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Book Festival Reviews: Patrick McGrath / Ali Smith / Robin Robertson / Can We Trust The Government?

Patrick McGrath

Five stars

Ali Smith

Four stars

Robin Robertson

Five stars

Can We Trust The Government?

Three stars

IMAGINE you want to be a novelist. Where better to grow up than in the shadow of Broadmoor, tarred by the tabloids as a prison for lunatics and which psychiatrists prefer to view as a hospital for the mentally askew?

PATRICK MCGRATH'S father was superintendent of Broadmoor and loved to talk about his work there. Such as? "He'd say, 'I got a vicar in today who baked his mother's head in the oven. Mad as a brush'."

McGrath is a genial fellow, long resident in New York. Much of his work, including the novel Spider, which was filmed and starred Ralph Fiennes, has its roots in his childhood.

Spider, it transpired, was one of the few of his books which his father read prior to publication. He liked most of it but not the ending McGrath originally proposed, which - spoiler alert! - was happier than the one which finally appeared. His father, said McGrath, took the view that, however nasty the acts his patients had committed, "It wasn't their fault."

McGrath also worked for a while with the mentally ill but felt himself unsuited to it. His novels, however, are generally described as "dark" and "gothic", into which category his latest one, Constance, happily falls.

He read from its opening chapter. In it, the narrator, a professor of poetry, falls headlong in love with a woman, the eponymous Constance, who is twenty years his junior. The reading ended ominously: "I only wish I'd kept her safer. I should I have kept her under lock and key."

Set in 1963, the novel has as its backdrop the demolition of Manhattan's much-missed Penn Station. McGrath said it had taken five years to write and along the way he lost both an editor and publisher, neither of whom fell headlong for Constance as her creator clearly had.

Back in the day, he added, New York was an exciting and dangerous place to be. No more, alas. But if you've been brought up around Broadmoor where on earth can you possibly live that can give that same frisson?

ALI SMITH read from her book, Shire, which is a cocktail of imagined stories and autobiography. At the core of the session was a hymn to two women, one of whom, Helena Shire, acted as Smith's benefactor, and who gave her a few hundred pounds when she was a student at Cambridge.

Shire was a revered scholar, inspiring affection from her students and a poem, The Antagonis', from Thom Gunn. "It's about the pagan act of churchbuilding, a reconciliation of opposing forces, the spirit of otherness, the itch and seminality of something other at the core of any tradition or institution," wrote Smith.

The other woman on Smith's radar was Olive Fraser, whose poems Shire edited. From the poems by Fraser which Smith read there is some truth in the argument that she is unjustly neglected. Born in 1909 in Aberdeen, she died in 1977. She had both beauty and brains and was something of a live wire. Smith spoke at break-neck speed in an effort to describe her and her movements and her bad health: "The death of her mother. The death of her aunt. The death of her dog, Quip, an Irish terrier. Drawn to Roman Catholicism; poetry becomes devotional. Poverty. One new outfit in the last twelve years."

Hailing, too, from the north-east, ROBIN ROBERTSON could not have been more different in his delivery. Dressed in black, his hair graying clerically, it was easy to imagine him inhabiting a pulpit, like his father, a Church of Scotland minister.

He read for an hour which in certain hands would be an eternity. In Robertson's, however, the effect was cumulative and moving, his material drawn largely from his latest collection, Hill of Doors, which includes a suite of poems about his "favourite god", Dionysus, and others which are more overtly personal.

He read a bleakly beautiful poem called Crimond, which takes its title from the tune composed by Jessie Seymour Irvine for the 23rd Psalm which his father had sung in his church every Sunday. In The Halving, Robertson reflected on the four-hour operation he had in 1986 to correct a heart murmur, which led to "an emotional derangement". Returning to consciousness, he thought: "I have been away, I said to the ceiling,/ and now I am not myself." In fact, he is utterly himself, and a wonder to behold.

And so to politics and the question of trust, in a session, titled CAN WE TRUST THE GOVERNMENT? chaired by Gavin Esler. His guests were Kevin Pringle, who works for the Yes campaign, and Anthony King, whose books include The Blunders Of Our Government.

Trust, said King, was based on honesty, ability and reliability, qualities which few politicians possess. Pringle, meanwhile, advocated greater familiarity with those we hold often in contempt. Part of Esler's 'Can we Trust...?' series, it was fine so far as it went, which could have been deeper.

Alan Taylor

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