(Part of A Glasgow Trilogy)
by George Friel
231 pages, Polygon
Review by Pat Black
George Friel is one of the lesser known Glasgow authors. Born in 1910 and dying in 1975, he would have witnessed breathtaking changes in the city he lived and worked in all his life. One of the career teacher’s most famous books, The Boy Who Wanted Peace – part of A Glasgow Trilogy – is set in a school where a gang of underprivileged boys discover three crates stuffed with banknotes in the basement they use for a clubhouse.
The boys are presided over by a youth several years older than them, Percy Phinn, a wannabe poet who sees himself as somehow bettering these lads’ lives; but the improbable windfall of tens of thousands of pounds – worth millions in today’s money – changes all sorts of expectations for master and apprentices.
Moral dilemmas based on unexpected, illicit riches which fall into people’s laps are a curious trope in Scottish literature; from Captain Flint’s buried bonanza in Stevenson’s Treasure Island through to the SS Politician’s liquid gold hoard, culminating in Danny Boyle’s Shallow Grave, the temptations afforded by dirty cash are well-essayed by artists in a country still unconsciously in the grip of Calvinism and Catholicism. No bad thing when it comes to examining the conscience, for sure.
Friel follows in these mighty footsteps with a light tread at first, but a kind of savagery soon descends, seemingly at odds with the upbeat tone – the book is filled with the type of humour an older brother might visit upon you, perhaps, before turning it into outright violence on the strength of a grimace or a dirty look.
Much of Friel’s stories focus on Glasgow schoolchildren – a subject his career made him an authority on. The Boy Who Wanted Peace sees Percy the poet asserting an authority on the penniless ten and eleven-year-olds who form his gang, the Brotherhood of El, as they decide what to do with the loot they find stuffed inside tea chests in the school cellar.
In their bizarre rituals, ranks and incantations, the Brotherhood of El could well be the masons, or perhaps any form of religion you care to mention. Money soon becomes this weird little club’s god – El standing for the symbol of one pound sterling, £1. A canny one, Percy decides that the boys should only spend the money a little at a time, so as not to attract attention to themselves. The aptly named Hugh Savage, a pugnacious sort with an innate talent for violence, has other ideas, though. On the other side of the coin, a loyal, principled boy called Frank Garson – who found the cash in the first place – urges his Brothers to see sense and hand the cash into the police, convinced that no good will come of it.
On top of this growing sedition, there’s an external issue in the shape of a sinister scar-faced man who arrives in town, eager to discover what happened to a large wodge of cash which was stolen from a bank in Finnieston.
And then there’s the problem of Percy’s ambitions. Seeing himself as a lad o’ pairts, he craves fiscal freedom in order to pursue his artistic goals – when all of a sudden, fiscal freedom becomes possible. I think even the most realistic of us can appreciate this impulse, but it quickly becomes clear that despite his thirst for learning, books and artistic endeavour, Percy’s not very bright. He didn’t do well at school and he’s stuck working in an unspectacular job. A couple of characters wonder if he’s really “all there”. We later find out he’s had a raft of social problems right the way through his education – possibly a case for psychiatric evaluation, modern readers will feel.
But most tellingly of all, barring a few lines here and there, this poet doesn’t write any poetry. His widowed mother – wife of the late school caretaker – lambasts the boy for his silly ambitions. She understands that he wants the mantle of respectability and superiority that an education and artistic leanings will, he feels, confer upon him, and he wears it ostentatiously. It’s this snootiness that the book attacks again and again.
Although Percy is clearly a dunderhead of the highest order, it came as a big slap in the face for me to encounter that Glasgow sourness against education and creativity so soon. The boys of the Brotherhood, who begin the story in Percy’s thrall, respect his pretentions as they see a poet as something better and cleverer than themselves. But everyone else sees his ambitions for the sham they are. So we are meant to distance ourselves from Percy’s impracticality and woolly-headedness - but is it possible Friel is attempting to show all artistic yearnings in this light? As things born of indolence and inactivity, rather than endeavour? A stunning irony coming from a writer of fiction, surely. In Percy’s longings for a cottage in Cornwall in which to live in peace to write his great works of art, we can see a direct parallel with the smart but world-weary headmaster Daunders’ wish for the calmness of the summer holidays, to be spent on Skye with his unread rare edition of Horace. Is Daunders an image of Percy with a few more years on him?
Missing parents were another big theme of The Boy Who Wanted Peace. It’s a theme in most big cities these days, but not quite for the same reasons. There’s no dad for Percy, his father dying in his forties in the very cellar where he holds council, apparently found lying beside a large tea chest. In fact, there’s no dad for a lot of the boys in the Brotherhood, some of their fathers being “away in Manchester”; a popular euphemism of the time for having been sent to The Big Hoose, Barlinnie jail.
Most interestingly, there’s no mother for weak, but resolute Frank Garson. She apparently – the shame of it! – “ran away wi’ a darkie”; or, “eloped with a West Indian”, as the well-schooled lad informs his headmaster. This turns out not to be true; the explanation of why Frank’s mother was driven out of the family home by his stern father was maybe one of the most affecting passages of the book. She wanted to work, you see, and not simply be a housewife under her husband’s command. The shame of this was too much for Mr Garson’s jealous nature. The mother – who’s been living alone and working on the city’s Corporation buses, undaunted – does return to the family fold, after a fashion. But this isn’t quite a happy ending; Frank shies away from the woman when she ruffles his hair, despite having used the cellar money to effect her return. This glacial sense of family adds to his father’s chilling inquiry of how the boy came by a burst lip and a black eye after an encounter with the bully Savage: “Tell me what happened. Or you’ll get it worse.”
Good old-fashioned Scots brutality is the chief parenting skill on show here. Friel never openly states it, but all the poor Frank wants is love and tenderness rather than boundless authority and austerity. A normal family environment, in other words.
The cash effects a crisis in the Brotherhood and beyond as the truth is gradually revealed to authority figures and loyalties are tested to the limit. But for all it changes the character’s lives by way of consequence, another strange thing about this book, and one that gave me ample food for thought, was how useless the money is shown to be in and of itself. The boys can’t spend it, they can’t invest it, and they can hardly take it to a bank. For a brief period they’re actually wealthy, but barring a few extravagances – guitars, train sets, motorbikes, leather jackets – they’re just as poor as they ever were. Young Savage, who shrewdly siphons the cash away to be hidden in various nooks and crannies around his housing scheme, might be the cleverest of all of the Brotherhood when it comes to raising securities for himself. But ultimately, they might as well just burn the lot.
Even more telling is the book’s coda, where two football-obsessed drinkers discuss what someone would do with unlimited money and freedom. There’s a dark side to it, they feel. “What would you do without your work?” one says to the other.
Perhaps poor Percy, who only wanted to buy peace, would provide an answer to that one. But maybe in considering that most Calvinist of questions there’s a lesson for any artist; the only way to bridge that crisis of the need to work versus the desire to be free and to create is to double your efforts and do both. There’s no other way.
I suspect George Friel, who knew scant acclaim and even slim financial rewards from his novels in his lifetime, understood this all too well.