No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

The story of the Razor King…

😀 😀 😀 😀

Johnnie Stark is the son of a violent drunk who beats his wife so badly he nearly kills her and then dies in jail. Although Johnnie hated and feared his father, he is just like him, drunkenness and violence being the norm for the men, and often the women, living in the Gorbals in Glasgow in the depression years between the wars. This is the story of Johnnie’s rise to become the Razor King, a gang-leader and violent fighter, feared and admired in equal measure, and of his eventual fall.

The book was written by A McArthur, himself a Gorbals man, who wanted to show what life was like in the deprivation of one of the worst slum areas of Britain. The publisher Neville Spearman was interested in the story but thought it badly written, so brought in a journalist, H Kingsley Long, to work with McArthur to polish it up. It became a massive bestseller, reprinted many times over the decades. Its brutal, violent depiction of gang culture is in a large measure responsible for the persistent reputation of Glasgow as the city of gangs – a reputation still exploited by many contemporary Glaswegian crime writers, although it is in reality long out-dated and was in fact already becoming so when this book was first published in 1935. The book is also often credited with having turned things around – forcing those in authority to recognise the squalor in the slums, and the danger this represented to social order both in terms of violence and in the growth of Communism in these areas, and therefore to act to improve conditions for the slum-dwellers. Again, not quite true, though it did bring the question to a wider public. Gang violence peaked in Glasgow around 1929 and was declining somewhat by 1935, and the authors recognise this themselves in the final chapters when they talk about the changes that were already being put in place by a worried establishment, although it took many years to turn the situation, and the Gorbals, around. Although the book is specifically about the Gorbals, gang culture was a feature of the slums of most of the big urban centres of Britain at the time, making this Glaswegian a little annoyed that one book should have given Glasgow a reputation so much worse than other cities with just as serious problems.

A 1932 Weekly News article by Billy Fullerton,
head of the notorious Billy Boys gang

As a novel, it’s somewhat better than I was expecting. Again it has the reputation of not being very well written but, while it’s certainly no literary masterpiece, I found the writing quite acceptable and the dialect feels authentic throughout. It’s considerably before my time, of course, but I still recognised most of the language although there were some expressions that had disappeared by my childhood. Where the authors felt that pieces of dialect might not be comprehensible to a wider readership, they include an English translation in brackets, so despite all of the speech being in dialect it should still be accessible to most readers, I think. Overall it gave me the impression, in fact, of having been written for an outside audience rather than for Glaswegians – there is a feeling throughout of it being anthropological in style, and I couldn’t help feeling the characters were being displayed like animals in a zoo, a lower species than the likely readership, intended to amaze and terrify “decent” people.

Book 88 of 90

Johnnie’s story is one of violence throughout, but he is shown as merely being the most violent among a community where violence was the norm. Male unemployment was at record figures, and the men are shown as living off the meagre wages of their wives, drinking, whoring and fighting, while the women struggled to feed their children. There is an astonishing amount of violence towards women, and this is shown again as an accepted feature of life, with the women often admiring the violence of their men even when directed at them. Was this true? Possibly, though I felt it was (not surprisingly) a rather male view of how women viewed male violence towards them, if that makes sense. I wondered if the women were really quite so admiring, when the men weren’t around to hear them. Perhaps. (I was reminded of Their Eyes Were Watching God, about another poor and marginalised community far away, where Zora Neale Hurston also shows male violence towards women as something the women admired and even envied.) Certainly domestic violence continues to be at unacceptably high levels today in Glasgow, though to nothing like the same degree, and without the social acceptance of it shown here.

The general violence and gang-fighting I could readily believe in – I grew up just three miles from the Gorbals, though decades later than this, but the area still had a bad reputation in my time and was a place for “respectable” people to avoid. I had more of an issue with the portrayal of routine sexual promiscuity within marriages, which again is shown to be largely socially acceptable, even having its own set of rules. Call me sexist, but I easily believed in the promiscuity of the men, but had more difficulty in believing that married women openly had affairs and even children to men other than their husbands. Not because I feel the women would necessarily have been more “moral”, but because I would have expected their husbands to kill them, literally, if they’d been openly promiscuous. But again, it was before my time, and (without wishing to sound snobbish) considerably lower down the social scale than my own upbringing. However, I still have my doubts.

And now those of you of a certain age know where the inspiration
for the title song of
Taggart came from…

So the question is, would I recommend it? Hmm, not as a novel, really. But it’s certainly of interest to anyone who’d like to learn something about the slums and gangs of the era, or who would like to see the genesis of the reputation that has produced so much gang-obsessed Glaswegian fiction over the intervening decades. As a Glaswegian, it both interested me and irritated me – I don’t like people being displayed like animals in a zoo, and I don’t like how the book still adversely affects the reputation of my city, which in reality is neither significantly worse nor better than most other major urban centres. But the book is socially important in the history of Glasgow and as a record of the slums, and has influenced generations of writers for good or ill, so for those reasons I’m glad to have read it.

