Glasgow gangs

Review of City of Gangs in The Times, 10 August 2013

The first review of City of Gangs appeared in The TimesĀ on 10 August 2013. Subscribers can read the review – by Mike Wade – in full here:

The review includes one of the illustrations from City of Gangs. Taken from the Scottish Daily Express in August 1936 (at the height of one of Glasgow’s recurring panics over gangs, violence and racketeering), it includes a pencil drawing that must have been inspired by No Mean City -just count the scars – along with a photograph ‘taken during a typical street gang battle in Glasgow’s East End’. The photograph shows two groups running headlong towards each other. If you look closely, you can see a woman in the front rank of one of the gangs. (The photograph has been cropped by The Times‘ picture desk, but you can just make her out in the online preview – she has her back to the camera.)

Since The Times‘ website is accessible by subscription only, I’ve reproduced extracts from the review below.

Blood on the Clyde.

As another wave of violence swept through the east end of Glasgow, a local newspaper sadly noted: “The gangs have always been with us.” That lament might have been written at almost any time in the city’s recent history: last week, last month, 150 years ago. The date in fact was 1930, when every hopeless neighbourhood in Glasgow had its gang of loafing teenagers and young men. In Bridgeton the Billy Boys held sway, 500 strong … Other groups were smaller, but as court records make clear, no less violent: the South Side Stickers, the Norman Conks, the Kent Stars. To exasperated law officers, the list seemed endless.
This was Scotland’s Chicago but these men were not the glamorous gangsters of Hollywood talkies, as Andrew Davies makes clear in this brilliant study. True, some violence was almost choreographed. More often, it flared up in street beatings and drunken brawls. The weapon of choice was the razor, held in a concealed grip, to wound but not kill – but wooden clubs, iron bars and stones would suffice.
Glasgow thuggery thrived among an underclass but was never as corrosive to the city establishment as its American equivalent. When No Mean City, a novel about Johnnie Stark, the “Razor King”, was published in North America, the New York Times critic declared: “His story is small-time – amateurish and aimless.”
City of Gangs‘ success lies in its compelling detail. Every other page can turn up a surprise; if not a delight, then at least an occasional grim smile. A vivid account of the Tower ballroom in Cowcaddens is supplied by George Chisholm, the jazz trombonist, who recalled Friday nights when, with “sickening regularity … all hell would break loose.” Chisholm went on: “There’d be bodies everywhere … Once the hooligan element had exhausted themselves and each other, they’d be ejected down some steps and a little self-appointed MC in a muffler and cloth cap would come on and say ‘Carry on dancing, please’ in a brisk and jovial way that’d almost have you believing you’d dreamt the carnage of a few seconds before.”
Davies points up the politics of the gangs, as much as they existed, homing in on the Billy Boys’ support for the Unionist Party (as the Conservatives were known). This led to some embarrassing headlines: “GANGSTERS AS TORY STEWARDS.” Billy Fullerton, occasionally compared with Al Capone by overheated feature writers, took his politics to the extreme, founding a branch of the KKK, though he conceded his Knights of Kaledonia Klan played by its own rules.
An anti-hero emerges, Chief Constable Percy Sillitoe. He believed in strong-arm tactics … Sillitoe would go on to become the director-general of MI5. His autobiography, Cloak Without Dagger, contained what became the definitive account of Glasgow’s gangs of the era. Davies demonstrates that it was self-serving and had errors of chronology but the chief constable’s approach, “giving the gangs a taste of their own medicine”, was widely praised.
Did it work? Davies prefers to highlight the work of clergymen who set up clubs as a counterweight to gang culture. They recruited hundreds of youngsters in poor districts, offering sport as an alternative to mooching about on street corners.
Nothing changes. Today, every six hours, someone in Glasgow receives a grievous knife injury. The root problem, now as then, is endemic poverty and the ever-expanding distance between rich and poor. As Davies grimly concludes, so long as gaping inequalities persist, gangsters will remain part of Glasgow’s story.’