The problem with crime
The problem with crime

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The problem with crime

1 Overview

1 The problem with crime: Glasgow

Sean Damer examines the problem of crime in relation to Glasgow. The audio programme was recorded in 2001.

Participants in the audio programme were:

  • Sean Damer Staff Tutor in Politics for The Open University, Scotland and is based in the University of Glasgow;

  • Moira Burgess a pre-eminent bibliographer of Glasgow and analyst of Glasgow in fiction;

  • Jimmy Boyle a graduate of Barlinnie Prison's famous Special Unit.

All are experienced OU tutors.

Activity 1

Listen to the audio files. You may find it helpful to listen to the recordings a second time and take notes.

The problem with crime part 1 (10.5 minutes 5 MB)

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Hello. This is audio cassette 1, side 2, for the D315 course. I'm Dr. Sean Darner of the Sociology Department at the University of Glasgow and a D315 course tutor. Chapter 4 ofBook I, "The Problem of Crime", focusses on the city as a dangerous place. It raises general themes of order and disorder, the way these are represented or signified, and the place of crime in these representations. From the nineteenth century onwards the city has been consistently perceived as a place containing dangerous classes of people living in dangerous places. These people and these places are not only dangerous, they are. or are at least potentially, criminal. They represent the dark forces of disorder which threaten the day-to-day order of the city. In this discussion I would like to suggest that not only can neighbourhoods within the city be represented as dangerous but, indeed, whole cities can be so represented. And I will take my city, the city of Glasgow, as an example.
In 1999 the external image of Glasgow is by-and-large positive. It is perceived as being a warm, friendly, dynamic city full of gallus punters who all talk like Billy Connolly. But this image is relatively recent, in fact, barely ten years old. A historical perspective shows that over the last two hundred years or so the image of Glasgow has undergone a dramatic series of changes. When I say 'image' I am referring to the external general perception of the city, in other words, the mental picture of Glasgow entertained by non-Glaswegians, particularly those from south of the Border. This alerts us to the fact that the city's image is something which is socially constructed. And, like all social constructions, it is contested. So what does the trajectory of Glasgow's image look like in historical terms? Before even answering this question, think about what kind of data we would look for in methodological terms that would tell us something about external perceptions of Glasgow. A key source would have to be literary representations of Glasgow, in both fictional and non-fictional forms.
In 1799 Glasgow was perceived as a thriving town dominated by the textile industry. It was a prosperous town of considerable architectural elegance. William and Dorothy Wordsworth visited it in 1803 and observed:- MICHAEL PERCEY AL-MAXWELL (source: WIiiiam and Dorothy Wordsworth, out of copyright: Duration: 19 '7 "The Trongate, an old street, is very picturesque - high houses, with an intennixture of gable fronts towards the street. The New Town is built of fine stone, in the best style of the very best London streets at the west end of the town, but, not being of brick, they are greatly superior."
But within fifty years this image had been utterly transfonned. Here is a description of the city in 1849. MICHAEL PERCEY AL-MAXWELL (from "Glasgow Observed", page 86, edited by Simon Berry and Hamish Whyte, pub: /987 Edinburgh: John Donald Publishers ltd; original source unknown, Dural/on: 56'7 "It is in those frightti.d abodes of human wretchedness which lay along the High Street, Saltmarket, and Briggate, and constitute the bulk of that district known as the 'Wynds and Closes of Glasgow', that all sanitary evils exist in perfection. They consist of ranges of narrow closes, only some four or five feet in width, and of great length. The houses are so lofty that the direct light of the sky never reaches a large proportion of the dwellings. There is no drainage in these neighbourhoods, except in a few cases; and from the want of any means of flushing the sewers, where they do exists, are extended cesspools polluting the air. So little is house drainage in use, that on one occasion I saw the entire surface of a back yard covered for several inches with green putrid water, although there was a sewer in the close within a few feet into which it might have been drained away."
What was responsible for the dramatic change in imagery in such a short space of time? There were two reasons. The first was the industrial explosion 9f Glasgow; the second was the population explosion. The availability of coal and iron-ore, on the one hand, and the River Clyde, facing towards America on the other, meant that Glasgow was wide open to industrial expansion. It needed only labour power to fuel such expansion. And that was not long in coming. Glasgow was invaded in the first half of the nineteenth century initially by Highlanders fleeing the Clearances, and latterly by Irish fleeing the Famine.
