January 5, 2010 / 1:27 PM / 10 years ago

FACTBOX - Glasgow's gangland novel "No Mean City"

GLASGOW, Scotland (Reuters) - Three quarters of a century since novel “No Mean City” immortalised the savage life of a razor-wielding Glasgow street fighter, Scotland’s biggest city remains one of the most violent in western Europe.

First published on October 28, 1935, the book has sold well over half a million copies and has rarely, if ever, been out of print. The title — an excerpt from the Bible — became a byword for Glasgow, where it provokes strong feelings to this day.

“No book is more associated with the city of Glasgow than No Mean City,” the latest edition boasts on its cover.

Following are five facts about the book.

* The book tells the story of “Razor King” Johnnie Stark, who remains a figure of fascination for criminal elements in Glasgow’s underworld to this day, according to locals from the Gorbals, the district where No Mean City is set.

Though the razor gangs have disappeared, knives are a bigger killer in Scotland than elsewhere in Britain, in great part due to gang violence in Glasgow. Some 55 homicides were committed with a sharp instrument in Scotland last year, more than a fifth of the total in England and Wales — even though their combined population is more than ten times that of Scotland.

* Some bookshops and libraries refused to stock the book when it came out. However, the reception was not only negative.

The Glasgow Evening Times accused the authors of branding the city a collection of “thugs and harlots.”

“One cannot quite swallow all the ferocity and venomous hatred, the idolatry of the Razor King, the lust and the entire absence of any code of moral behaviour,” the newspaper wrote.

“The book is undoubtedly the worst possible advertisement Glasgow can have at a time when the city is striving to live down its evil and undeserved reputation abroad.”

The Glasgow Herald offered a more nuanced view:

“Not the violence and callous bloodshed but the revolting lack of any decency in conduct, speech or philosophy of life shocks one on every page. It is undoubtedly a picture which will repel the fully adult reader, but it is nonetheless a book which all who have a social conscience should read.”

“The result is a novel of tremendous power, a horrible story that holds one enchained in a shocked fascination.”

* No Mean City was the work of Gorbals baker Alexander McArthur and journalist H. Kingsley Long, who the publisher brought in to rework McArthur’s manuscripts.

According to writer Cal McCrystal, McArthur never repeated the book’s success, and took solace in alcohol.

Following a binge on September 4, 1947 McArthur downed a bottle of disinfectant and threw himself from a bridge into the Clyde. Dragging himself from the river, he died shortly afterwards.

* The name of the book comes from the King James Bible’s translation of Acts 21:39 in the New Testament. In it, the captive apostle Paul asks permission to address the people after his arrest in the Temple in Jerusalem:

“I am a man [which am] a Jew of Tarsus, [a city] in Cilicia, a citizen of no mean city.”

* The novel inspired an album of the same name by Scottish hard rock band Nazareth in 1979, the first LP by the Dunfermline outfit to reach the UK album chart’s top 40 in five years.

Lead singer Dan McCafferty remembers:

“I now appreciate the Walter Scotts and everything. But when I was at school I thought they were boring.

“I got (No Mean City) when I was a teenager. It really fits in with teenage angst and being a little ned. Until you read it and realise the whole point of the book is poverty and violence will keep you down, and that violence is not the answer.”

Reporting by Dave Graham, editing by Paul Casciato; Sources: Strathclyde police, The Mitchell Library, Cal McCrystal

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