A Glasgow Trilogy
by George Friel
590 pages, Canongate
Review by Pat Black
George Friel was known as a bitter chronicler of post-war Glasgow. This puzzled me at first. Although he salted his prose with sudden, shocking moments of violence, I couldn’t see any bitterness – until I read the final part of A Glasgow Trilogy.
Mr Alfred, MA looks at a late-fifty-something teacher reaching the end of the line. It was published in 1972, three years before Friel died and, probably, written not long after he retired from his day job as a teacher. The author rages against the dying of the light, but his is a cold fire. He sees Glasgow as irredeemable, a modern-day Sodom and Gomorrah where nothing good happens to anyone decent. In the time he was writing, it may well have seemed that way.
Mr Alfred’s troubles begin with one of his pupils, Gerald Provan, a sly, cowardly bully who organises fights after school. Mr Alfred, who has already lost his temper with the boy in class (this was an era when teachers disciplined children with leather belts), singles the lad out after breaking up a brawl in a lane near the school. This draws the attention of Provan’s conniving mother. She reckons - with justification - that Mr Alfred has “taken a spite” against her son. Together, they conspire against him.
Mr Alfred has few family members to call on and no friends. He uses digs in the city simply as a place to crash, and spends his spare time and all of his salary touring the city’s pubs after work. He idly lusts after barmaids, listens in on conversations without participating, and after last orders he wanders through Blythswood Square, protesting a little too much when the working girls offer him some business. He is a man on thin ice.
Mr Alfred wants the things he cannot have – a wife; a family; a loving home – but he doesn’t realise it. Mr Alfred’s only relative is Granny Lyons, an aunt who draws some bad cards with the housing department when she is placed in a bottom flat near the alley where teenagers congregate to fight. The pair cower in her kitchen while bricks are lobbed through the window and threats are hissed through the letterbox.
Gerald Provan is a villain, but all too believable. An impish Iago, he instigates nastiness, pressing knives and other weapons onto the combatants he has matched up in the school lane - but he never participates in the aggro himself. He has an excuse for everything, and takes responsibility for nothing. Friel notes Provan’s feral cunning, but he has not a single strand of decency.
The boy’s spoiled but depressing home life is carefully crafted. There’s no father on the scene, and the mother slaves after her son, a petulant king in his castle. Provan’s younger sister, Senga, who is brighter than her mother and brother combined, is put to work in service for his lordship, cooking for him when he comes home from school. She burns with resentment over this, but has to get on with it, or face violent consequences. She is secondary, at best. Her path in life is laid out for her.
Friel sketches Mr Alfred’s work in school, his drunken peripatetic lifestyle after the bell rings, and his time with Granny Lyons. Then there’s Gerald Provan’s thug life, his home comforts, his little sister’s friendship with another girl, and that girl’s older sister and her posh boyfriend. And, always in the background, frequently in the foreground: the city.
Mr Alfred teaches in a thinly-disguised rough scheme in the north of Glasgow, and the school seems to be going to hell. Appropriately for a teacher, Friel is somewhat didactic in how he shows us the disintegration of decency and common regard. Homes don’t have fathers; teachers don’t have respect; the rights of children are seen as superior to those of adults, and so they get away with murder (sometimes literally). Discipline cannot be enforced. Vandalism becomes the norm. Smashed windows and graffiti are commonplace. And violence is ever-present, immanent, and endemic – you get tough, or you get eaten.
Vandalism is a distinct force, a direct enemy, in this book. It reaches everywhere; it breaks into the very classrooms, and it burns the place down. Mr Alfred’s customary day-to-day problem is entropy, but this is something more direct, more malevolent – it’s pure chaos.
Mr Alfred’s sentiments almost certainly echo Friel’s feelings as his teaching career wound down. What’s the point of educating the little bastards? Mr Alfred wonders. It’s difficult to fashion an argument against such all-pervading cynicism. This is a very sour house, built on more optimistic foundations degraded by time and experience. One of Mr Alfred’s many tragedies is that he actually wants to teach, but no-one wishes to learn.
His primary tragedy is falling in love with a pupil. The object of his affection is a very young girl, Rose Weipers. I don’t think anyone would dare to write about such a thing today, Friel included, even in a supposedly literary novel. Maybe no-one should, after Nabokov.