By the end of the nineteenth century the population of Greater Glasgow was well over a million people. Three-quarters of this population - working-class people - lived in grossly overcrowded 'single-ends' or 'rooms-and-kitchens' - that is, single-roomed or two-room small tenement houses, most with outside toilets. Within the city the sheer scale of the public health problems associated with such over-crowding forced the Corporation to take on more and more municipal powers fired by a Presbyterian zeal that cleanliness was indeed next to Godliness. This phenomenon came to be known as municipal socialism although there was not much that was socialist about it. The historian T.C. Smout sums this up wittily.
MICHAEL PERCEVAL-MAXWELL (from "Glasgow: Going For A Song", page I I 2. written by Sean Domer, pub: London: Lawrence&: Wishart, 1990; original source unknown; Dura/ion: 33'') "In Glasgow a citizen may live in a municipal house: he may walk along the municipal street, or ride on the municipal tramcar and watch the municipal dust-cart collecting the refuse which is to be used to fertilise the municipal fann. Then he may tum into the municipal market, buy a steak from an animal killed in the municipal slaughterhouse, and cook it by the municipal gas stove. For his recreation he can choose among municipal libraries, municipal art galleries and municipal music in municipal parks ... "
But in spite of its slum housing problems the industrial growth continued apace. Glasgow's heavy engineering and ship and locomotive building output was so massive that by the third quarter of the nineteenth century it had developed a new, highly positive image as the second city of empire and the workshop of the world. Delegations came from North American cities like Chicago, New York and Philadelphia to inspect Glasgow's colossal shipyards and foundries and marvel at the scale of its municipal enterprises. The self-confidence of the city was clearly signified by its external image and was also reflected in its literature. Moira Burgess is the pre-eminent bibliographer of Glasgow and analyst of Glasgow in fiction. Moira, to what extent was this commercial and industrial self-confidence reflected in the contemporary Glasgow novel?
Well, there's a lively picture of a self-confident, mercantile Glasgow in a Victorian novel called "Saint Mungo's City" published in 1884. The author Sarah Tytler, in fact, came from Fife and moved to London when she became well-known as a writer. To that extent this is an outsider's view. There is a slightly convoluted plot about a disputed inheritance but probably the main interest to us is this picture of a bustling, enthusiastic, attractively naive nineteenth century Glasgow. We meet a young English visitor who's delighted with Glasgow life, its powerful vitality, innumerable lights and shades and the magnitude of its achievements which is rather a nice summing up of Glasgow's image at that time. A few years later we find another loving depiction of the commercial world in Frederick Niven's "Justice of the Peace" published in 1914 but describing things as they were a few years before around the tum of the century. Niven knew this world well. He'd been an apprentice in a soft goods warehouse for some years though his heart wasn't really in it. The main character is Ebenezer Moir, the warehouseman and Justice of the Peace. He's shown as a most appealing man, kind and vulnerable for all his business skills. Niven, who also studied art at one time, has an artist's eye for his city - the streets, the buildings, the effect oflight - and his Glasgow is a beautiful place as well as a prosperous one.
The events of the First World War were to change all that. The emergence ofa genuinely national British press in the nineteenth century was vital in this process. For it was the Victorian media which was critically responsible for the social construction of urban myths such as the legendary competition between Edinburgh and Glasgow, for example, or the tightfistedness of Aberdonians.
By 1919 Glasgow was damned thoroughly as the 'Red Clyde'. A leader in the London Times of that year coined the phrase which was to last right up until the present day. The trouble started with the labour militancy ofthe wartime years, with flashpoints in 1915 during the famous Glasgow Rent Strike, in 1916 with the Sedition trial of John Maclean and other working-class leaders, in 1918 with yet more trials, and ended with the 40 Hours Strike, and pitched fighting on the streets on "Bloody Friday", January 31" 1919. The image of the city was now one of a place full of belligerent communists and socialists hell-bent on turning Glasgow into Britain's St. Petersburg. The image was conveyed in striking newspaper photographs of helmeted troops patrolling with fixed bayonets, tanks in the city's cattle­ market, and machine-gun posts on the roofs overlooking George Square. If it all sounds a bit dramatic now we should not forget that 1919 was the year of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia and that the British bourgeoisie was not alone in being alarmed about the intentions of the local working-class movement.
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The problem with crime part 1
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The problem with crime part 2 (7.5 minutes 5 MB)

