When I was about 10 we went down for a holiday with my Auntie Muriel in of all places Weston-Super-Mare where Lord Archer is the resident peer. It was then a blowsy but quite rich Somerset resort, not too Blackpool, but not too Herne Bay. It seemed to me and my brother very English, though we liked the actual locals, if not the yokels. The West Country people were just grand. The majority of the owners of everything, shops, hotels, houses even, were Londoners or south-east immigrants and they weren't very nice at all. This was of course the early 1950s, perhaps a year after the coronation and the people of the south-east weren't nice, though they were by and large nicer than they are now, which is hard to take.
But anyway, and this is a long introduction, my brother and myself were in a little grocer's shop, where we could get ice lollies, and it was in a part of the area where my aunt lived, next to the big houses and the tennis clubs where doubtless a hundred Miss Joan Hunter Dunns could be copiously found. It was very bourgeois and extremely sedate and nothing like the dark, black Glasgow from which two little Glaswegian urchins could have stemmed.
The bucolic grocer behind the old-fashioned counter asked us where we were from. True, we did have Scottish accents. But we were clad in the ubiquitous khaki shorts and ankle socks and open neck short-sleeved shirts. We could have come out of Enid Blyton; just about to bugger off to Kirrin Island with bottles of ginger pop and bloody muffins, doubtless still for tea.
In short we were perfectly acceptable. But we weren't when we replied to this kindly chap behind the counter of his parochial little emporium. Because we told him that we came from Glasgow, in Scotland. His reply took even two wee Scots boys aback. He gasped, the old fool, and expostulated: 'Oh! What a terrible place to come from!' Both the khaki-shorts wearers were bound to be bemused by this. For a start he didn't know just how terrible the actual bit we did come from was, and secondly he didn't realise what a very beautiful place Glasgow was. What we didn't realise at all was that, despite the area in which we then lived, we had been sheltered from the most dreadful slums of Gorbals by a father who had been reared in them.
When I was seven and my young brother less, we moved from the little village of douce Cathcart to Townhead, the oldest part of Glasgow city and I have never forgotten it. It was like being Dickens in the blacking factory. I have never recovered from it. I will never stray from a city: like Dickens I am city bred. But not the blackness; not ever again.
My father resented us moving back to the slums, though he still hankered after a return to the Gorbals of his childhood. Alright for him as it was. He'd left Gorbals when he was 16 to fight for the British Army in exotic China, back in the early 1920s. He knew the Gorbals of his childhood and liked to go back with us on Sabbath days, seeing friends, especially his Jewish friends because of course the Jewish shops were open on Sundays. We used to go down to Michael Morrison's shop on Shabbat and get hot egg-bread, and bagels, and poppy-loaf and go back across over the ferry or under the old underground tunnels.
You think this is giving you the old oil; the Ralph Glasser, the Molly Weir? Well it's not really. It is giving you the background. For the reason why that old shopkeeper, that dreadful English Poujadiste, had turned upon two little Scottish boys, from Glasgow, then the second largest city in Britain, the once Second City of Empire, was because Glasgow had then a dreadful reputation and most of it centring around the area the nation, indeed Europe, knew as the Gorbals. And because of the squalor and especially the violence, the Gorbals was the Wild West. Dan Duryea, Randolph Scott, not really. The district was Fagin, Bill Sykes, and murdered Nancy, set in 1950. And it was myth, and the myth surrounded Glasgow and still does.
For one of the great mythologies and legends about Glasgow is that it is an extraordinarily violent city, a byword for violence, like Marseille or Naples or Chicago. It is certainly a working-class city, set in a largely industrial proletarian acreage, that of the west central industrial belt. But the myth of Glasgow's violence, despite enough evidence to suggest it may be true, is myth.
The largest number of crimes of violence per head of population in the UK may well surprise you a little. You would expect Belfast, would you not, to take that accolade? Well you'd be wrong. London has of course, as you would expect, a high level of reported violence, but it pales into insignificance with, say, Birmingham or Manchester. Actually, Luton's figures are not good. But if you want to know the most dangerous cities to find yourselves in their town centres at night you have to try out what seem the most unlikely or damn-near it. Cardiff is one. The other is, what else, in the West Country, next door to Weston-Super-Mare, Bristol. There you are then. There's a turn up for the books.
But it was the books, especially one of them, which gave the reputation to Glasgow for the psychopathology of itself, for the fierce violence of its streets. The one book in particular was 'No Mean City.' A novel which has probably cost Glasgow billions of pounds of investment by outside sources over the last half century. It became a best seller and a lurid one and worst of all it set the city in its own cultural aspic for damned near ever.
When Glasgow started looking splendid, during the year when it was the City of Culture in 1990, journals from near and far said that Glasgow had finally dismissed the image of this bloody book. When a few years later the ridiculous councillors and policemen revived the myth of Glasgow's violence the book came back. It is a badly-written book in fact, but was ghosted by an English journalist, H. Kingsley Long, employed on a Glasgow newspaper, who simply rewrote a piece of drunken observation by a Glasgow butcher, Alexander McArthur. McArthur died a decade and a half later, of alcohol abuse. But his abuse, and especially Long's, of the city of Glasgow and Gorbals in particular was crucial in the way that the world saw this once wealthy city. In the case of Gorbals it was disastrous.
