November 21, 2016

GRACE AND MISS PARTRIDGE

by George Friel, 187 pages
590 pages, Canongate

Review by Pat Black

I no longer live in Glasgow, but I still belong to her, and she won’t let me forget it.

I’m almost five years gone, now. If I was an astronaut and Glasgow was the Earth, she wouldn’t appear blue any more – just another twinkly dot among a million others on my scanner. It’s nice to know she’s still there, even if I’m not.

George Friel is a somewhat forgotten part of the city’s literary canon. Born in 1910 and dying in 1975, he would have seen the city utterly transformed in his lifetime (some say the council planning department did more damage than Hitler). A teacher by trade, Friel knew a little bit of success in his literary career with The Boy Who Wanted Peace after it was dramatized on Scottish television. He drew favourable notices for his work, particularly from Anthony Burgess, but his books remained in relative obscurity for most of his life.

I was stunned to learn that Friel was known as a rather unsentimental chronicler of Glasgow in the post-war years. For me he seemed to pander to a toxic nostalgia which chokes a lot of the city’s popular art. One of Glasgow’s most successful home-grown theatrical shows is The Steamie, a musical about the women who worked in the city’s laundries in the 1950s. This is close to blasphemy for some, but when washed down with the comedy of Dorothy Paul, it gives me bellyache. When I was a young man it spoke to me of the austere generations which came before, still stunned by the idea of a house with its own lavatory, and deeply envious of they young yins and their ambitions. This was the language of people who seemed to have nothing but contempt for me.

“Aye!” yells the old woman down the stairs, leaning on her mop. “I remember you when you were a snotty wean! Don’t gie me any o’ yer lip! I know your faither!”

I guess everyone had a wee woman like that in their close, who we remember with affection despite the fact she was a horrible, nosey, bitter old harridan. Weren’t you?

“In the name o’ the wee man! You need a good boot in the erse, so ye do!” 

Grace and Miss Partridge is an ensemble piece, looking at the two characters in the title and the people round about them. Grace is a little girl who lives in a tenement close, somewhere in north Glasgow in the 50s or 60s – Maryhill, I suspect, or maybe Possil Park.

Up the stairs lives Miss Partridge, a tapped old maid who has visions of family ghosts and various other entities. Miss Partridge was once married and lived on a farm in America, but something went wrong, and she came back to live out her spinsterhood as a clerk for a laundry firm. She’s a figure of fun among the local population, and is particularly tormented by the hordes of children who swarm over the back greens. Miss Partridge is the type of old besom who provides the best sport of all for semi-feral wee bastards the world over; the type who rises to the bait, howling across the middens at her short-trousered provocateurs.

One of these children is the apple of Miss Partridge’s eye; wee Grace, who lives downstairs from her. She dotes on the little girl with an uncomfortable intensity, and dearly wishes she had one of her own to love. Miss Partridge’s only living relative, her younger brother Tommy, worries when he finds out about this. Miss Partridge has a past only Tommy knows about, involving a stint in a mental hospital following an incident involving another little girl.

Friel’s canvas broadens to take in Hugh Main, a round, cheerful medical student who calls on another of the close’s residents, his cousin, Donald. This douce highlander is a hulking figure taken to joining in the children’s games in the back court, in a fashion which seemed a little odd back then but which would be viewed with the deadliest suspicion nowadays. I remember that sort of stuff when I was growing up; guys who would come down and play football with the boys on their own. Might have been totally innocent; might not. I’ll never know. Curiously, this echoes Percy in The Boy Who Wanted Peace, a weirdo who converts boys much younger than him into his Brotherhood of El. As in that novel, strict religious observance in both Donald and Miss Partridge are taken as a sign of madness in this one.

Big Donald is in love with another girl in the close, Roberta, or Bobo, a beautiful 19-year-old who turns heads wherever she goes. But he’s too repressed, too bound by dogma, to do anything about it. His fellow bible thumper Miss Partridge sees the frank, fleshy Bobo as the devil incarnate, and wastes no opportunity to tell her so. She fears that Bobo represents Grace’s destiny; she believes the little girl must be Saved before her innocence is sullied by adult life.

Bobo drives big Donald mad, little skirts, tight sweaters and all. Donald encounters her one evening as she leaves the close’s communal toilet in her nightdress; the effect is like a thunderbolt, but not from above. Bobo basks in the attention, from admirer and detractor alike.

Hugh Main, a sensitive but playful man, gets on very well with Bobo, but in a strictly platonic way. Main’s lack of physical attraction despite their obvious rapport made me wonder if perhaps he preferred men (although Friel never so much as hints at it). Main, bored to tears with his cousin’s queasy dual obsession with scripture and the pleasures of the flesh – Bobo’s in particular – seeks to set him up with the girl, even though she has a highly significant other. Bobo’s boyfriend, Dross, is a juvenile delinquent who is being drawn into a life of crime with three other low-level hoods, taken to tanning sweetie shops and post offices after dark.

The three strands of the novel – Grace and Miss Partridge; Donald and Bobo; Miss Partridge and Bobo – all head towards potentially deadly outcomes.

The story is narrated in the first person by an unseen character, and through him Friel manifests his affinity for working class people in Glasgow’s great post-war schemes. It’s this light-hearted rendering of the characters and sympathy for their motivations and backgrounds, whether fair or foul, which I mistook for sentimentality in his earlier work. But Friel is not afraid to dish out some ugly scenes. His wry, semi-detached humour gives way to something far more caustic, and the flimsy curtain of nostalgia is crudely torn away to reveal the Glasgow of No Mean City.

There is an equivalent scene featuring withering, merciless treatment in The Boy Who Wanted Peace, where the motherless boy offers to fight the school bully - and is duly punched up and down the playground. Grace and Miss Partridge’s grim lesson was far more shocking, a senseless, unjust fate in an unforgiving setting. Friel once said that there was no point being dishonest about things and “playing Mr Glasgow” – the city was, and still can be, a frightening and violent place. It’s worth noting in passing that Bible John was active around about the time this book was published.

I wonder if the tough guy stuff is simply the other side of the coin to sentimentality. I picked up on this in my own storytelling a while ago. Many of my early short stories concern folk who are either heading for a beating, or preparing to give one out. Once I spotted this pattern, it became tiresome, and I’m at pains to correct it.

I hate it, that black streak of cynicism. It suggests that every victim of violence is somehow to blame - for not stopping it, for not seeing it coming, for not being sufficiently violent themselves. I can picture the smirk slashed across the face of that thrawn old bugger with the mop as she intercepts you creeping back into the close, trying not to drip blood on her pristine stairs. “Aye! That’s what ye get!”

Friel finishes off with a cheeky coda, where we get a view of the hidden narrator’s adult life. He has a conversation with his mother after she’s read the same manuscript you have, oozing irony as she tears him apart for writing fiction where real history might do better.

This is where Friel flexes his muscles a little, reminding us that there’s a bit more to his game than fish suppers, cracked lintel and flickering stairhead lights; and giving the briefest acknowledgement that Grace and Miss Partridge was published in 1969.

Friel’s single-end symphony is a beautifully composed piece of work. There’s no doubt he was a fine prose artist, but also a man of his time. He could fly far above Glasgow, but not for too long. He was in with the bricks, twitching the curtains, unhooking the key to the communal lavvy, never daring to miss his turn for the stairs. 

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