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A point worth making is that deviant labels, albeit of dangerous people or dangerous places, frequently bear little relationship to the truth. Deviant labels are ideological formulations. That is to say, they carry and signify what we might call 'commonsense' versions of the truth, formulations which 'everybody knows' are the case. They are shorthand, often stereotypical, representations of an infinitely more complex truth which purport to explain away that complexity. They do not constitute truth; they are refractions of truth. But labels still have very real effects. So for Glasgow in 1919 it did not matter that there was no organised conspiracy whatsoever to cause a revolution. It was portrayed ideologically as in a revolutionary ferment, the deviant label of political militancy stuck, and the whole city was damned as a hotbed of militant British Bolshevism.
Within three years there was a very important amplification of that deviant label. In 1922 Glasgow elected ten Independent Labour Party M.P.s including John Wheatley, David Kirkwood and James Maxton. Their disruptive tactics in the House of Commons gained them the label 'the wild men of the Clyde'. Again we have to remember the contemporary resonance of that label. It comes from the term 'the wild man of Borneo' meaning some kind of atavistic savage. The term was meant to deny rationality to these socialist M.Ps whose · tactics by today's standards were rather well-behaved. It served its purpose: Glasgow and its people were thoroughly damned. The level of deviance attributed to the city is captured in the following quotation from ·a 1924 book about Glasgow called "Cancer of Empire".
"The Red Clyde, the smouldering danger ofrevolution in Glasgow, owing to the swift development of political affairs in Britain, has ceased to be a local anxiety, and become an interest and an alarm to the whole civilised world. The mainspring of the trouble, the root grievance of the Clyde, is Housing. This is a simple term for a cancerous condition which, starting from the lack of space and light in the homes of the workers, festers and complicates itself, in numberless vicious circles, feeding on their Scottish vigour of character, their education, their stony wills; has developed into a political movement, quite apart from Marxianism, which threatens to harden into almost as rigorous an extremism as Leninism itself."
This language managed to do something very clever. It conflated the alleged Bolshevism of Glasgow with its slums. The deviant slum image of the middle of the nineteenth century had been resuscitated, amplified, and was to have a long history. As the 1920s persisted the image of Glasgow became steadily worse. The new horror story was gang warfare. A combination of heavy policing and heavier sentencing broke the back of these fighting gangs by the start of the 1930s. But then, in 1936 came the event which totally damned Glasgow. And that was the publication of the novel "No Mean City". Listen to this.
MICHAEL PERCEVAL-MAXWELL (from "No Mean City", chop/er XI. poges /21-/23, wrillen by Alexander McArthur ond H. Kingsley Long, pub: London, Corgi 1978; Dural/on: I '28" (copyright permission for use from Jane Miller, The C. W. Daniel Company Lid., Saffron Walden, Essex) "A crowd numbering close upon a thousand assembled on Glasgow Green to watch the fight between Razor King and big McLatchie. The seconds sprang back into a wall of spectators and the fight was on with no mockery of a handshake. Razor King, bullet head tucked into his chest, rushed in to the attack. McLatchie, with some notions of"boxing", gave ground, careful to guard his body, waiting for a chance to use his left.
Johnnie had no science; he relied on his strength and ferocity and great capacity to take punishment. He got in with two lightning-quick jabs to McLatchie's body, left himself wide open, and received a smashing blow to the nose that set the blood flowing freely.
His left fist landed another punch to the head. Johnnie gave a bellow oflaughter, rushed furiously into fists that flailed like a windmill, shot out a dexterous foot, and tripped McLatchie so that the big red-head fell backwards like a log. In an instant, while the shout that greeted that fall was still ringing, Razor King raised his right foot and brought the boot down hard on McLatchie's face between the eyes.
"Take that, yah red swine!" he roared. McLatchie was out.
There is no appeal to Caesar in these gladiatorial combats. Johnnie took no chances. He kicked furiously at the fallen man's body and McLatchie's eyes closed in his mangled face."
