Tuesday, 18 November 2014

No Mean City

There's a small group of old paperbacks produced by Corgi Books which stand out on the bookshelf. They’re all a couple of centimetres shorter than traditional paperback format of the classic Pan’s and Penguin’s of yesteryear. One title catches the eye even more so, because it’s a bit thicker than the others, and has a bold and menacing title - No Mean City.

The edition was published in 1957 with a tremendous painted cover by John Richards which perfectly reflects a 50s youth style - even though the book is set in The Gorbals in Glasgow before World War 2. The area’s name is thought to derive from the Gaelic for ‘the town's field’ – and was situated south of the River Clyde, within walking distance of the City centre.  The Gorbals was originally built for the middle-classes at the end of the 18th century, but 50 years later, its elegance faded when Irish, Highland and European migrants crowded into the city. The once-smart houses were subdivided, and deteriorated.  Though probably no worse than many other so-called ‘slums’ in Glasgow, the Gorbals became infamous - synonymous with urban poverty, overcrowding, razor gangs and prostitution...

Corgi Giant, 1957, issued by Transworld Publishers, London NW10
Thanks to Alexander McArthur, an unemployed baker, whose pulpy accounts of his locality were bought up by a major London-based publisher. It secured the services of journalist H Kingsley Long, to help McArthur re-write his manuscripts. The result: No Mean City, “a stark novel of the Glasgow Slums” was first published in 1935. It focuses on the world of Johnnie Stark, the son of a violent father and downtrodden mother, who becomes the 'Razor King' of a Gorbals gang.

H. Kingsley Long, who earlier had ghosted a book on New York street gangs, chose the novel's title from the Bible 'I am...a Jew of Tarsus, a city in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city', and was credited with so much of the book's success that the royalties were split three to one in his favour.

The edition's remarkably action-packed back cover
No Mean City enraged Glasgow. No local bookshop would sell it, and libraries were forbidden to stock it. The Glasgow Herald even refused to review it. But it created a huge stir beyond the city. The Times Literary Supplement called it 'a story of appalling savagery' – and its instant notoriety made it a quick big-seller.

The success encouraged McArthur to write more, but without Long, he could not repeat the success of No Mean City. His subsequent stories were turned down by publishers, and meanwhile McArthur was drinking away his royalty cheques. In 1947,  he jumped off Rutherglen Bridge, and was found unconscious on the footpath by the river. McArthur died in hospital, with a ration book, and 1s 3d to his name...  

A book once famed for its sensationalist vision of slum-life, has since inspired countless other memoirs of the lives and times of The Gorbals. Its title has since been re-appropriated by the people of the City who now wouldn’t be able to even spot where the original slums stood (torn down, twice!).  Today, some 80 years after its publication, No Mean City is ironically used in some parts as an affectionate term for urban Glasgow (it’s even the name for an annual local music festival).

No Mean City lives on...

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