifted around North America working a variety of jobs – kindergarten teacher, guitar player in a bar – before moving to New York at the start of the 1980s and beginning his writing career in earnest. His first book of short stories, Blood and Water and Other Tales, was published in 1988, followed a year later by his first novel, The Grotesque, a wickedly macabre tale of murder told from the point of view of a brain-damaged palaeontologist. His second novel, Spider, was about a schizophrenic man wrestling with mental illness and cemented McGrath’s reputation as a modern-day master of Gothic fiction. It was made into an acclaimed film by David Cronenberg in 2002, starring Ralph Fiennes as the eponymous Spider.

His 1996 novel Asylum, set in a secure mental hospital in 1950s Britain, was an international bestseller and was inspired by real-life childhood memories of an illicit relationship between a doctor’s wife and a patient at Broadmoor. It too was made into a feature film, starring Natasha Richardson, Ian McKellen, Hugh Bonneville and the author’s actor wife Maria Aitken.

Other standout works in McGrath’s catalogue include Dr Haggard’s Disease, The Wardrobe Mistress and Trauma, which was shortlisted for the Costa Novel Award and was McGrath’s first novel to be set entirely in New York, where he lives for half of the year. The rest of his time is divided between London, where he also has a home, and Spain, a country with a dark and bloody recent history that directly inspired his latest work.

“It gave me the opportunity to really get stuck into the history of the Spanish Civil War, which was fascinating and bloody and grim, with great violence on both sides,” he says. Last Days in Cleaver Square is McGrath’s second successive book to have fascism as a central theme, a consequence, the author believes, of “living through four years of Donald Trump”.

“I never felt like writing about Trump but I became interested in the sort of the personality of that man,” he explains, drawing a comparison between Franco, Hitler and the 45th president of the United States. “I began to see commonalities amongst these sorts of characters whose interest really is in total power, in installing highly authoritarian governments and eliminating the democratic impulse that is there in all peoples and being prepared to crush that.”

He points to historical records of Franco carrying out extreme cruelty on his enemies long after he had secured power. “There was a rage in him that anybody who had crossed his path must be destroyed and annihilated and I felt the same thing in Donald Trump, frankly. Seeing what these sorts of authoritarian dictators had in common was a great help in trying to paint a portrait of Franco in Last Days in Cleaver Square.”

McGrath holds British, Irish (through his mother) and American citizenship and describes Joe Biden’s victory over Trump in last year’s presidential election as a “glorious thing to see” after four years of watching the news, “shouting at the TV and then slumping into your chair thinking, I can’t take any more of this.”

Looking back on his storied writing career, he says he’s become resigned to being forever labelled a Gothic writer – a tag he disliked for many years. “I’ve got to the point where I think: ‘Oh, there’s no point in keeping on denying it.’”

McGrath says his remaining ambition is simply to write a couple more good books. “Who knows, maybe three more? I don’t want to just have to give up because I’m all clapped out. I have to keep pushing forward.”

Questions about his literary legacy are met with a similarly down-to-earth response. “I would just like to be thought of as a good writer,” he says after a hearty laugh and a few moments of pondering. “I don’t know what other claims to fame I might have. I don’t have any kids, so I can’t claim to be a good father. Or a bad father either. A good writer and a good husband, I think. If I can get away with those two, that would do me.”

Last Days in Cleaver Square is published by Hutchinson

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