Published in 1935, it shocked the public of the time with its depictions of violence and poverty in Glasgow’s notorious slum, The Gorbals, during the 1920s. (The Gorbals was probably only marginally improved by the publication date, the east end of Glasgow nearly 100 years later still being an area where many live below the poverty line.)
Written by an unemployed worker, Alexander McArthur, and London journalist, H Kingsley-Long, it focused on the razor gangs that fought for supremacy over the street corners and dirty tenements, telling the story of Johnnie Stark who fights his way to become the new Razor King of The Gorbals. Its mix of hard fact and fiction made it as potent as works in a similar area by George Orwell, though a certain amount of snobbery surrounding it prevented it from rising to similar status at the time.
No Mean City provided a starting point for me for a tale of pure pulp – Second City of Empire – from my latest collection of short stories, Fresh Blood Orange. Gale, the daughter of Caribbean immigrants and slaves, finds her Cut-Throat King boyfriend dead and sets out to cut her own path through the gangsters and gossips of Glasgow. (Excerpt below.)
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Second City of Empire
Gale was with her mum, among the women washing clothes with buckets and mangles in a fog of hot steam, when she heard the news. Iona had come looking for her. She’d expected something for months, felt the tension in the dancehalls and the pubs, but the news of the fight being delivered on a bright afternoon still shocked her.
She left immediately, telling Iona to wait there at the laundrette. She took a short cut through back gardens and tenement closes, her shoulders rubbing against the blackened sandstone where the buildings were so close together the sunlight couldn’t penetrate.
She felt eyes on her. She was used it, people swiping at her in sidelong glances or even boring into her with unabashed stares. This was down partly to her status as Finney’s girl and partly to being one of few black people in the Gorbals, maybe even all of Glasgow. But this time was different. She felt hunted and moved accordingly.
The journey was short but felt achingly long. She feared the worst. The climb to the fourth floor of her building may as well have been the ascent of a mountain, she felt lead in every step. While contemplating her feet she noticed blotches of black ink in a trail ahead of her. Blood. A jolt ran through her body and she started to run…