When Gorbals was a mere village in the mid-17th century it was commandeered by the Hutcheson brothers and was planned as a suburb. The south-side of the city expanded of course and Gorbals and its satellites became rather respectable. Wide streets, proper sanitation, schools, churches, parish developments. But by the early 19th century the Irish immigrants and the often even poorer Highland people came to move into what had been hitherto a spaciously laid-out area. And then of course the Jewish immigrants from Russia. In 1831 there were only 47 Jews in Glasgow, mainly Dutch or German, almost all living in the quite prosperous Garnethill area of north-west Glasgow. By 1916 there were over 6,000 Russian and Polish Jews in Glasgow – almost all on the south-side, mainly in the Gorbals.
This should have been the catalyst for the same sort of street gangs which developed in New York and Chicago and Philadelphia. I am inclined to believe that, though some criminality certainly developed, the absence of any one prominent group from any sizeable area meant that serious crime did not develop as it did in other cities. Especially because the Italian immigrants came at a later date, were largely from the north of Italy, especially Lucca and Barga, rather than the lawless south where there was an organised Mafia, and because there were business opportunities in a city which was expanding beyond what the wealthy commercial merchants had experience of.
Here. This is sounding like sociology, or at least some kind of social history. It is what it is. Also I am straying from what I want to say. Which is that violence and Glasgow go together in the public, and certainly tabloid, mind and it has no business doing so. This is why I mentioned Gorbals in the first place. The title 'No Mean City,' in case you didn't know and I'll bet you didn't actually, is a quote and a grand one at that from the lips of St Paul: 'For I a Jew from Tarsus, a citizen of no mean city and I beseech thee, suffer me to speak unto the People.'
Well, Long and McArthur did speak to the people and they should have held their tongue. For a start, even in the Depression years, the period in which this novel is set, Gorbals was never as bad as the book depicts. Sure the conditions were, but the people weren't. There was violence of course, fuelled by the drunkenness which goes along with poverty and despair, and there were street gangs, and open fighting did occur. But on nothing like the scale which this depiction insisted upon. And, too, there were considerable achievements made by many Gorbalians, in education, the arts, and especially in business. The Woolfson empire started here. As did the Weinstock's. You cannot manage this in an environment so lost in despair.
Later the new Gorbals emerged and tried hard to dispel the images of the disastrous novel, and another piece of fiction, Robert McLeish's play 'The Gorbals Story.' By now the wide streets had gone and almost all the tenements. And the hub of it all, Gorbals Cross, had disappeared. So did the heart of it. When I was a child and then a young man, Gorbals had been a vibrant community with some of the safest pubs in the entire city. Clean and well kept pubs like The Seaforth, The Citizens, The Diadem, Danny's Bar, The Tirconnel, all these were decent little places in which the men – they were virtually all-male pubs – behaved themselves. There was a reason for that and I can verify it for I worked as a barman in a couple of those bars. The reason was that in the Gorbals if you were barred from a pub the word went round the entire area and you were barred from them all.
For a time the violence for which Glasgow had been noted and had been mythologised by abated very considerably. Indeed the rest of the UK began to forget the old 'No Mean City' tag. And then, in the mid-1960s it flared up again and the reputation returned. This time the culprits were mere youths, kids from the new outlying housing estates, the 'schemes'. No pubs, clubs, cinemas, no sports grounds, no recreation, but plenty of work and decent enough wages to go into the city centre and wreak a bit of havoc on a Saturday night.
It was certainly quite bad for a while. I remember coming back to Glasgow after some years away in London and elsewhere and finding the gang culture in full swing. Such street gangs – almost all from the schemes – like the Toy, the Tongs, the Fleet, became for a while a genuine danger, especially to other young people.
This was the era when the hardman began to flourish again. Jimmy Boyle, Coalie Beattie, Toe Elliot among a number, became well-known, and even notorious. But these hardmen were very much different from the marauding youths for they were professional criminals such as you will find in every city. Yet they helped too to stigmatise the city, especially in the eyes of other Scots. I find it difficult to forgive the attitudes for instance of many people from Edinburgh towards Glaswegians whom they think of often as flyboys and hard tickets when I also see them lionising Jimmy Boyle.
In Glasgow there is no such feeling about Boyle, even if he has reformed. Glaswegians simply remember such criminals as a bloody nuisance and a disgrace to decent working-class people. In truth they always did. The citizens of this no mean city do not approve of hooligans or tally men (protection racketeers) or moneylenders or house breakers. Far from it. If you ask me there is more disapproval in Glasgow for such anti-social behaviour than elsewhere. For in Glasgow we live too close to each other for errant acts to go unobserved. The Edinburgh bourgeoisie have hardly ever seen the peripheral estates where the lumpen proletariat lives. In Glasgow you could hardly help but notice.
Yet undeniably Glasgow finds it hard to shrug off its violent image which is not surprising considering how often violence is a focus for London journalists who come up here looking for the gangs. (I was once approached by a hack from the metropolis who asked me if I could find a shebeen for him to write about. 'Are ye daft?' I told him, 'There are pubs and clubs here open till four in the morning. What would a shebeen be there for?') The focus has also been made, far too often, by playwrights and novelists who find an easier drama to be made out of low life.
The truth is that though Glasgow is hardly renowned for its toffs, it is for its solid middle-class in business and professional life. Among those, at any rate, who know the city.
But the fantasy about its violent past and present does not go away easily. The municipal authorities do not help and neither do the political representatives. But the real Glasgow has a plethora of private art galleries, theatres, places of entertainment. Edinburgh ladies come to Glasgow to shop. It also has an ease between the social classes you will find in no other British city (save perhaps oddly enough another Scottish city, Dundee). And yet the myth stays on.
I'll bet if you go down to Weston-Super-Mare and into a wee shop you will still get the shopkeeper with the same opinion as the adult who told two small Glaswegians how violent the city they came from was. Well he'd be wrong, as wrong as the ignoramus who insisted on just that all those years ago.