On a razor's edge: Neds portrays 70s Glasgow in one light, but what was it really like?

Peter Mullan's new film Neds portrays gang violence in Glasgow in the 1970s, but what was the reality? Stephen McGinty recounts life in a city dubbed Little Chicago

• Frankie Vaughan on a visit to Easterhouse in Glasgow in 1968 in an attempt to organise peace between rival gangs

HE WAS dressed in a midnight- blue suit, with a 12-inch middle vent, three-inch flaps over the side pockets and a light-blue handkerchief with a white polka dot tucked in the top pocket and picked to match his tie: the smart uniform of the Maryhill Fleet in the winter of 1966. He was standing in a local pub in Maryhill, an area of Glasgow to the north-west, named after the founder of the local temperance society, and watching as his fellow gang members sank pints of McEwan's Export.

At one point a customer accidentally brushed past a gang member and then, in the time it would take to ignite a match, the gang member had smashed a bottle over his head. Seconds later the gang, en masse, was kicking him in the head. All except the man in the midnight blue suit who, at first, looked on aghast. James Patrick was the pseudonym used by a teacher in an approved school, who spent each weekend for three months hanging out with Tim, one of his pupils and a veteran gang member, and later published his research in A Glasgow Gang Observed in 1973, the year Time magazine declared Glasgow as one of the five most dangerous cities in Europe (fellow "bad boys" were London, Frankfurt, West Berlin and Rome) and the time around which Neds, the new film by Peter Mullan, is set.

James Patrick had been invited to Maryhill to see "whit the score wis". Tim, a bright boy who was well-behaved for an approved school pupil, had inherited his role in the Maryhill Fleet, with the encouragement of his father, from his older brother, who had graduated to even greater violence and the respect it accrued. The teacher spent his time hanging out on street corners, listening to stories and jotting down the patter: scars were "Mars bars" and a man with a slashed face was a "seconder", (they had come off second in the fight), while a "hander" was anyone who would lend a hand in a fight. As one gang member said of a passing girl: "I've seen mair fat on a cold chip."

The pub beating, which ended when Patrick hustled Tim out the door in the guise of protecting him, with the rest following, took place on the first night. Over the course of the next three months, Patrick recognised the role the gang played in the lives of the poor, bored and uneducated: it offered a life, a second, more reliable family, a degree of respect and the excitement of conflict. After Patrick left and moved down south, he learned that two of the gang members had later been murdered.

In many ways, A Glasgow Gang Observed, was, on publication, the Neds of its day: acting as a spotlight on a perennial problem. When the author, who was by now a lecturer on educational psychology at an English university, appeared on STV with his identity disguised, he clashed with William Gray, the Lord Provost, and was attacked by William Ratcliffe, the assistant chief constable of Strathclyde Police, who said: "It's nonsense that someone on the staff of an approved school should run with a gang. The leader of the gang, Tim, knew who Mr Patrick was and this was bound to have an effect on the boy."

Yet in the 70s Glasgow was attracting all the wrong publicity. Nationwide, the BBC's flagship current affairs programme, travelled north to document the gangs and attracted its own controversy when it was revealed they paid one group 5, to be split eight ways, as a "field payment".

Time referred to the city as Little Chicago, unfair given the fact that in 1972 the city had 12 murders to Chicago's 968, and reported that if a Glasgow gang member approached with a limp, it was not an old wound, but "in his pants leg is a full-length ceremonial sword".

Ian Mathie, a probation officer, wrote at the time about a spate of mini-muggings in the city's schools: "These kids are in the 12-14 age group, have long hair and are at the pre-pubertal stage. Nevertheless they frequently carry weapons and drink cheap wine. There has recently been an escalation of their activities, which no longer centre on youth and employment exchanges, but on schools." The children, he reported, showed complete contempt for "all manifestations of the establishment."

• The cast of Mullen's new film Neds

"Glasgow has a long history of gangs" said Robert Jeffrey, a veteran newspaper executive, chronicler of the city's criminal underworld and author of Gangs of Glasgow. "There have traditionally been two types: the territorial street gangs and the deeper more serious types of criminal gangs. The difficult question to answer is why Glasgow has so many compared to Edinburgh or Aberdeen."

