Every time I brought out my copy of ‘No Mean City’ around my partners gran, she would remark that the book gave Glasgow a bad name, and I can see why. The debauchery in this book represents all of the seven sins in turn as A. McArthur and H. Kingsley Long show us a glimpse into Glasgow in the 1920’s. The events and characters are fictional, they assure, but not entirely made up. Though Johnnie Stark never existed and was therefore never a real “razor king,” this book assures us that in the early 20th century slums, there did exist violence with no real cause and with no real end.
I had to read this book for uni as part of a class I’m taking called the Glasgow Novel. As I’ve been so enamoured with Scottish fiction recently, this class was basically calling my name. I first picked up this book reluctantly, but decided that this semester I am being a Good Student and am actually reading everything I’m meant to. It was little hard getting into it, and maybe a little jarring as I was told a story where in which the narrative was almost scholarly, in a detached and very formal style of writing, but with dialogue delivered almost completely by nearly 100-year-old slang. It took a little time to get used to, but when I was used to it I found it quite hard to put down.
The real story in ‘No Mean City’ doesn’t really kick in for a good few chapters but when it does, it is exhilarating.
Johnnie Stark’s story is one where he finds himself slum royalty – when he takes down a renowned fighter in a dancing hall brawl, he is hailed by his peers in the slums of the Gorbals as “Razor King,” a title that grants him absolute respect from the women and men around him alike. Suddenly, he no longer has to pay for drinks and can have any girl he wants by snap of his fingers. He talks a big game but has the ferocity and sheer savageness to prove that he is a man of his (violent) word.
He is somewhat detached from the world around him, and the stages of his life are marked mostly by the women who are by his side at any given time. As some of his lovers decide it is time for them to move past their gangster suitor, they break up with him and find their forever loves with their reputation as a friend of the Razor King under their belts.
Lizzie Ramsay, a girl of a slightly higher class than Johnnie who is known for her “bandy legs”, becomes Johnnie’s wife and too willingly sinks to his lesser, violent level and is consumed by the need to defend and polish her husband’s reputation as Razor King. She feels the need to be seen by their peers as tough, and fights alongside her husband even. Their dalliance starts with passion and true care but when the couple cannot produce an heir, a “breadsnapper,” resentment grows between them. They both find separate lovers but Lizzie still serves her husband with great affection, though there is no more love between them.
In Lizzie Stark, née Ramsay, we can read an extremely interesting character. She adapts to the life around her effortlessly and realises carries out her responsibilities easily. She lived once as a girl of a higher class who played the violin and gleamed respect from those around her when she lived with her family, and then was quick to be fierce and tough when she married the Razor King. She carried her head high and with elegance as she became the mistress of Frank Smith and managed to still carefully takes care of her husband while being a good friend to her lovers’ family. She brought in girls to occupy her husband as mistresses and housekeepers and moved onto the next with abandon out of need. Reading her growth over the course of the years in the book was exciting and she quickly became the most thrilling character. I looked forward to seeing her name on the page ahead of me, eager to know what she’d do next and how.
I have a reading habit a lot of people disagree with: when I pick up a new book, I flick to the very last page and read it first. I love reading the ending with no context at all, seeing names and places I don’t know yet. When I actually read the book and approach the end, it makes coming to its final page all the more exciting for me because I’m so interested in seeing how the story will come to finish in the way I read earlier.
Of course I read the very last page for ‘No Mean City’ a while ago and I was so intrigued by its ending! It described the aftermaths of the deaths of Johnnie and Lizzie Stark and the fate of the formers younger brother. When I finished it on Tuesday, finally, I was a bit disappointed.
‘No Mean City’ delved into detail of fights and labours and troubles throughout the lives of the characters but their deaths took place in vague sentences. We saw Johnnie’s death extensively but Lizzie was reduced to death in childbirth and that was that. When I read that both had died on the very last page, I was expecting the fighting duo to meet their ends in a tragic raid or the biggest fights of their lives. I wasn’t expecting a boring death for Lizzie or not seeing the aftermath of Razor King’s deaths on his followers. Sure, the last page states that a shit ton of people attended both the funerals, but that’s about all we got. Were Johnnie’s enemies there? His estranged family? Did his followers care for him after the king could no longer brandish his weapons?
This book left no loose ends, to be honest, but still I had questions about the Kingdom of the Gorbals it took place in. ‘No Mean City’ presented the poorer Glasgow area as a sort of feudal place with strict rules and societal expectations, but the kingdom was evolving. Towards the end we saw the introduction of nightclubs and the fizzling out of gangster life as the city began to rebuild itself. From Johnnie’s time in prison we saw that there was more to Glasgow’s criminality than big battles in the streets and raiding pubs for whisky, and we saw criminals better than Johnnie look down on him for being a “mug.”
Glasgow built and described in this way and this time is exciting to read and I hope I can see more of what piqued my interest in the other books about Glasgow in the early 20th century that I’ll be reading this year. ‘No Mean City’ was written in 1935 and the story itself took place ten or so years before that. Its authors say they have “not drawn an exaggerated picture of conditions in the Glasgow tenements.”