Amazon UK Link

33 thoughts on “No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

  1. I’ve been waiting to find out what you thought about this book. I was very interested to read about it in your review, but don’t think I feel the need to read the book now. Thanks for your thoughtful review putting things in context: the truth but not the whole truth. There’s a NZ book called Once Were Warriors written in the 80s covering issues of domestic violence in a Māori family which I’ve never chosen to read for the same reasons.
    Yes, as soon as I saw your first reference to No Mean City, I related it to the Taggart theme song!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I enjoyed it more than I expected to, but I feel that was out of interest for its place in history rather than because of its intrinsic value as a novel. I haven’t read Once Were Warriors but I saw the film when it came out in the company of a NZ friend, and she hated it – she felt it gave a really distorted view. I can’t say I enjoyed it much either, but for her it was exactly the kind of irritation I had with this book – she felt it misrepresented NZ to the world, sort of.
      Ha, I now have an urgent desire to watch re-runs of ancient Taggart episodes! I once went to a party in Mark McManus’ house… are you impressed? 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m not sure I want to read this but I enjoyed hearing your thoughts about it FF, and how it’s interesting writing from a historical point of view. As an outsider to Glasgow I have to say I adore the city, find it beautiful and vibrant, and have always been struck by how friendly everyone is! As you say, I don’t think it deserves the reputation any more than any other urban centre.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Aw, I feel all smug for my city now! 😀 It does drive me up the wall that so many Glaswegian crime writers perpetuate the gang reputation – it’s so lazy and I always feel that, like this book, they’re really writing for an outside audience to let them gape and stare at Glaswegians as a kind of sub-species of humanity! Of course we have bad areas, and drink and drug problems, and too much violence, but really, what big city hasn’t? Grrr!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It does sound interesting, FIctionFan. And a novel can be an interesting way to show something of history, when it’s done well. As I was reading your post, I had the same feeling you describe: that the characters are almost objects of curiosity, rather than actual people. The other thing that struck me was how long that image of Glasgow as a place of thugs and gangs has persisted. Even almost a hundred years later it’s still sort of there, although it’s not true.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, it felt more like a kind of social study than a novel, but the fictional aspect held it together, I suppose. I don’t entirely blame this book for the perpetuation of Glasgow’s reputation as a violent city – this was where it began, and at that time and for a few decades afterwards it was true that there was a major gang problem in the city. But generations of Glaswegian crime writers still jump on the bandwagon, and I always have the same feeling about their books, that they’re written for an outside audience to let them gape and stare at Glaswegians as a kind of sub-species of humanity. It’s so lazy and increasingly unrealistic. Grrr!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. This is interesting to hear your perspective as a local. If it makes you feel better, I’ve never particularly heard Glasgow connected to gang activity so perhaps that’s indicative of a general shift in perception. My primary thought when it comes to Glasgow is of rain!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is good news! I wonder if that’s because there’s still so many family connections between Scotland and Canada. Haha, I can’t deny the rain reputation! It doesn’t rain every day, though – I opened the door to let the cat out yesterday only to discover it was snowing… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Really interesting review – thank you for sharing it! I’ve wondered why reputations of violence cling to some cities and not others, when as you say it’s a problem in all cities to a greater or lesser extent. As far as I know, people don’t think of Southampton as a particularly violent place (or indeed a big urban centre), but it’s had huge issues with football hooliganism and associated violence, some of which was still lingering in recent years. Organised violence still makes the local news here fairly regularly, I think, though it’s nowhere near as bad as it was even a decade ago. I’ve always been surprised that we don’t have a worse reputation for that – so it was really interesting to read about some of the history of how Glasgow came to have its reputation. I don’t think I’ll be rushing to pick this up, but I certainly enjoyed reading about it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • That is interesting – I don’t think of Southampton as a violent place at all so you’re right that it hasn’t developed that reputation widely. I do think popular culture has a lot to do with it – books and more recently TV and films. Glasgow crime writers annoy me because they perpetuate the city’s reputation, presumably on the grounds that it sells books, and series like Taggart, much though I enjoy them, also draw on the stereotypes. Of course we do have problems of violence and drink and drugs, but I don’t think it’s worse than in other cities which maybe simply don’t have the same tradition of crime writing as we do up here. And part of the problem is that when a place gets a reputation for being tough, there are always young men who feel they have to live up to it, and so the cycle goes on… grrr!