The book doesn’t seek to excuse Mr Alfred in any way; nor does it flinch in its depiction of his feelings. It happens in miserable, predictable stages. Mr Alfred entices the girl to spend time with him at lunch in his class, alone, after asking her to buy him rolls and a paper and then entreating her to keep the change. He moves on to cuddling her while she sits on his knee, then kissing her head – nothing more. He gives her more money, though he does not demand that she stay quiet. He does not touch her sexually, but he really wants to. There can be no doubt that his feelings are adult, and carnal. If they weren’t stopped in time, they would have progressed to more intimate acts. Mr Alfred, MA, is a pervert.
Nowadays of course, as soon as anyone got wind of what Mr Alfred and Rose were doing in the classroom, he’d be subject to instant suspension, a police investigation and prosecution. But there’s a queasy sign of the times in this book when we listen in on the staffroom gossip of the other teachers. They all know about what’s happening, but no-one wants to stop it. Some decry Mr Alfred for being a creep, others seek to understand him, and a few think it’s funny. “Imagine old Alfy losing his mind over a wee lassie!”
There are consequences for Mr Alfred after Gerald Provan’s mother hears of what has taken place through her daughter and writes a letter to the school, but even these are superficial in relation to what we identify today as a serious crime. He is transferred to another school; and then, after a humiliating moment when he loses control of a class of badly behaved boys, he is bumped down again, into a primary school.
Mr Alfred’s disintegration continues apace, finishing with a beating (of course; everyone gets a beating in Friel’s world) and then an odd encounter with a demoniacal teenager in a derelict house, who may well be Satan. From there, after one more drunken mistake which has consequences which far outweigh their effect, Mr Alfred ends up in a mental hospital.
Unfairness is as common as concrete in Friel’s Glasgow. Nothing nice happens to anyone good. Death and violence preys upon the innocent. The culprits simply point and laugh. Even those who show promise – Martha Weipers and her boyfriend, for example – will be smitten by the mighty smiter (and that couple’s fate is particularly appalling – surely a joke taken too far). Worse still, if you’re expecting the guilty to be dealt a bad hand in this book, for justice to be blind - forget it. There is no hope. There is no spark for change. There is no point.
I hesitate to say the book is unduly harsh on Glasgow. That’s easy to say for an ex-pat who has stairs in his house and relatively non-psychotic neighbours. But I come from the schemes and the schools Friel describes, and my childhood is only a decade’s remove from the time depicted in Mr Alfred, MA. The corrosive effect of violence, of lawless youth, and all-pervading vandalism, cannot be overstated. The horror of not feeling safe behind your own front door, or walking down your own street; the anxiety involved in simply turning a corner, or wandering into a place you don’t know too well. “Who d’ye know, mate?” I wonder how many lives were lost for having given the wrong answer – or no answer – to that challenge?
The futility of kindness and decency is never more horribly outlined than in the Italian café owner whose business is turned into a latrine by teenage gangs – and also an arena for turf warfare. His crucial mistake was catering for them, by installing a jukebox.
Friel was shrewd in showing the influx of immigrants into the city, working hard, trying to integrate - and being treated with open hostility by the indigenous population. One black bus conductor is left astonished during one scene – not just by the racial abuse he suffers, but by the fact that people simply refuse to pay their fare; to participate in the society he has travelled to be part of. None of today’s anti-immigration bile in the popular press and social media would have surprised Friel.
The author’s previous good humour and compassion is in short supply in this final novel. It leaves a bitter aftertaste, which is a shame. He deserved better. There is one sparkling comic renaissance, where Friel analyses the phrase “ya bass”, which you can see appended to graffiti throughout the city to this day. But these linguistic gymnastics can give way to outright smart-arsedness, often involving very big, very obscure words. You get the impression Friel is sneering at us. I don’t mind a bit of playfulness with unusual words, siding with Will Self on the issue – but if you have to dive for the dictionary every few pages, I think either the writer has failed, or he’s at it.
I can picture my stern English teacher swiping his red pen across some sections, then scoring in the margin: “GLIB. FLIPPANT. CUT.”
Times and cities change. The Glasgow of Friel’s day wasn’t the Glasgow of his parents’ day; similarly, the Glasgow of today will be totally different to the 1980s, when I was a child. It’s a great place to study and work.
What a terrible pity George Friel didn’t see that bad situations can change; that talent can blossom; that even the meanest city can flourish. Decay may be a natural part of existence, but so is renewal.