They called it No Mean City, of course, and there was a time when the biblical tag depicted the violent underworld that permeated every corner of Glasgow. And this week its citizens could be forgiven for thinking Scotland’s largest city was bound for a return to the old days, when razor-slashing thugs and their gangs dominated their fiefdoms, working-class hardmen clenching the city in a vice-like grip.
For gangsterism, apparently, was returning to Glasgow. Scar-faced men were chopping away merrily at each other with knives, exotically nicknamed hoods strutting to fight for their east-end turf, although these days the violence is more like playground score-settling than the weapon of deterrence deployed by criminal masterminds.
Newspapers love a good crime story like no other, and there was a healthy rubbing together of hands earlier this year when Paul Ferris, 37, was freed from prison after a seven-year sentence for gun-running. He had always been happy to speak to the press, and when he told them this time he was leaving behind his life of crime for a new calling as a novelist, there were suppressed hoots of derision.
Ferris was the so-called security consultant, the gallus youngster who walked free from court a decade ago after the longest criminal trial in Scottish history, beating the rap of murdering the son of the feared Arthur Thompson. Police and journalists alike supposed it was only a matter of time before he came after Tam McGraw, 49, whom he blamed for his jailing. No-one supposed he would do it himself, though.
There is much in all of this we cannot know for sure. But we do know that last Friday McGraw was stabbed. Cue much speculation, more of it heat than light.
Then McGraw issued a statement through his solicitor saying he was fine and dandy. He gave the impression he was sitting at home eating Sunday lunch bearing nothing more than a couple of scratches. Next, on Monday, it was Thomas "TC" Campbell’s turn to feel a golf club round the head and a knife toward the ribs. He too was unhurt.
Campbell, convicted of the 1984 Ice Cream Murders when six members of the Doyle family died in a blaze in Ruchazie, Glasgow, has, like Ferris, long accused McGraw of building his criminal empire through acting as an informer to Strathclyde Police. More to the point, like Ferris, he blames McGraw for putting him behind bars.
The plot deepened as McGraw, surely able to afford others to carry out his dirty deeds for him, was said to have been present at the attack on Campbell, who says the attack was to silence him. Some sceptics reply that it was a bit late for that.
And, then, to round off a fine week, the Daily Record alleged yesterday that Ferris himself was involved in the initial attack on McGraw, and he too had been stabbed in the process.
Sorting the truth from the fiction here is impossible. And the point is this: does it matter any more? From the days of Thompson, a businessman whom no-one would ever accuse of criminality for fear of a libel suit, crime has moved on.
It is more white-collar now. The smart people invest their money several steps removed from themselves in ventures lending themselves to personal isolation. The very idea of personally participating in an attack on a rival - and computerisation means there is less need to engage in such area-denominated relationships now - would be dismissed as mad and dangerous. Put simply: why bother?
For police sources and criminal experts believe that, for all their entertainment value, the likes of Ferris, McGraw and Campbell are part of a dying breed. They are seen as B-list celebrities in the world of criminality, where few know who is on the A-list.
And even within Glasgow, where there are still the traditional players, they no longer rule the roost in their own city. They are fragmented, the days of the old-style Thompson dynasty gone, but also losing out to bigger players from Liverpool and London.
One intelligence officer with the Strathclyde Police puts it like this: "The very nature of crime has changed over the years. Things have become more hi-tech and the serious criminals are constantly adapting, focusing on large-scale fraud and even internet crime. The theft of microchips and computer software is one of the biggest growing sectors for criminals.
"Drugs play a huge part, but distribution networks come through the heavy-duty crime families in London and Liverpool. There are serious players in Glasgow but they don’t have the power they once had."
Not that the police are overly worried about the past week’s happenings. They have allowed themselves something of a chuckle. They reject suggestions that a full-scale gangland war is about to erupt, and are happy to see the perpetrators self-destruct.
"As things stand, we are just as in the dark as the public on this one," says the officer. "And, contrary to rumours, there are no dedicated detectives looking into the matter. As yet we have received no complaints of assaults from McGraw or Ferris. The only person we have interviewed is TC Campbell who we spoke to after eye-witnesses came forward to report the incident.
"At this point we may be looking to make an arrest for the Campbell incident for breach or affray but, while he co-operated with police, TC refused to identify his attackers.
"As for Paul Ferris, he remains on licence and our intelligence tells us he is keeping his nose clean, although with a character like Paul you can never be sure. It would be more than an educated guess to say the media is blowing a couple of small incidents into a full-scale gang war.
"Put it this way we’re not pressing the panic button just yet. The other thing we find difficult to understand is the nature of the alleged incidents. We know these people are serious players, so what would they be doing fighting in the gutter with knives? If they wanted to take someone out we believe they have the resources to do it properly. This has all the hallmarks of a playground fight."