It would be hard to over-estimate the damage done to Glasgow's image by this book. It was written by an unemployed baker called Alexander McArthur who lived in Waddell Street in the Gorbals. It was unpublishable in the form in which it was originally written but the publishers, Longmans, were impressed enough with the raw material to employ a professional journalist, H. Kingsley Long, to rewrite McArthur's material. The book was published in both their names and was all about violent gangs. Such descriptions of physical violence were nowhere near as common in the 1930s as they are now, so it is hardly surprising that ''No Mean City" made some impact. I am not denying that there was sectarianism,or gangs, or violence. All of these things existed. But they also existed in London and Manchester and Liverpool. How many of you would know that there were razor gangs in Sheffield in the 1930s? The point is that whatever the truth, the whole city of Glasgow had been successfully labelled as dangerous by 1939. The question we have to ask here is why Glasgow? Why not Sheffield? Or Liverpool? My own feeling is that through the Tory press the State ensured that Glasgow was punished for its radical socialism, that British citizens, especially south of the Border, were constantly reminded that the wages of socialism and the Red Clyde was mindless violence. Some of you may feel that this is too much of a conspiracy theory. Well, I would point out that the Town Councillors on the Corporation of Glasgow in the 1920s and 30s recognised only too well that the city's external image was a violent and dangerous one and were never done complaining bitterly about it. They actually banned "No Mean City" from Glasgow's public libraries. While precise figures have never been kept, my own estimate is that this novel sold some 16,000 copies before the start of the Second World War - and it is still in print. Corgi acquired the paperback rights in l 9S7 and has printed 27 impressions, selling a total of nearly 600,000 copies. It still sells about 3000 copies every year. In any event, McArthur's book served to rubbish Glasgow completely. It had become "Violent City", the most dangerous place in Britain. Successful sculptor and writer Jimmy Boyle is a graduate of Barlinnie Prison's famous Special Unit. His book, "A Sense of Freedom" catalogues a youthful life of violent crime in Glasgow. Jimmy, as someone who knows his subject, what were these gangs all about?
There was a common thread that run through it all, in the sixties, and that was about people getting a reputation, you know. lfyou looked at each of these characters they would all be people who were like me, no different, you know, dunces at school, failure in life and the only way they ever got any kudos was through warfare in the streets. You inevitably got sucked into those gangs and I can say to you I can remember feeling that I was a fighter. In fact I can always remember being very, very scared and to just put that into context, I can remember this guy Mard Oni, and you know there'd always be a lot of girls hanging around him, there were these boys and he said, look there's a gang coming from over Bridgetown to fight so we need as many handers as we can get, and all of this is taking place ten yards from the police station so you couldn't refuse Oni because he was completely nuts and so we said, we don't really know how to fight, you know, and there was maybe about twelve ofus and there was maybe about twenty of them, and then there was all these girls hanging around the periphery and I can remember them getting a cache of weapons and giving us weapons and they gave me a knuckleduster and then, he says, well I'm going to teach you how to fight. I tell you, I was absolutely terrified and he says, right, you come and I'll show you and everybody'd gathered around so I was obviously really crapping myself and he went for me and (finger snap) in a moment I lashed out with the knuckleduster and burst his head and in that moment everything changed, everything changed, and that's, and so it was all that instinctual sort of fear-ridden way that you get drawn, and he looked at me and thought, well, you're crazy, because everybody just believed in, in, in the name Mard Oni and nobody had really put it to the test in any real way and here it was and suddenly I became the hero. It suddenly gave you an aura, · an, an a sort of feeling of, I wouldna' say power but it made you somebody and it was so important so going to fight with other gangs was very important and fighting with other guys and a lot of them were, you know, there was different gangs in, say, the Gorbals, where I was from. There was the Hammer four streets away, and yet there was the Cumbi, it was as, and then there was other gangs, the Dixie which was up at Cally Road, so there was all of these gangs and there was lots of friction between them and rivalry and we sort of fought between each other. Our gang became considerably different from all the previous ones in the sense that the leaders of the Govan team, the leaders of the Partick team, the leader of the Black Hill team and the Gorbals, we all came together and there was a different things, and that became a bit more professional, you know, but the very early part of that was, was all to do with, you know, I'm somebody and I'm going to fight you and beat people up and slash people and that was about reputation. It was definitely not about money.
End transcript: The problem with crime part 2
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The problem with crime part 3 (4.5 minutes 4 MB)

