“Scotland and Ireland are the same place”, wrote Isidore of Seville. By drawing attention to the sectarian element in Glasgow’s gangland culture – the conflation of Catholic and ‘Irish’, and the collaboration of Unionist politicians with such Protestant gangs as the Billy Boys – Andrew Davies suggests that St Isidore’s remark was as true in the 1930s as it was 1400 years ago.
So much True Crime literature tends towards the ‘pulp fiction’ end of the market. Not so Davies’ account of the gangs of Glasgow in the early 20th century. It is a dispassionate and objective study, smoothly written and evidently the product of extensive research. There is a ‘pulp fiction’ element, in that Davies considers the 1935 publication of “No Mean City”, an influential narrative co-written by a Glaswegian who knew the tenements and their gangs only too well. “No Mean City” had a lasting impact, contributing to the lyrics of the ‘Taggart’ theme tune and creating a popular image of Glasgow which would last for fifty years.
It is to Andrew Davies’ credit that he seeks to uncover the reality of the Glasgow gangs, eschewing the lurid, the sensational, and the self-serving propaganda efforts of police and politicians, the press and the gangsters alike. The roots of Glasgow’s gang culture are traced back to de-industrialisation, unemployment, housing (poor quality and high density), endemic bigotry and youthful aggression in pretty much equal measure. There are good guys – a few churchmen made the effort to engage with the gangs and to provide solutions for their boredom and restlessness – and there are bad guys (hints of excessive police brutality, and an ugly combination of sectarianism and political extremism). But mostly, there are the gang members themselves: street-fighting men – and their compliant ‘Molls’ – slugging it out in a desperate quest for kudos.
The story told by Davies is one of extreme violence, ranging from the ‘square-go’ of single combat to pitched battles between excitable mobs. The weaponry and woundings are shocking, and the (occasional) murders are covered in some detail. But there is nothing exploitative, nothing gratuitous, in Davies’ account. He is scrupulously fair and impartial.
The welter of detailed information can feel a little overwhelming at times. Nonetheless, Davies does justice to his subject. If Glasgow came to be thought of as Britain’s Chicago, and the Gorbals as a no-go area, it is because of the gangland hard men and their portrayal in the media. Davies shines a balanced and sober light on the period and the people who ran with, were harmed by, and waged war on the gangs. His first-class account is as much Social History as it is True Crime.