Not far from London is a high-security psychiatric hospital that has held some of Britain's most violent criminals. The novelist Patrick McGrath grew up there—and loved it...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, September/October 2012
IN 1957 MY FATHER, Dr Pat McGrath, was appointed the tenth and last medical superintendent of what was then called Broadmoor Lunatic Asylum. The place was in bad shape. It was in many respects obsolete, and chronically overcrowded: 800 mentally ill men and women confined in a top-security institution designed for 500. Patients slept in corridors and day rooms. Security was paramount. The staff comprised a corps of custodial attendants in black uniforms and peaked caps and, according to Pat McGrath, just one-and-a-half psychiatrists.
I remember being with him once, at dusk, crossing a yard inside the hospital. I was eight or nine years old at the time. A scream came from a high window in Block Six. Even now, more than half a century later, the words "block six" arouse an echo of the dreadful fascination I once felt with that building. It was where the most disturbed male patients were housed. New admissions went into Block Six, if they presented any risk—men who had in most cases committed grievous acts of violence while psychotic. But it wasn't a scream of demented fury that I heard that evening; it was a scream of the most wretched misery. I turned to my father. "Poor John," he murmured, and I understood that he understood what his patient was suffering; and the fact that he understood it robbed the scream of much of its terror for me.
My father was then 40. A robust, forceful man, broad-shouldered and stocky, he had a fine high forehead, thick black hair and a nose like a hawk's. When he took his glasses off you saw how pale, almost icily blue his eyes were. He had a strong personality and a quick clear mind. He'd graduated in medicine from Glasgow University in September 1939, at the age of 22, and immediately joined the Royal Army Medical Corps. Within days he was in uniform. He broke his back in a fall on the Rock of Gibraltar, but he once told me that the damage war did to a man's mind was greater by far than any physical injury he might suffer, and it was this recognition of the effects of psychological trauma that led him to specialise in psychiatry. He'd come to Broadmoor to see what the forensic end of it looked like. On the death of the previous incumbent he accepted the job of superintendent, and set about dragging this unwieldy, overburdened institution into the 20th century.
On our arrival we'd moved into a large, drafty, red-brick Victorian villa just 100 yards from the Main Gate. My parents named it Kentigern, after the patron saint of Glasgow where they'd grown up. Helen and Pat met at a wedding in 1948 and were married a year later. I was born a year after that.
The running of Broadmoor is no job for the faint of heart. My father would come home from work with his face black with tension, and I'd keep out of his path till he'd had a Scotch or two. My sister Judy, who worked in Broadmoor for a spell, remembers this dramatic story. A patient took another patient hostage in his room. He had a knife and was threatening to cut the other man's throat unless his demands were met. "Everyone moves in," writes Judy, "and negotiations begin. Nothing seems to work until the deputy super offers to take the place of the hostage. Dad wasn't having it. If anyone was going in it had to be him. So McGrath it is. Dad went in. Don't know what he did in there, but he lived to tell the tale."
Later, in his 50s, he suffered from acute psoriasis, almost certainly the effect of stress. He was an able and fearless administrator, but his heart was always in clinical work. I think he decided to take on Broadmoor because he saw what needed doing, and because he could. Sometimes, however, it became too much for him and he'd speak wistfully of the life of a country GP. More than once he applied to a practice in some remote corner of Scotland, or the Borders. The rest of the family was appalled at the prospect of leaving Broadmoor, and fortunately the Home Office always persuaded him to stay.
The problem he faced, at least in the early days, was that in his efforts to institute reform he had to deal not only with a conservative old guard within Broadmoor itself, but with political masters in Whitehall no less resistant to change. One exception, curiously, was Enoch Powell. Not known for his sympathy for the outsider, he was in fact a man of the hard right who could also see the point of social reform. Powell became minister of health in Harold Macmillan's government in 1960. He had strong views about the Victorian psychiatric institutions. In 1961 he made his famous "Water Tower" speech: "There they stand, isolated, majestic, imperious, brooded over by the gigantic water tower…" He was talking about decrepit asylums like Broadmoor, and the urgent need to open them up so as to bring the patients into the light, give them the care they required in the community.
I remember Powell and his wife coming to Kentigern for dinner. My father had a guarded respect for this able, clever man, and certainly admired his ability to recite classical poetry from memory. The two of them competed that night over some obscure verses—Pat McGrath was nothing if not competitive, but he was out of his depth. Powell, a Classics professor at 25, won easily. Earlier, the minister was amused to discover that the superintendent's eldest son was an avid Wolves fan, Wolverhampton being part of his West Midlands constituency. A week after his visit there arrived in the post a team photograph signed by all the players, including Norman Deeley, scorer of two decisive goals in the 1960 Cup Final.
Photograph: A patient at Broadmoor (Getty)