      Liked by 1 person

      • For what it’s worth, while Glasgow definitely still had a rough reputation when I was growing up, I think it’s shifted over the past 10-15 years. Most people (especially youngish people) around here think of Glasgow as a place that has fantastic free museums and art galleries!

        Liked by 1 person

        • That’s great to hear! Especially since the whole city has worked really hard over the last forty or fifty years to turn the place around and make it somewhere to be proud of for the right reasons – maybe it’s finally working! 😀

          Liked by 1 person

  6. Well, this one isn’t for me, but I’m glad you read it and can see its importance. With all the meanness going on these days, I find myself shirking from “heavy” topics like gangs, violence, and the like. I know my avoidance doesn’t make them go away, but it keeps my nerves on an even keel!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. This one doesn’t appeal to me. I think if I’m going to read about gangs and violence, I’d prefer that of someplace like Chicago (in roughly the same time period as this). I’m not really in the market for gang violence at the moment. 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • I love the gangster movies from that era but I think that’s because they seem more glamorous when it’s Cagney or Bogey playing the gangster! The hero of this book wasn’t glamorous in any way!! I don’t enjoy books about gangs at all which is why I get so annoyed that so much Glaswegian crime writing seems obsessed by them.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I was given a far different perception of Glasgow than I had by the woman who used to cut my hair. She married into a family from Glasgow and went with him to visit his extended family. (And thought I looked an awful like his mother and aunts! Was never quite sure how to take that…)

    Hmm, as an American that English superior air is all too familiar and tiring…

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, I’m sure you should take it as a compliment! 😀 Yes, I usually find that visitors to Glasgow go away feeling quite differently about the place than when they arrived. Of course we have too much violence and drinking and drugs, but what big city hasn’t? And the city has really remade itself in the last fifty years or so – I just wish Glaswegian crime writers would recognise that! In a sense it’s hard to blame outsiders for having a negative impression since Glaswegians seem to promote the violent image. Grrr! Isn’t Cunningham a Scottish name? Pretty sure Julé isn’t though… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This is is so interesting and sensitive FF, again I’m reminded of Brighton Rock and the gang culture amongst the poor and marginalised community there and Peaky Blinders.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It made me think of Brighton Rock too and the reputation that Brighton had for a long time, though they’ve changed their public image dramatically now! And I’ve actually been quite glad that Peaky Blinders has been highlighting that gang culture was a feature in other places at that time too. Maybe there’s hope for Glasgow!

      Liked by 1 person

  10. As a Glaswegian myself , who lived not too far from the Gorbals until I was 5, I feel I should read this one – sometime. A friend from Portugal who now lives in Edinburgh recently told me that she loves Glasgow as it’s a proper city, unlike Edinburgh! How right she is.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It was a better read than I was expecting – not as a novel really, but interesting to those of us who know the Gorbals even if only by reputation. I think you might enjoy it. Yes, I’m biased obviously, but I prefer the old industrial cities to the pampered capitals – Glasgow definitely beats Edinburgh! 😉

      Liked by 2 people

  11. This comment probably just displays my ignorance more than anything, but I had no idea that Glasgow had that reputation with gang activity to begin with? I suppose b/c this book came out well before I was born, and as you say things have improved, but at least for us Canadians, I can safely say that’s not a widely known thing about Glasgow 🙂 That cover of No Mean City at the beginning of your post looks more like a comic book cover! Wow.

    Liked by 2 people

    • It’s interesting that it’s been two Canadians who don’t have that impression about Glasgow. I wonder if that’s because so many Canadians have a Scottish connection and maybe have kind of absorbed some of the affection Scottish immigrants have for the “old country”. But I’ve read blurbs of at least two books this week alone by Scottish crime writers bringing out gang-related Glasgow-se books – it really irritates me because it’s so lazy and says nothing about the real Glasgow.

      Liked by 2 people

  12. […] An interesting post from FictionFan at FictionFan’s Book Reviews has got me thinking about the way we perceive certain places. FictionFan’s post mentioned Glasgow, and the reputation it’s gotten over the years for being gang- and thug-ridden. And plenty of crime fiction set in Glasgow has played on that reputation. The fact is, though, that modern Glasgow is a lot more than a gangland. Yes, of course, there are thugs there, as there are in any big city (and plenty of smaller ones, too!). But Glasgow has highly regarded universities, fine dining, parks, museums, and all of the other things you’ll find in a major city. The ‘gangland’ reputation just doesn’t fit the city. Authors such as Val McDermid, whose 1979 takes place in Glasgow, show Glasgow’s many sides. Denise Mina’s Garnethill trilogy and, of course, the work of William McIlvanney also show a broader picture of Glasgow. […]

    Liked by 1 person

Please leave a comment - I'd love to know who's visiting and what you think...of the post, of the book, of the blog, of life, of chocolate...

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.