No Mean City by A McArthur and H Kingsley Long

A Story of the Glasgow Slums. Corgi, 1978? 320 p.

 No Mean City cover

I had avoided reading this ever since I became aware of its existence as I had gained the impression it was an overly sensationalist account of life in the poorer parts of Glasgow in the 1920s but when it appeared in the list of 100 best Scottish Books I decided to take out a copy from one of the local libraries that is under threat of closure.

It is the story of Johnnie Stark, who manages to get himself a reputation as the Razor King of the Gorbals and thereafter has to live up to it. There are four main viewpoint characters, Stark, Lizzie Ramsay (the girl who marries him,) his brother Peter and his schoolmate, Bobbie Hurley. Peter’s and Bobbie’s stories seem to be forgotten about for long periods and their relevance is slight; though they are dragooned into the final scene.

Stark’s inevitable eventual demise is presented as a consequence of mental deterioration through drink and too many gang fights but his fate would have been to be overtaken in any case. It is the natural order of things that the younger succeed the older.

As a reading experience the book leaves a lot to be desired. The writing can only be described as poor. Certain words or phrases are placed in quotation marks for no good reason – does anyone reading a book set in Scotland not know what a “hoose” is? “Canny get a man” is surely self-explanatory and “single end” not unusual while “inferiority” is totally unremarkable. Others have their meanings explained in parenthesis immediately after their appearance eg kert (coal-waggon.) If a meaning cannot be explained by context (which would be the ideal) by all means provide a glossary but this practice of putting the wagon after the kert is irritating. (It is possible that I may be more irritated than most, since in Science Fiction, part of my regular reading matter for decades, the use of unfamiliar words – sometimes for unfamiliar concepts – is all-but obligatory and I am therefore used to it.)

Some writers show, others tell: it is infrequent that they lecture. At times this read like a treatise in anthropology, a condescending treatise at that. To describe the characters as “slummies” betrays a self-congratulatory attitude on the part of the authors, “a guid conceit o’ themselves” as we Scots have it. This assumption of moral superiority by the narrator ….. grates. Authors’ characters deserve some sort of sympathy from their creator(s).

These issues are perhaps explained by the book’s genesis. A McArthur was an unemployed man (the book uses the oxymoron unemployed worker) and H Kingsley North a London journalist obviously unused to the different art of writing a novel.

It might be thought that the minimum requirement for being included in any list of best books would be that a novel not be just socially relevant and illustrative of its times but also had some degree of literary quality. No Mean City has none. In saying this I realise that I am in danger of being called a literary snob (as the puff for the novel on the 100 best Scottish books webpages would have it.) Very well; but I would still maintain this does not belong on that list of “best”.

Pedant’s corner:- coal-waggon (I prefer wagon,) appraisement (appraisal?) how the hell with this yin do him any? (how the hell will this yin….)

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