GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters Life!) - Razor King Johnnie Stark is long dead, but the specter of violence raised by the brutal street fighter in “No Mean City” still haunts Glasgow seven decades after the novel’s publication.
Though razor gangs no longer roam the streets, gang violence in Glasgow lies at the heart of World Health Organization figures that say a person is more than three times as likely to die from a stab wound in Scotland than in England and Wales.
“The uncomfortable truth” says John Carnochan, head of Strathclyde police’s Violence Reduction Unit, is “not very much has been learned” over the years about how to curb the violence.
“We’re trying to change that. It would be testimony when the book’s 100th anniversary comes if somebody is able to say: ‘What a difference has been made in the last 25 years,’” he said.
Dismissed by critics as a sensationalist work that left an indelible stain on Glasgow’s reputation, the book was being linked to violent crime in the British Empire’s “second city” just days after it appeared at the end of October 1935.
Set in the Gorbals, a district south of the river Clyde that became a byword for downtrodden, overcrowded slums, the tale charts the rise and fall of the “bullet-headed” Stark during the city’s industrial decline after World War One.
A vindictive alcoholic, sometime laborer Stark becomes “Razor King” of the local gangland due to a talent for violence and fondness for slashing his adversaries’ faces with razors.
Today it is knives, not razors that most preoccupy police.
Though fatal stabbings in England and Wales last year tested record levels, government figures show the homicide rate in Scotland — particularly knife-related — is still much higher.
A typical murder in Scotland’s biggest city is a stabbing carried out by a male aged between 15 and 21 who engages in “recreational violence,” according to Strathclyde police.
Perpetrator and victim are likely to be jobless, poorly qualified and without hopes — a product of social problems that crystallize in some 55 gangs in Glasgow’s east end, police say.
“If you don’t come from Glasgow your chances of being assaulted are 0.001 percent,” said Carnochan. “We have great anecdotes of people stopping fights to give tourists directions and then starting again. We do it to each other.”
Terse, unsentimental and written partly in Lowland Scots, No Mean City was the vision of Gorbals baker Alexander McArthur, whose raw manuscripts were reworked at the behest of the publisher by co-author H. Kingsley Long, a journalist.
The book, whose depictions of slum life foreshadowed modern works exploring the darker corners of Scottish society like Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, immediately struck a nerve.
The Glasgow Evening Times newspaper said No Mean City had branded the city “a collection of thugs and harlots” and was the “worst possible advertisement Glasgow can have when the city is striving to live down its evil and undeserved reputation.”
Pat Lally, a former head of Glasgow city council who grew up in the Gorbals in the 1930s, said the book went too far.
“I believe it besmirched the image of the area and of the city,” he said. “I always had the feeling the police used to drag crime victims into Gorbals so it would make the headlines.”
Today’s Gorbals bares little resemblance to the crowded realm of Lally’s youth: the old tenements have gone, as have the 1960s flats built by architect Basil Spence to replace them.
Neat tower blocks dominate the skyline, and where throngs of children once played football on busy street corners, scattered individuals now dot the neighborhood in the main.
“No Mean City actually made me proud to be from the Gorbals, because it showed what a tight community it was,” said 39-year-old resident Victor Stewart, pushing a pram near the local police station. “It’s not quite the same place today.”
Inside the station, McArthur’s novel comes alive again: warnings about gang violence adorn the walls, and a poster shows the bloodied victim of a stabbing laid out in hospital.
“I think things have got worse,” said Annemarie Macara from the Gorbals library, where the book remains in demand.
“We only have to listen and we can hear them organizing it here,” she said, pointing at computers. “I had the sense gangs kept it among themselves before. I don’t see it like that now.”
To turn the tide, Glasgow must change attitudes to violence and fight the inequality fuelling it, said policeman Carnochan.
“If you bring a child up in a war zone, you’ll create a warrior. That’s what we’re doing. I’ve been a cop for 35 years and I can tell you, you can’t arrest your way out of this.”
Instead, police have embarked on a project that brings together rival gang members to look at the problem head on.
There are signs that the new approach may be bearing fruit, said Carnochan, recalling an incident from a recent meeting.
“A guy stood up, pointed to another table and said: ‘I’m 21, I’ve been fighting them since I was 12. I want to know why.’”
At a time of economic crisis, No Mean City’s tale of urban decay breeding violence is a warning of what could happen today, said Dan McCafferty, lead singer of Scottish rockers Nazareth, who named a 1979 LP after the book the band had read at school.
“Because of the banks and that, a lot of people are losing faith in politics,” he said. “Kids are very disillusioned.”
Some say the novel could again serve an educational purpose. But others, like Lally, the ex-Lord Provost of Glasgow, are less sure if the public needs reminding of its razor-edged brutality.
“If I was head of the city council today I wouldn’t want to publicize the anniversary of the book,” he said.
Editing by Paul Casciato