Glasgow has always been misunderstood and mislabeled, a city of contradictions. Most commentators see the (amazing at the time) nomination of Glasgow as the European Union’s official “City of Culture” in 1980 as the pivotal change in how the city was perceived. Suddenly the usual images of dark alleys, battered women and hard men, razor gangs and drunks was joined by a new view of Glasgow. It became a place of cappuccinos, boutiques selling expensive Japanese clothes, great architecture and welcoming people with a great sense of humor and warmth. This was meant to be the new city, a new era. The thing is, it was all a bit of a false distinction in the first place, a P.R. man’s view of social history. The Old Glasgow was so much more than people outside Glasgow thought. It was already a city of culture and more.
That’s why, when I first set out to write about Glasgow, I thought about 1973, peak dark days in Glasgow’s reputation. I remember those days very well. I was a ten-year-old then, old enough to begin to understand the adult world I was standing on the periphery of, mind open, mouth shut. Still too young to be left to my own devices I was dragged round Glasgow by my mum, my dad, my aunties and uncles. On those trips, I started to notice, and to think. Why were there men and women living on hit air grates beside the bus stop? Why were they drinking meths? Why was there a Rolls Royce parked in Sauchiehall Street, and who was Sir Hugh Fraser, the man that owned it? What exactly were “Castle pocket baggies” and why did I want them so badly? Was the Velvet Underground record my neighbor had lent me as amazing as I thought it was? Was Billy Connolly the funniest man who ever lived while sounding like all your uncles when they’d had a few drinks?
Old Glasgow was as exciting a place as I’ve ever been. It was dangerous, violent, fashionable, scary and wonderful. It was all there, you just had to pay attention, to look harder than usual.
“Tartan Noir”—the blanket term now used for crime novels set in Scotland—is thought to have its origins in a book by William McIlvanney called Laidlaw. However a less likely candidate to kickstart a crime novel sub genre you couldn’t imagine, though it was perfectly suited to Glasgow in those days. Laidlaw is really a novel in the high European modernist tradition that happens to be about crime. It’s more readily allied to other Scottish books and writers of the time that had little to do with crime but examined contemporary Glasgow life. Alasdair Gray’s Lanark is a comparison as is the work of the group of writers around Prof. Phillip Hosbaum at Glasgow University, notably James Kelman.
Laidlaw is literary, smart, tightly controlled. The lonely, alienated man in the modern city happens to be a cop. Crime is the prism through which McIlvanney looks at Glasgow and sees it as not a series of clichés but as a series of surprises.
This notion is so pronounced it is even integrated into the fabric of the book. Harkness, a character in Laidlaw remarks, “it was the Laidlaw effect, he decided. One day of him was enough to battle your preconceptions and make you unfamiliar with yourself.” The very action of “Being Laidlaw” is enough to disorientate, make you see the world anew. The thrust of the book is as much about the visibility of a different kind of Glasgow as it is about solving crime, about seeing Glasgow as a different kind of place.
I read Laidlaw when it came out in 1977, found it on my Dad’s bedside table. I was amazed that a book that was so good had places in it I had been—Central Station, Simshill, Buchanan Street, Park Circus. For the first time, someone was writing about the Glasgow I knew.
(Slight diversion – In my view the real first book of Tartan Noir is the “terrible” No Mean City, about life in the slums of the Gorbals published in 1935. When I say terrible, that is the received view. Personally I think its fantastic and I would recommend it highly.)
Anyway, back to high modernism: another glimpse of the Glasgow I knew, and would come to know. On the evening of the 5th of January, 1973, four years before McIlvanney’s Laidlaw and seven years before the “City of Culture” nod, David Bowie (or Ziggy Stardust) strode onto the stage of Greene’s Playhouse, Hope Street, Glasgow. The Leper Messiah himself come to save every alienated young boy and girl in Glasgow and to set them free. Those teenagers who wept and screamed and sang along were about as far from the teenagers who carried razors and ran with gangs as you could get. They were the ones who would grow up to open the boutiques, to serve cappuccinos, to form bands. David Bowie was another incendiary bomb aimed at the lie of Old Glasgow. He was welcomed with open arms, this stick thin, bone white thing miming sucking off Mick Ronson. This creature was the contradictions of Glasgow personified. Just like William McIlvanney, just like Billy Connolly, the poet Edwin Morgan, or the artist Joan Eardley.
And what a world Bowie made. Glasgow’s rock bands in the early to mid seventies were a pretty sorry lot, the usual hairy misogynist unremarkable blues rock. Bands as limited by talent as lack of ambition. Bar bands for want of a better word. The cooler kids of the time still loved music, they just didn’t want to go to the Burns Howff to see Beggars Opera. They were content to sit in their rooms listening to The Velvets and Bowie and T. Rex and Big Star and biding their time. When punk rock finally kicked the doors open, they were there. The nu-sonics, Johnny and The Self Abusers, Altered Images, Bowie’s children stepped to the front of the stage. The Mars Bar, Joannas, The Bungalow Bar became their Greene’s Playhouse.
