When first introduced to Mr Alfred within George Friel’s novel, we are told that ‘he wanted to love his fellowmen’, someone with emotions and sympathies towards others. But as a central character, Mr Alfred is arguably a far from sympathetic individual himself – victim, he undoubtedly is, but throughout Friel’s narrative of a bruised, broken Glasgow, he emerges more and more as a man of frequent shortcomings. Is Mr Alfred merely a good man placed in bad circumstances, powerless to resist greater forces at work in the city he has come to hate, or is there a far darker side to him?
Right from the start, Mr Alfred is set apart from his surroundings: ‘frequenting a common pub with common customers and a common barmaid when he had nothing in common with them’. He is positioned as the outsider, someone unable to successfully integrate into the social aspects of the word. He may indeed want to love his fellowmen, but he does not possess either the means or impetus to turn these vague ambitions into a palpable reality. Just like his failed poetry, Alfred’s love remains a half-formed, closeted thing that stays resolutely trapped within him. The implications of this are two-fold; Alfred becomes a victim not only of his own shyness ‘he had been a wallflower since puberty’, but of his inability to escape it. The former seems deserving of sympathy, but as the extent of Alfred’s drinking binges is unveiled, we realise that he does little to try and escape from the self-destructive rut he has placed himself within.
Mr Alfred’s predisposition to pursue dangerous courses of action is further explored when he smacks Gerald in class. Disobeying school rules on the proper methods of corporal punishment, we are exposed to his thoughts in the immediate aftermath of the incident: ‘He smacked Gerry across the nape. He knew at once he shouldn’t have done it’. The troubling nature of the situation is that though Alfred is shown to express remorse, he swiftly ends up hitting Gerald again as well as branding him ‘you cheeky little rat’. The image portrayed is once again of Alfred stuck on a repetitive course of action, falling prey to the same mistakes again and again – while we might feel sympathetic for him on one occasion, his repeat offences do little to excuse him. This is echoes later in the novel where Alfred tells himself that he will not kiss Rose, but ultimately ends up doing so.
Of course, it can be argued that these continued transgressions are due to temptations. Gerald is by no means a model student and Rose never reports Alfred’s behaviour to another member of staff, admitting her reluctance to do anything to her friend Senga: ‘but what can I do? I’d hate to hurt him’ The irony is that in Rose’s sympathy for Alfred and unwillingness to ‘hurt’ him, she causes more harm than good, allowing his behaviour to escalate by continuing to play into his weekly meetings with her.
These themes of outside influences tempting Alfred into committing questionable deeds are extrapolated outward to Glasgow as a flawed society which turns its inhabitants ‘bad’. Violence is built into the fabric of the city, just as Alfred’s beating of Gerald occurs near the start of the novel, Gerald exacts a kind of revenge towards the end when he and his friends mug Alfred. With violence portrayed as an almost every-day aspect of modern urban living, can Alfred be excused for punishing Gerald? Alfred’s ‘smack’ pales in comparison to the brutal chisel stabbing committed as part of the endemic gang warfare. Friel describes the aftermath of the fight in the language of cheap, light entertainment: ‘They knew when it was the end of a programme. No point waiting for the commercials’. Here, violence becomes almost trivial, a mere after-school distraction; and it is this context that Alfred’s smacking of Gerald becomes a lesser of many evils. With so many other aspects of Alfred’s generation eroded away before his eyes, hitting Gerald in class is the last vestige of the old values he can envisage to attempt to instil respect for elders. In this sense, there is a desperation to Alfred’s actions that while not wholly painting him in an innocent light, allows the reader to place themselves within his mindset.
One of the most damning portrayal’s of Alfred is towards the end of the novel when his doctor reels off a list of supposed conditions he is suffering from: ‘The man’s got pedophobia, homichlophobia, dromophobia, xenophobia…’ Here, Alfed is reduced to part of an overly medicated society, dissected into a series of labels. A victim of every condition listed here, his character is drowned beneath an unbearable weight of modern diagnosis from an outside observer. As the doctor sums up: ‘He’s in a very bad way’ – and in this, there is an almost all encompassing judgement from the novel on how we should view Alfred.
Analysing the specifics of Mr Alfred’s relationship with Rose, it is important to consider if there is an inherently sexual aspect to his dealings with her. Could it be that his love for Rose is far more a longing for human interaction (beyond the scant contact he garners from Stella and Granny Lyons), a way of saving him from his intense loneliness? However, Friel tells us ‘A boy could never have interested him. His love was a heterosexual love. Therefore a normal love.’ – here the implications seem to be explicitly damning. Alfred’s desire stems from the fact Rose is female – any sense of a similar relationship with a boy are incomprehensible. Whereas a more patriarchal relationship with Rose might have been forgivable, the fact the evidence Friel presents us of Alfred’s logic is so suffused with sexual tension, we find it hard to express sympathy for him in these circumstances.
From the beginning of the novel to the end there is an inexorable sense that Alfred’s life is building towards a catastrophe. The initial positioning as Gerald and his mother as meddling antagonists remains constant throughout Alfred’s growing relationship with Rose, with Senga as the bridging connection between the two plot threads. In hindsight, Alfred seems almost damned from the start, Friel’s writing carefully manoeuvring him into a position where his downfall can begin. The novel even deals with organised catalysts of change within itself: the ‘Parents Association for the Improvement of Scottish Education’ (POISE). It is through systems such as this that power is shifted from traditional figures like Alfred into the hands of Gerald’s mother – as Alfred’s colleague points out ‘It’s old models like you POISE is out to improve on’, placing Alfred as something outdated, actively being sought out for termination. Now, it is not just unruly youths Alfred is battling against, but wider machinations that encompass society as a whole – and it is against these processes that he has no hope to achieve any kind of victory against.
This theme reaches its climax in the book’s closing chapters as Tod explains to Alfred ‘But you can’t fight me. I’m not invading you. I’m already inside’ In this statement, Alfred becomes utterly powerless; with –Tod – the Devil – meddling with human affairs, it can be argued that any sin present in Alfred’s behaviour is merely a manifestation of the devil’s will, not Alfred’s own thoughts or actions, and thus he is absolved of responsibility. Equally though, Tod could also merely be a personified representative of the ‘evil’ already present in Alfred’s personality, and as such, is more a kind of temptation, a leading out of what has always existed within him; casting him as a far more unsavoury character.
In Tod’s explicit command to ‘go thou and do likewise’, Alfred is ordered to sink into the same levels of depravity which he previously scorned, marring the walls of the city with graffiti. And while Alfred’s mental state here is clearly out of the ordinary, his situation can be taken as a metaphor for the fractured, disintegrated Glasgow surrounding him. Here, it is not just Alfred who is the victim, but Glasgow itself. And like Alfred, it is far from being an innocent victim. As both culprit and casualty, Alfred and Glasgow enter into a cycle of depravity which, like his pub binges, can only lead to further pain. And if, indeed, there is any sympathy for these central characters – man and city – it is more for the horror of their condition than any positive traits they might exhibit.
Friel, George, Mr Alfred M.A. (Edinburgh: Canongate Books Ltd, 1987
Kelly, Stuart, The List (2005) [http://www.list.co.uk/article/2790-george-friel-mr-alfred-ma-1972/]
Wallace, Gavin, The Scottish Novel Since The Seventies (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1993)