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George Friel: Glasgow Trilogy

This is a collection of three novels, all of which have a similar tale to tell – the gradual lowering of standards in Glasgow, the problems of the urban poor, the lack of discipline among the people, particularly the children (a very strong point with Friel), casual and random cruelty, dreaming and the loneliness people suffer.

The first book – The Boy who Wanted Peace – is about a young man, Percy, who has a kind of gang of younger children. Much of the story is about the interaction among the gang members, particularly the attempts at power grabs by some of the senior members. But the key plot element is one of the gang members finding, in the basement of the school, where Percy’s late father used to be janitor, a chest containing a large sum of money. We soon find out that it is the proceeds of a bank robbery committed by Percy’s uncle, but the boys believe it is a gift from God. Percy tries to dole it out more or less fairly, though he does take the lion’s share for himself but one of the boys steals from it for himself. Of course, one of the bank robbers turns up and the police find out and it all goes wrong but no real harm is done. Friel tells a very sympathetic story of the misguided Percy and, as in his later books, clearly has a soft spot for unrealistic dreamers.

Grace and Miss Partridge is the second book and concerns the aging Miss Partridge who lives in a run-down block of flats. She had been married and lived in America but is now back in Scotland lonely and unhappy. She is taunted by many of the neighbourhood boys and has an innocent fondness for young girls, whom she likes to keep her company. One such girl is the pretty young Grace. However, she also has a major flaw – she is very religious and believes it is her duty to help such innocent girls to meet their maker before they are corrupted. The story tells of her suffering, both because of her unhappy past life and the abuse she receives from the boys. She is even a mugging victim, though the attackers do not get the money she is carrying for the laundry where she works. Fortunately, her scheme to send Grace to an early grave fails.

The final book – Mr Alfred M.A. – is, in my view, the best. It is the story of an old schoolmaster who cannot function properly in the new world. He believes in corporal punishment and is bitterly opposed to what he calls the child cult, a view that comes out strongly in all three books. He gets into trouble at school with a spoilt child called Gerald, whose mother always rushes to defend him and complains about the ill treatment he receives, even though we clearly see that Gerald is a petty criminal and thug. He also makes the mistake of falling in love with one of his female students. The price he pays is great. He loses his job, is a mugging victim and gradually sinks into madness. Friel does a superb job of depicting his final hours of lucidity, after his mugging attack.

These three books – essentially realist in style, with strong elements of social commentary – but with some elements of fantasy as the main characters, poor and downtrodden, occasionally drift into dreamland, but to no avail. His work clearly prefigures the Scottish writers of the late 20th/early 21st centuries and deserves a better reputation.

Publishing history

The Boy who Wanted Peace
First published 1964 by Calder & Boyars
Grace and Miss Partridge
First published 1964 by Calder
Mr Alfred M.A.
First published 1972 by Calder & Boyars