‘NO MEAN CITY’
Believed to be the site of a former leper colony, Glasgow’s most deprived district, ‘The Gorbals’ lies on the south bank of the Clyde, close to the city centre. Towards the end of the 18th century, it was redesigned to be an elegant residential neighbourhood for the Protestant middle classes. But then there was a mass immigration of Highlanders, Europeans and most problematically, Catholic Irish migrants. The first gang activity was recorded around this time. Their weapon of choice was the simple stone.
As the mansions of the middle classes became the tenements of the working classes, landlords let standards slide. By the 1920s, it was, quite simply, a slum where one in three was jobless.
Worse, religious rivalries ripped the city apart geographically and most infamously, along football lines. In the East were the Catholic, Celtic supporters, and in the West, the Protestants and Rangers supporters.
When the worldwide Great Depression hit in 1929, Glasgow, already suffering, went down for the count. The gangs ran riot. They recruited from the all too numerous unemployed. There were six times as many gangs in Glasgow as in London. And the drunks, the doorstep lenders and the penny prostitutes, then witnessed a new type of gang emerge:
THE RAZOR GANGS
In 1934, Alexander McArthur an alcoholic, unemployed baker sent some writing to a publisher. His graphic descriptions of 800 strong gang wars settled with the slash of a razor led to a tabloid journalist joining him. Together they wrote the seminal novel, ‘No Mean City’. Its title came from the Bible. The story was fictional. But it’s tale of the bloody rise of Johnnie Stark, and his crowning as ‘Razor King’ of a Gorbals gang, was straight from the streets.
The book’s sex and violence meant it was banned from Glasgow bookshops but it became a national bestseller. Its author, however, drank away his royalties, and then downed a bottle of disinfectant, before trying to drown himself. He survived both the bottle and the drowning and was found unconscious. He died soon after. His funeral was attended by just two people. Both were reporters.
By the time he died, however, the ‘Glasgow hard man’ image had been well and truly born. And the razor gangs he had recorded would become inextricably linked with the image of his home city.