Sadly, No Mean City [London: Corgi, 1956] is a classic of its era. The authors’ frighteningly authentic description of life and death in the Glasgow slums of the inter-war years makes solemn reading as we follow the occasional rises and more frequent falls of the blighted citizens of Glasgow, no mean city but a hard place in which to pull oneself up out of the mire.
Slum housing was abysmal with one closet serving a whole landing of three or four flats, no baths, no money left for the rent after beer, whisky and, even worse, ‘red biddy’ (red wine and methylated spirits) had taken first gulp of either low wages or unemployment benefit, known as the ‘buroo’. Those who did not have exceptional talent and considerable luck in moving up the social ladder were always slipping further down. Even those who prospered for a while seldom had enough resources to withstand any major setback.
The novel tells the story of Johnnie Stark, son of a violent father and a downtrodden mother, who seeks to escape from the misery of his life and surroundings through becoming a gangster. His strength and native cunning, allied with the Glaswegian weapon of choice, the cut-throat razor, put him, for a while, at the head of the pack. He marries ‘above his station’ and has the pick of the young women, is stood drinks all round and generally held in awe. But the drink eventually gets to him and his own face is slashed with razors just like his opponents. He finds being on the buroo more amenable than holding down a job. He has successive spells in jail. Finally, he fails to survive his latest kicking in a gang battle.
All this has changed today. Glasgow’s ‘miles better’ as they say, prosperous (in the main) and the Razor Gangs are history. But the legacy of the brutal past is still a folk memory and shapes the politics and prejudices of the present generation in ways it may scarcely acknowledge.