Even the crime reporters in the old days had nicknames, and Stuart McCartney’s is "The Bullet". Retired now, he sounds almost wistful for the old days, when vendettas would have been dealt with cleanly and professionally. Not with blunt knives.
"It’s impossible to lift a newspaper these days without reading about the Licensee or Paul Ferris," he says. "They have attracted an air of celebrity. The reality is that the true gangsters, the serious players, never get caught. There is a great deal of dirt in the city and we only see what floats to the top. The police are more interested in what lies beneath the surface. That’s where the real criminals are.
"In my days as a writer we always referred to Arthur Thompson as a businessman. We couldn’t call him anything else. His criminal record was minor and he would almost certainly have sued if we had libelled him. Yet everyone knew what he did.
"The real difference between Thompson and someone like Paul Ferris is that Thompson never sought the publicity. The police were happy with the status quo imposed by Thompson. He kept the peace."
And so we are witnessing the death knell of an anthropological phenomenon: working-class criminal gangs as the rulers of the roost. Crime - as in serious, big-money crime - no longer happens that way, although there is always a handsome living to be made from smaller-scale operations. Nor does Glasgow work as it once did, with outsiders becoming more powerful, relative to the natives, at least.
It has been an entertaining few days. Headlines such as "Lifting the Lid on Gang Warfare" and "Gangland attacks rekindle No Mean City fears" are certainly enthralling reading, but if they are perused by Scotland’s leading criminals, they must surely bring a smirk to the readers’ lips.
It is said that Alexander McArthur, the author who first set the seal on Glasgow’s national reputation with his No Mean City offering, committed suicide by jumping into the Clyde in remorse for the stigma that attached to the city as a result of his novel. Like much in this tale, no-one seems sure if even that is true.
But what is clear is the description of the city that caused its authorities so much displeasure so long ago is long gone. Perhaps it is time for a new novelist to come up with something more apt. How about you, Mr Ferris?
End of a long line of criminals
THE last few days’ violence in Glasgow evokes the faintest echoes of the gangs of a generation ago.
In London, the Krays and the Richardsons have come to define how people perceive the organised crime bosses of the 1960s, with their "patches", their arcane rules and their violently antisocial lifestyles - all lent a spurious glamour by relentless media coverage and even by glitzy film coverage.
Ronnie and Reggie Kray dominated the London underworld with their lucrative protection and extortion rackets. When they were finally challenged by Charlie Richardson’s gang mayhem ensued: the Krays were jailed for murder in 1969.
By then their empire had seen close ties develop between the London gangs and the Glasgow underworld, where Arthur Thompson held sway. Now routinely labelled the "godfather" of crime, his lawyers were always swift to stifle any reference to his criminal activities in newspapers during his lifetime. "He wasn’t like these guys today, who’re always looking for publicity," remembers one seasoned crime reporter. "Arthur would talk to you in the pub, but he never wanted his name in the paper. And if it was, he was always ‘Glasgow businessman Arthur Thompson’."
Thompson was able to supply the London gangs with the "expertise" they required to take on their rivals. These Scottish thugs were "staunch" in London underworld terms (mad, violent, disgusting by most other standards), gangsters who were prepared to march into a rival’s pub, do their worst and get out of town on the first train from Euston.
"Mad" Frankie Fraser was one of the Krays’ enforcers, whose circle of acquaintances included Glaswegians Jimmy Boyle and Victor Russo. Russo achieved notoriety as a hitman whose activities earned the dubious distinction of a deportation order from England back to his own mean city.
Fraser himself was a legend. Shot at a dance in Clerkenwell in 1991, he kept to the criminal’s code and refused to name his assailant. Checking in to hospital, he gave his name as Tutankhamun, saying: "I’m keeping mum."
Thompson, too, proved adept at survival. Targeted by a rival Glasgow gang, the Welshes, he survived the car-bomb attack which killed his mother-in-law, Margaret Harrison, and at least two shootings. He was never convicted of any serious offence and died in his bed of a heart attack at the age of 62.
He was buried in the family plot at Riddrie Cemetery beside Harrison and his murdered son, a convicted heroin dealer, Arthur "Fat Boy" Thompson Jnr.
Nowadays, the manors have gone. Where 20 years ago parts of London or Glasgow could be seen as a family’s patch, criminals are more likely to work together in short-term deals, over regional territories.
The National Criminal Intelligence Service believes there are 930 organised crime groups in Britain, the majority indigenous. It estimates the drug trade they control generates 8.5 billion a year, or one per cent of GDP (this excludes additional income from activities such as prostitution, armed robbery and protection).
Drugs have become central to all organised criminals, and good overseas connections are vital. In London, the Adams family north of the river, and the Arifs to the south, are the most notorious operators, both exploiting continental connections to build their empires. Other groups, such as the Yardies, have widened from a London base to operate in Manchester and beyond.
It’s a frightening picture - but at least the days of the old Glasgow street-fighters could be numbered.