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The Second World War brought a hiatus in the negative imaging of Glasgow. There were much more dangerous people to rubbish than Glaswegians. And indeed, for some years after the War, Glasgow sustained a positive image largely as a result of the efforts of the Corporation. It involved itself in a massive council house-building programme in an effort to deal with the problem of the slums and films of this programme went the rounds of British cinemas.
But under the hype the reality was that the old Glasgow was doomed. The whole country was re-structuring economically and the ship-building skills and political militancy of Clydeside workers were as obsolete as the tenements in which they lived. In the 1960s Glasgow went in for 'comprehensive redevelopment', as the planners called it. What that meant was comprehensive destruction of the tenement city -starting with -guess where? -the Gorbals, the location for the violent events of"No Mean City", and Jimmy Boyle's neighbourhood. But now there was television. So again Glasgow's image got a boost as the Corporation could shqw the whole of Britain that it meant business, that it was determined to demolish every single slum and with them the "No Mean City" imagery. But unfortunately, towards the end of the 1960s, the pre-war imagery of violence burst into flame again.
The issue was gang warfare in the Easterhouse housing scheme - or perhaps we should say 'alleged gang warfare'. What happened was that when these vast working-class schemes were built on greenfield sites no services were included in the brave new world and this was not the fault of the tenants, but the planners. There are football teams in Glasgow called Celtic and Rangers. So it is hardly surprising that some teenage kids formed groups and started fighting each other. What was surprising was the speed with which this was translated into a classic moral panic by the media. In no time flat Glasgow was portrayed as coming down with gang violence. Interestingly enough, at this period the stereotypes of Glasgow as violent city were both shared and reproduced by some social scientists who, of course, are supposed to be critical of media inspired moral panics. 1973 saw the publication of a lamentable book called "A Glasgow Gang Observed" which was serialised in one of the Sunday quality newspapers accompanied by a graphic ofa bottle getting wrapped round someone's head. This book purported to give an insider's view ofa Glasgow youth gang and is full of prurient detail about sex and violence.
MICHAEL PERCEY AL-MAXWELL (from "A Glasgow Gang Observed", wrillen by James Patrick, pub. London: Eyre Methuen, 1973. Duration: 25'') "The variety of weapons I saw was manifold, the types I heard of legendary. Hatchets, hammers, knives, meat cleavers, meat hooks, bayonets, machetes, open razors, sharpened tail­combs, all these were the regular chibs. Bottles of all sorts and tumblers and bricks and sticks were employed in emergencies."
This book further amplified the deviant reputation of Glasgow as 'Violent City' and did so successfully precisely because the author was a social scientist. Then a series of highly dramatic television films written by Peter McDougall in the 1970s and 1980s portrayed a series ofimages of hard men battling it out with each other. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s there was also a stream of television documentaries made in and about Glasgow. The cumulative effect of them all was to ensure that Glasgow's image was truly awful by the 1980s.
