Where Robin Jenkins left Tom Curdie’s redemption ambiguous throughout much of The Changeling, George Friel takes a much bleaker view in Mr Alfred M.A. Friel, too, worked as teacher in Glasgow while he wrote, publishing five novels between 1959 and 1974 (he died in 1975; his first novel, The Bank of Time, appeared when he was almost fifty). Mr Alfred M.A. is generally thought to be his best novel: it made The List’s list (trying saying that in a hurry) of the 100 Best Scottish Books of all Time; in his introduction to the 1987 Canongate edition Douglas Gifford describes it as “one of the greatest of Scottish novels”.
The novel tells the story of an ageing school teacher on a downward trajectory. Mr Alfred (it seems only fair to give him his full title as this is how he is referred to throughout, an ironic sign of respect in a society without any) is given only the lowest of the boys’ classes to teach. Unmarried and seemingly friendless, he spends much of his spare time drinking. His descent begins when he strikes a particularly unpleasant boy, Gerald, who is unfortunately indulged by his mother (the novel opens with her chastising (physically, of course – this is the seventies) her younger daughter, Senga, for not making her brother’s tea). Provoked by Gerald’s insolence, he smacks him across the neck – “He knew at once he shouldn’t have done it.” Not because teachers are not allowed to strike children, simply because they must use a leather tawse or belt to do so.
Gerald’s mother predictably complains and, though mollified by the Headmaster, the writing is on the wall for Mr Alfred (literally – but more of that later). There is little doubt in the novel that Gerald is ‘bad’ – no need to maroon him on an island to turn him into a savage. But he’s also sleekit – he encourages others to fight rather than fight himself; Mr Alfred sees him slip a knife to one such aggressor after school one evening. He breaks up the fight and seeks to punish Gerald the next day but Gerald refuses to take the belt. So begins a stand-off that Mr Alfred ultimately loses. Humiliated, he is given a girls’ class instead, and enjoys a few weeks of happiness thanks to an infatuation with one of the girls in the class:
“But Rose was different. She was clean and tidy. She looked human, even intelligent. Before the week was out he was thinking she looked pretty as well.”
Soon Rose is running errands for Mr Alfred and money is changing hands. It is a sign of the novel’s cynicism that Mr Alfred cannot decide if his attraction to the twelve year old girl is sexual:
“He argued with the man inside that it was only a desire to give her all the love he had. Not a stupid lust, but an erotic urge to an impossible act of gratitude.”
Mr Alfred is not a good man (but then Forbes desire to do good hardly ended well in The Changeling) but neither is he a bad man. A teacher that cannot teach, a poet that no longer writes poems, he is a man without dreams, only the anaesthetic of alcohol. Friel uses him as an everyman, subjected to the disintegration of society. All stories in the novel end unhappily, including a Romeo and Juliet style sub-plot involving Rose’s sister.
The Writing on the Wall was Friel’s original title for the novel (it remains the title for its final part), and the spread of graffiti throughout Glasgow comes to represent social collapse. In a drunken dream sequence (where Friel’s debt to Joyce can most clearly be seen) Mr Alfred meets Tod (fox in Scots, but also the Devil) who reveals that the proliferation of ‘Ya Bass’ is the beginning of the end:
“I don’t want to conquer Europe. I want to destroy it. Destroy its schools and libraries and public telephones. …you can’t fight me. I’m not invading you. I’m already inside.”
Mr Alfred M.A. is a novel infused with nihilism. There is a strong tradition in Scottish literature of education as an escape route form poverty. If The Changeling questioned this, Mr Alfred M.A. says clearly: there is no escape.