And Glasgow was ready for them, well some of it was. (The fey, camp knowing amateurism of Orange Juice was like a red rag to bull for the fans of Nazareth et al.) But the real Old Glasgow was taking over. One minute, these bands were playing to three people in a scout hall; next minute they were all over the music press, the saviors of rock and roll. And they couldn’t really have been anything but Glaswegian. Where else would Clare Grogan have possibly come from? Edwin Collins? Jim Kerr? Edwin and Clare came from nice enough places but Jim Kerr came from The Circus in Toryglen a housing scheme everyone feared to tread. A real home of the razor kings and the moneylenders and yet there he was in black eye shadow singing songs about Nico and the threat of European fascism. That’s old Glasgow for you. Constantly surprising. The perfect breeding ground for a new kind of crime novel: modern and violent, full of contradictions.
If there is something that still binds and fascinates Glasgow no matter what year you are thinking about it, it is crime and violence. It’s a city where the threat of violence seems omnipresent, the evil twin of sophistication it waits, biding its time, ready to break through at any point. People always ask why is Glasgow so violent? It would take a far cleverer person than me to tell you but here’s my tuppence worth.
Glasgow is a city divided by religion. Protestants on one side Catholics on the other. The Irish economic immigrants that made up the bulk of the catholic community came here for work and being the lowest on the ladder were treated like shit. Excluded from housing, jobs, education out of necessity they formed their own social structure, their own schools, social clubs, churches, jobs. So it began the rift became bigger and more fixed. The two sides didn’t meet, they became strange to each other, unfamiliar different, the enemy. This sectarianism became embedded in the culture of west Scotland and still is. Celtic and Rangers. Papes and Huns. Churches and Chapels.
If two communities are continually separated, made to feel superior or inferior there will inevitably be tension and tension leads to violence. Old hates run deep. From King Billy to the hunger strikers the symbols of difference never dissipate, they are still active, still full of meaning.
If this sectarianism is the fire then let’s add the petrol. Alcohol. Glasgow is a city pickled in it. Not the sipped beer of the Italian cafe or the decanted wine of the French restaurant. Poverty, desperation and fear need stronger stuff. Whiskey, Buckfast, beer, cider, meths, hairspray bubbled through milk, boiled up boot polish. And when all that still isn’t enough comes the drugs. Smack, speed, tramadol, jellies, spice, E, street valium, acid, codeine, solpadine.
And all that stuff just adds up to more violence. If you aren’t out your face on a combination of it all and making terrible judgments about that to do if someone spills your pint or disrespects your district you are deep in the mechanics of the supply and demand fighting for areas to sell in, fighting for money owed, fighting for you place in the world.
With all that it’s hardly surprising the city has a violent reputation. Why wouldn’t it? But yet it’s our violence, our city and with that comes a kind of deformed pride. We are the drunkest. We are the most violent. We take the most drugs. Come and have a go if you are hard enough.Maybe that’s why we write crime books about Glasgow, it’s so near the bloody surface.
Maybe that’s why we write crime books about Glasgow, it’s so near the bloody surface. A wrong look, a mistaken identity, an offense taken not meant. The poverty and social division in the city is enormous, always will be no matter how many branches of Jo Malone and Michael Kors you open, no matter the cultural honors bestowed by well-meaning EU bureaucrats. Glasgow’s great shame is not its violence, it’s the poverty and social conditions in the city that can’t help but lead to it.
Perhaps the best illustration of this is the Garnethill trilogy by Denise Mina. It’s a crime novel set amongst the forgotten people of Glasgow. The women struggling in an inadequate mental health system. They are victims twice over, victims of their circumstances and victims of the privileged psychiatrist who preys on them. A neat illustration of the crippling division of class and power.
To a certain kind of rich man in Glasgow, a businessman, the working class of the city are invisible and disposable. Literally beneath contempt, or mare accurately beneath recognition. They don’t even see them. The suffering of the people that live less than three miles form them may as well be the sufferings of the third world. So when that businessman decides to find some unfortunates to fulfill his sexual desires that’s where he looks, to people who will literally do anything for the money. Not because they want to but because they can’t get it any other way. To him, poverty is a great aphrodisiac; to his victims’ poverty is just poverty.
So Glasgow remains what its always been. A city of wonder and pain. A city that is full of people whose lives are as fascinating and as full of worth as anybody else’s. A city full of people whose stories deserve to be told. A crime novel may well be the best and most exciting way to do that.