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No Mean City - Alexander McArthur

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Authors: Alexander McArthur,H.Kingsley Long / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 22 June 1984 / Genre: Modern & Contemporary Fiction / Publisher: Transworld Publishers Ltd / Title: No Mean City / ISBN 13: 9780552075831 / ISBN 10: 0552075831

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      16.01.2009 23:32
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      A gritty novel of Glasgow slum life between the Wars

      No Mean City by Alexander McArthur/H.Kingsley Long

      No Mean City falls into that very rare category for me; books I have read more than once. It is an utterly engrossing and eye-opening read of the not so distant past, when things were very much different in the city of Glasgow.

      First published in 1935, it is the story of Johnnie Stark, the "Razor King" of the Glasgow slums. Between the wars, the Gorbals area of Glasgow was an underworld of crime, with gang warfare, a disregard for authority and poverty rife amongst the unfortunate citizens. Johnnie Stark, with his twin-razors tucked inside his waistcoat, and his willingness to use them on anyone who insulted either him or his wife, became a notorious figure; revered, feared, and hated.

      The story follows Johnnie's life; his birth, his fights, his prison sentences, his loves and his losses. It also relates the struggles of his brother, determined to make a better way of life for himself away from the Gorbals, as he tries to distance himself from the reputation of the "Razor King". Although describing violence, this book by no means glorifies it; most of the fights scenes are related in an almost newspaper report style.

      Set in the 1920's and 30's, it vividly describes the living conditions of the time. Glasgow was a prosperous city, the second city of the Empire, her wealth build largely on the tobacco industry. But the slum areas of the city were suffering hard from the effects of the Post World War I recession, and later the Great Depression. Living conditions were shocking; families sharing one room, a toilet being shared within an entire close (the whole tenement block), it wasn't unheard of for a family to rent out a bed to a nightshift worker during the day. Overcrowding was commonplace within the tenements and privacy was unheard of.

      Drink, gambling, adultery and domestic violence were all commonplace but I was surprised that the West of Scotland curse of sectarianism does not seem to rear its ugly head in this book. Religion is rarely mentioned in No Mean City other than in reference to marriage or death. Inter-marriage between Catholic and Protestants is not an issue - marrying outwith social class was frowned upon far more. Whether this was the case in reality or not at that time, I do not know. It may be that the authors have taken literary licence on this particular area, as I am well aware of the shocking prejudice and discrimination that existed against the Irish, mainly Catholic, immigrants in Glasgow in the recent past.

      I was interested to read that dancing was an extremely important part of people's lives. Glasgow had a number of dance halls where huge numbers of young people would socialise. Dancing was even seen as a way out of the poverty trap as accomplished dancers would be employed at attractive salaries to demonstrate dances, teach and lead the dancing. So popular was dancing, that many dance halls would have two dancing sessions a day. (This popularity lasted many years and my Mother-in-Law remembers how she would catch a tram to go dancing in her lunch hour from work in the late 1950's and early 1960's.)

      Although fictional, the book refers to real locations, street names and landmarks, many of which still exist today. For this reason, readers familiar with Glasgow will probably find this book particularly interesting. The book caused controversy when it was first published as it was felt that the image it depicted of the Gorbals was detrimental to the city as a whole.

      Written in an almost conversational tone with the occasional word or phrase in dialect (but with translations immediately following in paretheses), it is a surprising easy read. With 20 chapters and 313 pages, my edition also has an appendix with newspaper extracts quoted from the time relating similar events and conditions to those written about in the book.

      This is a gritty and compelling book - fascinating, shocking and hard hitting. I actually prefer it to many of the "Misery Memoirs" from this era, because it is fictional but based on historical reality, and you are not expected to sympathise with the characters but simply enjoy the book for what it is.


      The title for the book is taken from a bible quotation; In Acts Ch 21, v19, Paul introduces himself: "I am a Jew of Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city..."

      The theme tune for the gritty Glasgow-based police/detective series "Taggart" is also called "No Mean City".

      It features on The List's 100 Best Scottish Books (January 2005)

      Alexander McArthur was an unemployed alcoholic from the Gorbals who sent some short stories based on his life experiences and observations to the publisher Longmans. They sent H Kingsley Long, a journalist, to work with him to produce a novel with commercial appeal. (From http://www.theglasgowstory.com/image.php?inum=TGSA05303)

      Other Information:

      ISBN 0-552149-780
      RRP £5.99
      From £1.51 + P&P on Amazon Marketplace
      Or try your local library.

      Thank you, as always, for reading my review!


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