Taggart, STV’s perennial cop show, returned to our screens a few weeks ago. For those who’ve never seen it, Taggart endures as a popular example of the crime procedural, despite its spell-it-out dialogue and declamatory acting. To promote this latest outing the show’s legendary strapline – there’s been a murder – features in an ambitious trailer displaying jaundiced shots of Glasgow where police tape spans every corner and crevice; the entire city posing as crimescene. Even the local branch of Waterstone’s is cashing in. On the first floor, lately devoted to all things criminal, I find a shelf headed There’s been a murderrr (sic) doubtless created by the same designer responsible for the signage in their bioghapy (sic) section. A bookshop. I mean to say…
From the southside I cross the new pedestrian bridge to the city’s designated financial district, along the north bank of the Clyde and up the steep gradient of West Campbell Street, where suddenly I’m confronted by a real crime scene; police tape wrapped round a council dumpster blocking the pavement close to the entrance to Gamba, one of the city’s better restaurants. Another murder? Not according to the BBC News website, reporting just another sexual assault. Or so it seemed until I spotted a second length of police tape spanning the opposite corner, which turned out to be a separate incident and a murder to boot.
Strathclyde’s Finest don’t name the victim of the sexual assault, merely that she was a prostitute, treatment on par with the serial murders of seven Glasgow prostitutes committed during the 1990s that to this day go largely unsolved. The murder victim, Michael Davis, 21, worked in the city’s financial district, killed during an unprovoked knife attack, the weapon of choice in a city where guns are the exception. At his workplace on Bothwell Street, once the site of the magnificent Victorian Gothic YMCA building, floral tributes to Mr. Davis line the entrance to its faceless replacement. Whatever else this city lacks, it sure ain’t crime, just as Taggart sure ain’t The Wire.
Many blogs ago, I wrote about the late Cliff Hanley’s autobiography, Dancing in the Street, struck by his acute observation of Glasgow’s ‘non-profit violence’ and the endemic gang culture that each generation or so attracts London BBC film crews to the city. One BBC Panorama production I recall from the mid-1960s featured the wars waged by razor gangs in Glasgow’s dancehalls. Riding on the back of the Bible John murders, the programme sought to expose the high incidence of violent crime by anecdote alone.
The parachuting-in of a London reporter: besuited, raincoat, skinny tie – channelling Conrad’s Heart of Darkness via Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner – to Tiffany’s in Sauchiehall Street on a dark rainy Saturday night amid a swarm of wax-pale, sharp-suited youths only incited the kind of braggadocio normally seen in the seedier side of Palermo. Most compelling about this scenario was the reporter’s expression of faltering incomprehension as the youths recounted tales of gangland Glasgow. All that was missing was the pith helmet and swagger stick.
As documentary fodder goes, the premise: Glasgow = violence is hardly breaking news. Violent crime occurs in all major UK cities, with Nottingham currently topping the polls. Here in Chib Central, the verb ‘to malky’ (to slash a victim with a blade) never cut it with me (pun intended). Close as I am to the ground, I’ve never heard anyone use the word so I reject it as an outmoded literary trope just as I reject Glesga Patter compendiums for their manufactured couthiness in the service of profit, aimed at unwary tourists and gullible locals alike.
At least Michael Munro’s seminal work, The Patter: A Guide to Current Glasgow Usage (1985, Glasgow District Libraries) had the virtue of authenticity in its listing of the local lingo. Not that it would have helped much during my English oral exams at school, the purpose of which I failed to grasp, apart from earning derision from my teacher, Miss Beaton.
Among my fellow alumni of Hillhead High – Gordon Jackson, Alexander Mackendrick and Alistair MacLean – the veteran actor/comedian Stanley Baxter, so enamoured of Glasgow he moved to North London decades ago, is a prime provocateur in the city’s self-harm. His portrayal on network TV of the Glasgow dialect as foreign language, Parliamo Glasgow, reinforced in the nation’s psyche the perception of the city as an alien place.
Baxter’s schtick, that of a visiting academic translating incomprehensible Glaswegian argot in the best RP while simultaneously performing as a slang-slinging native, was lapped up by the punters, many of them fellow citizens, sat in their new council flats in front of rented or coin-slot TVs. As a kid, watching his shows induced in me a cringing toxic dread that dogs me to this day, acutely sensitive of how others are quick to diminish one’s character by dint of accent.
Parliamo Glasgow, undeniably popular, also exploited that endless seam of British comedy – class – with Glaswegians drawn as indolent, drunken, bestial scum. The backdrops to these sketches aped the bleakest of slum tenement interiors, where the characters’ sorry lives unravelled round a kitchen table littered with spent cans of McEwans Ale. Today you can still find bumper stickers, curiously contrived in the red-black graphic mode of London street signs – of unintelligible compound phrases – e.g. – huzzebrungabo’al? – ‘has our guest been kind enough to bring along a bottle to the party?’ Or punnaburrafurramurra – ‘please may I have a pound of butter for my mother?’
This perceived problem of the ugliness of British regional accents is not confined to Glasgow. In 2009 Beryl Bainbridge’s criticism of her fellow Liverpudlians’ mode of speech provoked scorn when she opined how ‘they all need elocution lessons‘. Bainbridge’s argument, citing Coronation Street and Brookside as the abetting villains in the decline of ‘proper’ diction, that Scousers ‘sound unintelligent‘, betrayed a cultural and class prejudice common to all who self-loathe.
