Mr Alfred M.A. by George Friel

Canongate Classics, 1987, 181 p, plus v p Introduction by Douglas Gifford. First published in 1972. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Mr Alfred is an ageing teacher of English unable to make connections with the pupils at the school where he teaches – a comprehensive in a rough area. Never married, his sense of failure is compounded by the lack of success his poetry collection found. His only solace is to habituate the local and not so local pubs. Not even ladies of the night hold any attraction for him. Strangely – the practice was not followed in the schools I attended as a pupil at much the same time as this book is set – the classes in Mr Alfred’s school are segregated by sex; until halfway through the book he has never taught girls.

Alfred is particularly irritated by the habitual misbehaviour, in and out of school, of Gerald Provan, a child whose mother indulges and cossets him, perhaps as a counterbalance for the absence of his father – though it was not uncommon for mothers of that generation to favour sons unduly. Gerald’s younger sister, Senga, is under no illusions as to Gerald’s unpleasantness as she has to bear its brunt at home. Mr Alfred’s mistake in striking Gerald in class becomes the source of the abiding resentment of and animosity towards Alfred of both son and mother.

A particular example of Scottish perceptions lies in the incidental exchange, “‘How is she qualified to improve anybody?’ Mr Alfred asked.
“I told you,’ said Mr Dale. ‘She’s English,’” which speaks volumes.

We also have, “Scotch reserve looked askance on kissing even between kin.”

An odd interpolation comes with the passages concerning the doomed relationship between relatively well-to-do Graeme Roy and the working class Martha Weipers, whose respective parents disapprove of the liaison. Both go on to University but while Martha does well Graeme fails his first year exams. Neither was taught by Mr Alfred but Martha’s sister, Rose, is in his first girls’ class and he forms too close an attachment to her, sending her to buy his lunch, rewarding her with pocket money, inviting her to his classroom at lunchtime. While he is aware such relationships can overstep the boundaries of decent behaviour he shies away from the thought – or act – of exploiting theirs in any sexual way. His conduct is nevertheless highly unprofessional and it provides the two Provans with the perfect excuse to accuse him. He is forced out to another, rougher, school – a Primary – and his descent accelerates.

Much of the latter part of the book sees Mr Alfred wandering the streets at night pondering the writing on the wall, a host of graffiti asserting different gang allegiances, each name followed by the words YA BASS. This sense of societal breakdown had been presaged by Gerald Provan’s encouragement of after-school fights in the Weavers Lane, the casual psychological cruelty he and his cohorts visit on Granny Lyons, their baiting of and petty theft from Italian shopkeeper Mr Ianello, and is accentuated when Mr Alfred witnesses encounters between gangs in broad daylight. Alfred even takes up chalk himself to reproduce that original writing on the wall, MENE MENE TEKEL UPHARSIN, in a cri-de-coeur against Philistinism. This protest is only too redolent of Alfred’s estrangement from the world he inhabits, an estrangement mirrored in the text by Friel’s use of uncommon words – kyphosis, pandiculating, messan, raniform, poplitic, ophidian, invulting, claudication, lycorexia, perlustration, battology, nuchal, diplopia, prosthodontia, pyknophrasia, and indeed by the untranslated reference to Belshazzar’s Feast above. Alfred’s subsequent arrest leads to a psychologist pronouncing him to be suffering from a whole list of phobias.

While the book is rooted in Scottishness – or at least in the experiences of the Glasgow conurbation – Alfred’s feeling of dissatisfaction with the world as it turned out has a more universal resonance.

Pedant’s corner:- In the Introduction: “she borde the kitchen” (the book’s text had borded.) Otherwise; “she borded the kitchen sink (bordered?) “you hands” (your hands,) comming up (coming up,) invulting (I can’t find a definition of this,) lushus (of a blonde, but why not luscious?) Mr Briggs’ (Mr Briggs’s,) “so remoted from the world’s slow stain,” (is an awkward way to phrase it. Was it perhaps meant to be so removed from the world?) broadshouldered (not one word surely? Or at least hyphenated,) the Garelochhead (Garelochhead is a village/town, it does not require a ‘the’ before it,) apotrapaic (apotropaic,) Mr Brigg’s (Mr Briggs’s,) Pythagoras’ theorem (Pythagoras’s,) a missing full stop.

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