Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums (1935)
- Willy Maley
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
This cutting edge portrait of working-class life in the worst laid scheme in Scotland sticks out like a sore face. Rarely referred to by its subtitle or complimented for its subtlety, when it was first published Glasgow libraries refused to stock it, while The Times Literary Supplement gave it a glowing review: 'Sometimes a "human document" finds its way into print, forcing itself on public attention by the sheer weight of its sincerity, in spite of literary failings. When such a document has artistic value, too, its importance is doubled. Mr Alexander McArthur, an unemployed worker in a Glasgow slum, with the help of Mr Kingsley Long, a London journalist, has produced such a book in No Mean City'.
Despite such highbrow endorsement this jaw-torn tale fell victim to the mean streak of snobbery that disfigures Scotland more than any razor's edge. Dismissed by the small coterie, the book they couldn't bury became a byword for red-raw Clydeside, the nitty-gritty Glasgow of the Gorbals. It deals in dialect and docudrama with a community living on a knife-edge as violence rips it apart. In a world where poverty slices deeper than any flesh wound, it takes more than a sewing machine to make ends meet. Johnnie Stark, the serrated story's young blade, carries out compulsory cosmetic surgery. He's no angel, nor working-class hero, but his brother Peter grasps the nettle of class struggle. How many Scottish novels discuss the great socialist teacher John MacLean? Damn few, and they're all out of print.
McArthur and Long's study of scarcity and scar culture has survived the 'Glasgow's Miles Better' facelift. Its authors sound like a songwriting duo and fittingly, their title lends itself to the theme tune of Taggart. Maggie Bell's rasping rendition, more broken bottle than cut glass, captures beautifully the brutal brio of the book.
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