What happened next is fairly well know, although its interpretation is still open to controversy. Under the then Lord Provost, Glasgow started an active public relations campaign aimed specifically at reversing the utterly negative image of the city. Its slogan was 'Glasgow's Miles Better' and it evoked images of Glasgow as a friendly city, as a city of considerable architectural interest, and as a city with a beautiful hinterland. There has been a spectacular reversal of the negative, violent imagery to the extent that Glasgow won the status of European City of Culture in 1990 and in 1999 City of Architecture. While the meaning of that status was a matter of considerable controversy within Glasgow I think it would be fair to say that its effect has been a new mood of optimism in the city, a civic reinvigoration, and a quiet pleasure that the city's many beautiful Victorian buildings and parks are now nationally acknowledged, as are its many cultural facilities, and numerous talented artists. There has been a positive blossoming of Glasgow literature in the last couple of decades, and what is interesting is how the images of Glasgow in fiction have changed. Moira Burgess again.
The great breakthrough came in 1981 with the publication of Alasdair Gray's novel "Lanark". This had a marvellous empowering effect on Glasgow writers who seemed to discover that Glasgow fiction didn't have to deal with those old topics of slums, gangs, shipyards, hard men, that it didn't have to stick to a programme of grim realism. After "Lanark", in short, it's a case of anything goes. So, we have James Kellman's work, published in book form from the 1980s onwards with his technique of interior discussion so to call it which gives a voice and a thoughtful, intelligent voice to a whole stratum of society which had never been heard from before. We have Janice Galloway's first novel, "The Trick is the Keep Breathing", published in 1989, centred on a woman struggling out of a nervous breakdown, that's as far as possible from the old hard man character. A magic realism arrives in Glasgow fiction with A.L. KeMedy's 1995 novel "So I Am Glad" as the seventeenth century Cyrano de Bergerac turns up in a Glasgow bedsit. Anything's possible in Glasgow today. That's what the new Glasgow fiction says.
I have tried to show that the labelling of Glasgow as a dangerous place in the nineteenth and twentieth century derives from a complex of economic, political and social processes which can only be unpacked by historical analysis. These processes are unique to Glasgow, in my view, but do have parallels in other British cities. What appears to be a constant is that under capitalism there is a need to project an imagery of certain urban neighbourhoods and certain cities as dangerous places, as the locii of fearful forces. What you might care to think about is this. Who, in contemporary British society, is afraid? Of whom, and what is it that they are afraid? How do they project these fears symbolically? On what historical continuities can they draw in such projections? Does everyone share them? As a final treat, sit back, relax, and listen to this imagery of Glasgow written by local poet Donny O'Rourke. Cheerio.
MICHAEL PERCEY AL-MAXWELL (from "Great Westem Road",a poem written by Donny O 'Rourke in "The Waistband, and Other Poems", pub: Edinburgh, Polygon, /997; Duration: 35" (copyright permission for use from Alison Bowden, Polygon, Edinburgh) "Glasgow, you look beatific in blue and I've a Saturday before me for galleries and poems, a house full of Haydn, and beneath my kitchen window, tennis stars in saris lobbing backhands at the bins. French coffee, and who knows maybe Allen Ginsberg in my bath! then round to the dairy where scones are cooling on the rack and Jimmy won't let me leave till I've tried one there and then, here, where the new Glasgow started - an old grey city going blonde .... "
End transcript: The problem with crime part 3
The problem with crime part 3
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