Nothing is completely original, but sometimes it is harder to discover some influences than it is others. This is partly because history, cultural or otherwise, is often sold to us in convenient packages of dates, people and places. If you were to read many an overview of Scottish writing in the 20th century you could be excused for thinking that nothing of note was written between the renaissance of MacDiarmid, Muir, Gunn and Soutar and that which is purported to have begun in the 1980s, which included Gray, Kelman, Lochhead, Owens and Leonard. Such a view not only overlooks great writers such as Muriel Spark, Robin Jenkins and Eric Linklater, but also lesser known talents who were to influence those that followed.
George Friel is one of those writers. He was published between the 1950s and ‘70s, and it is widely agreed that his greatest novel is 1972’s ‘Mr Alfred MA’, which is also his most autobiographical, at least in as much as he shares a distrust and disappointment with his narrator about their careers in teaching and how it let down both teachers and pupils. There is weariness and disaffection in the novel that is not Alfred’s alone. If Friel himself is not quite giving up, he is struggling to give Alfred any hope that life is worth the trouble.
‘Mr Alfred MA’ is a man for whom life has got in the way of his hopes and dreams from an early age, starting with him having to give up his promising academic career to look after his mother. As Alfred is not the most reliable of narrators it is difficult to discern how much of his reflection is true, and how much is a rewriting of history from a man for whom things have not turned out as he expected. There can be little doubt that he is widely read, and his words and thoughts are peppered with references to, and quotes from, Milton and Shakespeare. In his introduction to the 1987 publication, Douglas Gifford states that Friel is himself trying to do for Glasgow what James Joyce did for his home city in ‘The Dubliners’, and the language, which is a wonderful mixture of high brow references and local vernacular, reflects this.
As in many Glasgow novels, the only hope that Mr Alfred can see comes in the form of a female, in this case his pupil Rose, someone he imbues with an innocence that she may not deserve. This obsession is more aesthetic and shallow than Alfred could ever admit, and there is more than a touch of Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ in such scenes. The reader is never sure just who is in charge of Rose and Alfred’s confrontations (if any one is), or what is their motivation, and that is where the unease lies. Alfred cannot handle the increasingly aggressive pupils he is supposed to teach, so gives his attention to one who fulfils an ideal of what a pupil, and a young woman, should be.
There is disappointment, regret, guilt, and confusion throughout the novel. Alfred spends his evenings moving from pub to pub, using alcohol to dampen such feelings, and his intoxication adds to the increasingly surreal nature of his walks through the city. (Friel’s novels swim in alcohol, and few have written more honestly yet poetically about drink and the nature of a drinker’s den. If you have read any Bukowski you’ll have an idea). The final chapters are some of the finest writing you will find as Friel depicts a man sliding into madness, paranoia and, perhaps most terrifying of all, invisibility.
Another one of those novels where a musical interlude has to be abstract, but since Mr Alfred sees redemption in Rose then it’s all the excuse needed to play the full length version of Grace Jones’ version of ‘La Vie En Rose’:
To anyone growing up in Glasgow in the second half of the 20th century the messages on the walls which Alfred becomes obsessed with will be familiar; badly graphitised declarations of allegiance to various gangs of ‘Young Teams’, ‘Fleetos’ and ‘Toi’…Ya Bass. This is a world that Mr Alfred literally doesn’t understand, and shows once more that Friel is writing at a time of great change in the city and in the lives of at least some of the people who live there. This was a time when whole communities were being displaced to newly built housing schemes on the outskirts of the city, moving from areas where there had been generations of shared history to places where there was none. New is normally thought to also be improved, yet Alfred finds this new Glasgow a foreign land. He is an aesthete in a concrete jungle where there is no room for poetry or art except that writ large upon the walls.
There are more celebrated novels set in Glasgow that owe a great debt to Friel; Alasdair Gray’s ‘Lanark’ and James Kelman’s ‘How Late it Was, How Late’ are just two that spring to mind, both continuing to be acclaimed decades after they were published. A final irony for George Friel is that it was a failing of the education system that both he and Mr Alfred came to despair of that meant that Friel and his contemporaries, those writers referenced in the opening paragraph, were not better known in their own land. It would be nice to think that such a state of affairs was never allowed to happen again, but that discussion is for another day.
Next Month’s Novel: You wait ages for a novel detailing the city of Glasgow and then two come and once. Archie Hind’s ‘Dear Green Place’ would be another text influenced by Friel, but Hind’s depiction is more precise than the surreal streets that Mr Alfred walks.
‘Dear Green Place’ is specifically set in Glasgow but the place itself is secondary to the central dilemma that narrator Mat Craig faces, the struggle to create art and still put food on the table, a problem that is as relevant today as it ever was.
- Archie Hind Dear Green Place (May)
- Laura Marney No Wonder I Take A Drink (Jun)
- Karin Altenberg Island of Wings (Jul)
- Des Dillon, Me and Ma Gal (Aug)
- Muriel Spark, The Driver’s Seat (Sep)