Oh. My. God. Sometimes you come across an author and think, why the hell haven’t I read this person before? I’d heard of Edward St Aubyn but, whether from reverse snobbery or whether because there are just too many people to read, I hadn’t delved into him until I came across a TV series called Patrick Melrose. Even then I might have scrolled on, had it not starred the incandescent Benedict Cumberbatch. I am always stunned by the power of that guy’s acting and it’s pleasing to learn that both he and the series won Baftas last week.
OH and I were utterly destroyed by Patrick Melrose. We emerged from a two-day binge as exhausted as the protagonist himself after a weekend on coke, shattered and begging for more. Once we’d finished all five episodes I had to go straight to my dealer (Alibris) and get the books.
If I tell you it’s a series of novels about an abused child, economically and socially privileged but neglected by one parent and cruelly used by the other, a boy who as an adult goes on drug-fuelled binges and considers himself abstemious if he takes coke instead of heroin, a man who ends up like all junkies calling his dealer at one in the morning and finding him unavailable takes a taxi to the badlands of New York to score in a back alleyway – if I told you all this you’d likely yawn and scroll down. Patrick Melrose is all these things, but how can I begin to convey how compelling it is?
For a start the social milieu – the bored and boring wealthy – ought to be a total turn-off. Patrick’s mother-in-law, inexplicably nicknamed Kettle, takes the biscuit with her selfishness and snobbery, but Kettle’s crimes are as nothing to Nicholas Pratt, Patrick’s father’s oldest friend, and Patrick’s father himself.
David Melrose is a monster. His idea of parenting is to give a child the worst possible experience, a childhood of which they can say ‘if I made it through that I can make it through anything.’ Having been abused by his own father, the young David sabotages his talent for music and neglects his gifts as a doctor; whether without these experiences he would have been a sadistic rapist is debatable but that is what he becomes. The first novel opens with David holding forth from an upper window of their holiday home in France and keeping the housekeeper in conversation ‘long enough for her arms to ache but not long enough for her to drop the tray.’ After his wife complains about the figs going to waste he forces her in front of guests to eat the fruit where it lies. He is a ruthless bully and serial rapist who attacks both his wife and his five-year-old son. No Childline in those days.
All this is enough to make any adult turn to drugs. Having an independent income, Patrick gets to shoot up in hotels and bathrooms instead of piss-stained stairwells, though he resorts to the back streets when other sources fail him. But after a few years of this his inheritance has dwindled and to support his wife and child he is forced to take up a profession. Sadly his practice of the law is more honoured in the breach and he dedicates far more energy to his career as an alcoholic, inevitably leading to the breakdown of his marriage.
The cast of over-privileged characters behave so badly that it’s hard to believe we’re not back in the 19th century: they could easily have come out of Proust. Why doesn’t the housekeeper tell David to eff off? Why doesn’t Eleanor throw David out? It’s her house, after all, and her money – but from the start he has dominated her by sheer force of character. Rather than confront her problems she becomes a drunk and then, continuing the theme of displacement, she gives generously to Save the Children instead of saving her own son. Nobody challenges the right of these people to behave exactly as they wish, but why not? It’s the 1970’s, after all, not the 1870’s, the world outside has cast off deference. The answer lies in the mana they have; the absolute belief that they have the right to rule. They live in an ultra-privileged bubble as they move from taxi to hotel to beach to country house in a merry-go-round of splendid isolation. Most people refer to the survival statistics on the Titanic with horror; here they are recited with approbation (‘no-one from steerage survived’ – and quite right, too.) Debating with them is pointless because they are already the victors: ‘She always felt that her high cards were being displaced by a small trump’ – like Blackadder’s Elizabeth saying ‘Who’s Queen?’ Who’s rich? Whose house is this?
These tendencies reach their apotheosis at a dinner party where the guest of honour is Princess Margaret. Referred to by all as ‘PM’ as though elected leader of the nation, she is abominably rude and subjects the French ambassador to the humiliation of kneeling and wiping her dress after he splashes soup on it. Afterwards when someone suggests to PM that people are privileged by ‘accident of birth’, she snaps back, ‘birth is no accident.’
Horribly fascinating though this is, what keeps you reading is the journey of Patrick himself. Will he make it as a human being? After so much neglect and abuse, after so many drugs and failed relationships, will he finally attain the humble position of husband and father? His main support – and the only real human being in the series – is Johnny, himself a recovering alcoholic who through the process has learned humility. This is the key, we seem to think; the ability to think of oneself as merely human, no better and no worse than anyone. It’s Johnny to whom Patrick confesses that he was raped as a child; it’s Johnny who persuades him to attend therapy.
As a series, Patrick Melrose begins stonkingly. Five novels is a lot to sustain (an unusual number for a book sequence) but it sags a little during the second half of novel four and tails off towards the end. In spite of this it has passages of coruscating brilliance such as Patrick’s manic, drug-fuelled stream-of-consciousness and later his son Robert’s thoughts as a baby. It’s a tough gig to describe the thoughts of a pre-verbal child but he brings it off well:
‘He could see everything through the transparent walls of his fish-tank cot. He was looked over by the sticky eye of a splayed lily. Sometimes the breeze blew the peppery smell of freesias over him and he wanted to sneeze it away. On his mother’s nightgown spots of blood mingled with streaks of dark orange pollen.’ This is all great stuff, but by the time his other son Thomas is born I became wearied by the children’s precocity. It’s hard to believe that a three-year-old would talk in the way Thomas does; in any case, you should only have one genius in any family – look what happened to the Holmes’s.
A propos of which, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Benedict Cumberbatch doing justice to this role. Imagine Sherlock without Watson but with loads of sex and drugs and you’ll get an idea. But don’t just settle for having an idea – go watch the series and when you have, get the books. You’ll thank me.