No Mean City

Roger Main, 1958. "Children, The Gorbals, Glasgow."

On our trip to Glasgow earlier this month, I was seated on our Detroit-to-Amsterdam leg across the aisle from two Scottish women. Give a cheery smile to a Scots woman and you'll likely wind up in conversation that covers everything but the kitchen sink, as I did with these two nice women -- both of whom were from a small town outside Glasgow and had wound up in Fort Wayne, Ind. where they'd met through a mutual acquaintance. Our chatter about Glasgow included a mention of the Gorbals, the city's infamous former slums internationally known for their poverty and violence , and one of them asked if I'd read the book "No Mean City."

I hadn't, but I largely forgot about our conversation until Chris and I visited the People's Palace, a small museum covering Glasgow's "social history." Included in the compact museum were a few displays about life in Glasgow's slums in the first half of the 20th Century and the book popped back into my mind. At the Glasgow airport, before we headed home, I happened upon a copy of "No Mean City" at a book shop and although I was pressed for room in my carry-on, I snapped it up.

The book, which I finished last night, was first published in 1935 and it tells the story of Johnnie Stark, a gang member in the Gorbals who gains his rise to fame as the Razor King, so called for his prowess with sharp weaponry. And it's a terrible, terrible book. I mean, it's a bad book -- at least in terms of any literary merit. The plotting and pacing is wildly inconsistent, the language ricochets from nearly incomprehensible slang to overly flowery prose and the events are, at times, literally enough to make you laugh out loud.

Apparently "No Mean City" was written first as a manuscript by one A. McArthur, an unemployed denizen of the Gorbals in the 1920s. It somehow fell into the lap of an London journalist named H. Kingsley Long who felt that the manuscript, though in desperate need of tidying up, was a scathing, relentless and accurate portrayal of the violence and poverty of the Gorbals. (Upon learning this, I admit that I'm dying to know what it must have looked like before Long got a hold of it. )

And it's precisely this fascinating and ugly glimpse into that kept me reading despite how terrible it is. I left Glasgow when I was ten, but as an adult I've developed both an appreciation for and curiosity about the city of my birth. Glasgow's a funny place. And as embarrassed as I am to admit it, at no point during my childhood did I understand that the area I was raised in, the West End, was a world away from the way muc of the rest of the city lived and had lived. We were middle class to be sure, but in a city where even a small gap between the "classes" was massive and a matter of great import, a source of terrific pride.

A little history, if you'll allow me... During the Victorian Era, it enjoyed a prosperity (largely due to the shipyards) that earned it the nickname the "second city of the Empire" -- after London, of course -- and it boasts some of the most stunning period architecture you'll see anywhere in Europe.

At the end of the 19th Century, immigrants flocked to Glasgow to look for work, many taking up residence in the Gorbals, packed into overcrowded tenement buildings with little or no sanitation. Glasgow was hard hit in the recession following World War I and the ensuing depression and conditions in the Gorbals continued to worsen. It is a fascinating microcosm of the hopelessness and despair of inescapable poverty. And, for all its faults, "No Mean City" certainly paints that picture with an insider's brush.

Some of the Glaswegian slang -- commonly known as "the patter" -- proved tough for me to penetrate and I'm relatively familiar with much Scot speak. It did make for some entertaining read-aloud scenes to keep Chris and me entertained as I read and it has expanded our own vocabulary. (Chris now refers to me as his "fine bit stuff" and threatens to give me a "sherricking" if I ever cross him.)

"No Mean City" is not an easy read -- mostly because the writing is so bad and the plot moves in fits and starts. (Also, it's tough to find anyone to root for, especially the main character and his idiot wife, Lizzie.) And maybe it wouldn't hold the least bit of interest for anyone who doesn't know or care about Glasgow at all but I find in writing this post that I have a strange affection for the book... now that it's finished and I don't have to read another page.

The Gorbals still exists in name, but it's my understanding that the City of Glasgow went to great pains -- and expense -- to try to erase the history and negative reputation of the area, which had continued to be a sore point in its strong Scottish pride well into the 20th Century. In the 1980s, it was still considered one of the most dangerous areas of the United Kingdom. Not sure where it stands today, but there are a couple