In 1947, the socialist and feminist writer, Naomi Mitchison, described Glasgow thus –
The language deployed by Mitchison, born into the Haldane dynasty, beggars belief for its naked hostility – ‘wild slippered sluts’. Unlike George Orwell’s investigation of the social conditions of the Lancashire working classes in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), one senses Mitchison’s lack of curiosity of or concern for the inhabitants of Gallowgate, plainly failing to engage with those she so blithely denigrates.
One suspects, like Mitchison’s condemnation, at the heart of Bainbridge’s criticism is a deeper hatred of Liverpool and its people and, by extension, of her own very being. Accent is the least of it. What she was really saying is ‘this place and these people are ugly’. Sad then that this year Bainbridge died ignorant of the fact that as an influential medium TV is deader than disco.
On the matter of the Glasgow accent, Mitchison concedes nothing –
No other UK city is caricatured quite as negatively in the nation’s collective psyche on quite so many levels as The Dear Green Place. On Radio 4’s Today programme, in an ill-judged statement by NATO’s man in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill, Glasgow is listed as a worse place to raise children than Kabul. In the 21st century the very mention of the city conjures social services worst nightmare: casual violence, alcoholism, poverty, drug addiction, slum dwelling, unemployment, bad diet, chronic poor health, low life expectancy, benefit-sponging and murder. Glasgow’s ‘No Mean City’ notoriety endures.
Arguably the most famous work of fiction set in the city, the title is borrowed from the Bible, in Acts 21:19, where Paul introduces himself:
No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums was published in 1935 and written by Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long, respectively an “unemployed alcoholic” Glaswegian slum dweller and a London journalist. How this unlikely collaboration came to exist is lost knowledge. Where a generous soul might imagine a well-intentioned Orwellian stranger burning with righteous anger to document the unfavourable conditions of North Britain, a cynic might compare NMC with the ethos of Murdoch’s empire and the rest of the dirt-raking rags that sensationalise misery and deprivation in the guise of human interest.
Either view does the book a disservice. On publication, NMC was banned by Glasgow’s libraries for its realist depiction of razor-gang violence while attracting favourable reviews from the Times Literary Supplement. The narrative centres on two brothers, Johnnie and Peter Stark, the former a twin-bladed wrong ‘un to his sibling’s political idealist and is as much about a social awakening than a sensational slash-fest. I first read the book as a teenager living in the war zone of Pollok in the early 1970s, where gang culture had transported itself from the inner city to the post WW2 schemes and where pitched battles, often staged at the Braidcraft Road roundabout, were frequent events, at least until hashish and harder drugs neutered the schemes.
If the statistics are to be believed, according to a recent Evening Times campaign, the city’s violent crime rate is down 23% on previous years, with the murder rate reduced to 20 in 2009-10. Perhaps more revealing are the levels of attempted murder and serious assault which, though greater in volume, are also reported as in decline. Topping the tables, however, is common assault – although I’m unsure of the distinction – with Central Station cited as the most dangerous location with 319 reported incidents.
Such negative reckoning, of what it means to be Glaswegian, shored up by the media for the best part of three centuries, has resulted in little short of hate crime, a kind of casual racism that goes unchallenged in multi-culti Britain. Yet since the Irish famine of the 1840s, Glasgow has embraced more refugees and asylum seekers than the majority of UK cities. Meanwhile The Scotsman relishes in its coverage of City Council corruption and, during the Edinburgh Festival, radio panel shows abuse Glasgow, a soft target for material-poor stand-ups – ‘at least I have a flush toilet in my digs, not like Glasgow, where they call it a sink’. And when BBC Drama, devoid of irony, calls a city-set love story Glasgow Kiss, I carry what the media would doubtless call ‘the full fish supper’ on my shoulder.
The carapace of the average Glaswegian is, in some measure, justified, but bearing so heavy a burden makes it hard to move with the times. During the 1980s, the Council’s attempt to improve the city’s image was necessary when Glasgow was failing, thanks mainly to Thatcherite policies, though the use of Roger Hargreaves’ character, Mr Happy, in the Glasgow’s Smiles Better campaign, devised by ex-Lord Provost, Michael Kelly’s PR company, met with more bemusement than approval.
Today Glasgow’s image is in the hands of the publicly-funded City Marketing Bureau which employs 43 staff and whose recent Glasgow: Scotland with Style rebranding exercise commits crimes against Mackintosh’s typography. Judging by their board membership, at least there’s a measure of continuity in the greasing of palms of local politicians, as meticulously researched in an incisive piece, The New Bohemia, by Rebecca Gordon Nesbitt whose commentary on the stealth privatisation of the city’s Culture and Leisure Services (Culture and Sport Glasgow, now known as Glasgow Life) earned the journal, Variant, a gagging order and a ban in all CSG premises.
Sadly I see no end to the ‘problem’ of being Glaswegian any time soon. To illustrate the point, recently I was approached by Peter Ross, a staff writer on Scotland on Sunday who like most, arrived at this website by chance. Together with photographer, Robert Perry, last week we travelled to the Humbie Mound – the Devil’s Plantation – to take pictures and to try to rekindle the spirit of Harry Bell.
Ross’ praise for The Devil’s Plantation is gratifyingly fulsome but his initial take on me – someone he had never met before – gave me pause. Depicted as tough, my voice throaty, a proper Glaswegian speaking proper Glaswegian, had I hailed from, say, Perth, London or Milan, I doubt my mode of speech would matter more than what I have to say. Few other artists, writers or filmmakers are subject to this kind of categorisation, where one’s origins overshadow one’s work, just as the ghost of the late Mark McManus still stalks the city and the cop show bearing his character’s name.