The Scene of the Crime (2): ‘No Mean City’
A series of articles recalling famous books about working-class conditions in particular areas of Britain, and viewing those areas today.
During the thirties, a Gorbals bakery worker and a journalist by the names of McArthur and H. Kingsley Long wrote a novel describing the Glasgow slum area — the Gorbals — as it appeared to them in the 20’s and 30’s.
Basically, it is the story of a slum hooligan named Johnnie Stark, nicknamed Razor King, and of the gangland violences which were regular features of Glasgow life at that period. The gangs in Glasgow were not organized for criminal purposes and were hooligans trying to overcome the boredom and monotony of a sordid existence. Most lived in squalor — ten and eleven to a room — most were unemployed.
The authors concentrate their story round the Gorbals area (McArthur lived there), but the social conditions they described could be found in all working-class slums in Glasgow; Bridgeton, Anderson, Plantation, Calton, Townhead. All that these misguided hooligans could hope to gain from their inter-gang wars was permanent facial disfigurement as a result of razor-slashing, or a cracked skull as a result of being hit on the head by a beer bottle. But the excitement and anticipation of the fight relieved the boredom, and this was a major factor in making their miserable social condition tolerable.
This perverse way of looking at life could not, nor cannot, be explained if the slum background is ignored.
The Gorbals became part of Glasgow in 1846. Situated in rather a pleasant area on the banks of the Clyde, it was originally a fishing village. (Glasgow, in fact, specialised in salmon fishing up until the 18th century). The Clyde was a fordable stream about three feet deep at the Broomilaw (eventually deepened to take ships of 25-foot draft).
The commercial development of Glasgow was due to the tobacco trade. Ships took manufactured goods, leather work, saddles, clothing materials, etc to the American colony, Virginia, and returned laden with tobacco. The Glasgow “tobacco lords” made huge fortunes.
The more pleasing architectural parts of Glasgow owe their origin to the wealth and largesse of the tobacco lords. The tobacco trade collapsed with the American War of Independence in 1776, and the heavy industrial development of the Clyde valley (coal, iron and steel) began a few years later, and started to intensify in 1815 when George Watt designed the first steamship. Glasgow became a huge immigration centre for Eastern Europeans, mainly Russian and Polish Jews, Italians, Germans, Belgians, and of course Irish (the New York of the 19th century). All came to seek employment in the mills, mines and shipyards.
Scotland generally had no large indigenous labour force, and needed immigrant labour. Glasgow probably had the highest proportion and the least time in which they could be absorbed into the meagre social background which existed. Tenement houses were literally thrown up in the immediate areas of the factory or mill. Mile upon mile of these social abominations still form the bulk of working-class housing in Glasgow. Most consist of two rooms with no bathroom or hot water and outside W.C. on each of the four floors.
A slum is a product of overcrowding and through the lack of proper washing facilities, the house usually becomes verminous. Engel’s descriptions of the slums of Manchester and Salford apply with more force in Glasgow. Overcrowding, lack of privacy, and domestic discomfort forces the slum-dwellers into the streets and eventually into the pub. It is no accident that Glasgow had, or had up until recently, the highest number of pubs per square mile than any other city in the world.
Not unnaturally, the people became heavy drinkers. Unlike the slum dwellers of Calcutta and Bombay, who at least have the warmth of the sun for an ally and can even sleep in the open air, the Glasgow tenement and slum-dweller is not so lucky. Living in a soot-laden atmosphere in a cold, wet and windy climate, he becomes dominated by his living conditions and the tedium of work (and the lack of it). Such is the urgency of immediate existence they become aggressive, argumentative, and intolerant. Directed along Socialist lines this would be an advantage, but as it is these only serve to perpetuate a narrow conservatism and a suspicion of any new ideas, including those of the SPGB.
Much has since changed since 1932. For one thing Glasgow, far from being the second city in the British Empire with over 1 million inhabitants, now has a population of 816,000 (1972 estimate) — a reduction of 18 per cent in the last twelve years. Many of the slums have gone, but many more remain. In fact, the slum reception housing areas built in 1933-37 like Blackhill and Shettleston are rapidly becoming slum areas as overcrowding grows afresh. It should not be assumed that it was socially enlightened planners and politicians who were responsible for demolishing the slums. A far more potent reason was the appalling health hazards which these slums produced. Apart from inevitable poverty diseases like TB and rickets, infectious diseases like scarlet fever and diphtheria were quite common in the ‘twenties and ‘thirties in the Gorbals in the south, Calton and Bridgeton in the east; Cowcaddens in the north and the highest infantile mortality rate of any industrial county. The infant mortality rate for the city as a whole in 1935 was 110 per thousand.
The tower blocks rise in the Gorbals — whole streets have been demolished. The Irish and the Jewish immigrants of the old Gorbals have been socially assimilated, but the Pakistanis and Indians and other Asian immigrants now take their place. The same old squalor plagues these newcomers and racial tension has now become a new element in gang warfare. The post-war slum reception areas like Castlemilk, Easterhouse and Possil have produced their own gangs and vandals, and little wonder. These cheerless cellular dormitories could only inspire in the young the urge to get out of them as quickly as possible.. Miles from the city centre, poor transport services, little or no amenities; in fact, pubs were not allowed in pre-war housing schemes. They present such a desolate prospect that many wish they were back in the slums again with its intensive social life based on the camaraderie of poverty.
Full employment after World War II eased the worst rigours of poverty. The Bingo halls and the betting shops are full. The pubs are now catering for women (a post-war innovation), and more whiskey and less “red biddy” is being drunk.
The creation of an industrial sore such as Glasgow in the heady days of unrestricted exploitation in the 19th century has taught the capitalists a very expensive lesson. The scale of re-housing, health and welfare services, were and are far higher than any city of comparable population in the UK and possibly Europe. And yet Glasgow, it is claimed, is the success story of the social reformer! Low rents, good Council housing, health centres, new schools and hospitals. The poverty of the past, we are told, is so much water under Jamaica Bridge. The drunks and the derelicts still sleep it off in the Glasgow Green, but a newer phenomenon, the prostitutes and drug addicts, are now to be seen in George Square. Truly a sign of the affluent society, as nobody could afford either in pre-war Glasgow.
Politically Glasgow has had more than its share of prominent Left-wingers. A stronghold of the ILP for many years, it certainly did not lack advocates in Parliament — Maxton; McGovern; Campbell Stephen; Kirkwood; MacLean and others. But still Glasgow does not flourish. As unemployment re-emerges, as prices rise, and the threat of redundancy becomes more imminent, the old feeling of apprehension returns. Have the good times gone — will slump and poverty return?
The Socialist knows that we cannot have capitalism without these for very long. There is no permanence in social reform. It all has to be done again and again.
Why should the working class in Glasgow and elsewhere gamble on poverty or capitalist prosperity? This choice need not be made. Glasgow has allowed itself to be wrung dry of surplus-value by the rapacity of capitalism. Its sons became undersized, undernourished, under-housed and over-worked in order to build massive fortunes for a race of arrogant parasites. There is absolutely no reason why they should continue to do so.
If they will look beyond the sponsored parochialism of local politics to the broader issues of Socialism and consciously associate themselves with a working-class movement intent on the abolition of capitalism, then and only then will Glasgow flourish.