THE streets of Glasgow have long echoed to gang cries and those of their victims. In the 1870s the "Penny Mobs" ran the streets of different districts, collecting a penny sub so as to pay the fines at police court. During the First World War, The Redskins was the first and perhaps only gang to rule, forging an alliance of 1,000 street fighters across the city and favouring light tweed caps. It has been argued that the radical politics of the city during the 1920s, when there were fears of a communist insurrection, chased off businesses and perpetuated the poverty from which the razor gangs of the time grew. No Mean City (1935), the novel by Alexander McArthur with its loathesome figure of Johnny Stark strutting the streets with his razor, defined the city for almost two generations with images of the pitched battles on Glasgow Green.

Sectarianism entered the complicated equation in the 1930s when William Fullerton, who had been beaten up after scoring the winning goal in a match against a rival area, set up the Billy Boys of Bridgeton. The great myth of street gangs today is that they adhere to a strict hierarchy with militaristic codes and rules, when in reality they are loose, fluid groups united by age and geography. Yet the Billy Boys under Fullerton came closest to the ideal, as he recalled years later: "I drilled them like a battalion of soldiers. Many of them had already experienced discipline in Borstal and I took advantage of the fact." They even had membership cards and paid weekly subs, which were stored in a secret account to which only Fullerton and his two top associates had access. Or so he said. Self aggrandisement being a constant Yet another factor in the equation was the slum clearance of the city and the construction of the vast estates of Drumchapel, Easterhouse and Castlemilk, which at one point had a larger population than Perth but no public facilities. Boredom bred crime and during the fifties and 1960s there was an explosion in gangs with various Tongs or Tois, the Fleets and the Bundys all founded during this period.

While "Tongs Ya Bas" – for the genteel or unenlightened "gangs you bastard" – is a now a common gang expression and popular piece of graffiti, the genesis of the phrase is unclear. Tongs is a Chinese term for gangs, and Chinese gangs featured heavily in popular American books and magazines in the late 19th century, while in 1968 a gang told a reporter from the Daily Telegraph that they got the name after going to see the movie, The Terror of the Tongs, at the local cinema.

How to curb the violence of Glasgow gangs has been a question to which each generation has provided their own answers. Between 1931 and 1943, Chief Constable Percy Sillitoe hammered the gangs using mounted officers with batons, while in the 1950s Lord Carmont decided to hand down long sentences for acts of gang violence, with members talking of "copping a Carmont". At the same time James Roberts, or PC Hitler as he was known, kept the peace with a novel view on community policing.

He challenged each gang leader to fight for their turf and, after administering a severe beating up a close, afterwards declared himself to be "boss of the beat." But perhaps the most novel approach was that pioneered by the singer, Frankie Vaughan, who heard about the gang violence while playing a concert in the city, and helped organise an amnesty for weapons in Easterhouse in 1968 in return for helping to build a new community centre.

At the time Thomas Galbraith, the Tory MP for Hillhead, told the House of Commons: "It is not the Tiber, it is the Clyde in Glasgow which is foaming with blood." While the Conservative MP for Pollok, Edmond Wright, described the city as a "crime laboratory" and called for a Royal Commission to investigate the cause of the problem. Although the Easterhouse Project was dismissed by both police and politicians at the time as a publicity stunt, research by Glasgow University's School of Social Studies later showed that crime dropped dramatically. In the film Neds, which begins in 1972 and ends in 1978, domestic violence is seen as a link in the chain, along with poverty and circumstance, that connects young schoolboys to street gangs. "Sort out domestic violence and you would go a long way to sorting out gang violence," said Karyn McCluskey, of Strathclyde Police's Violence Reduction Unit. "Violence is the only way a generation of young men know how to interact with other people. They learn at home and it is toxic."

In 1977, in a sign of things to come, the police in Glasgow launched an urgent investigation after reports emerged that two gangs in the Barrowfield area – The Torch and The Spur – had got hold of guns, and when one was located found the barrel was inscribed: "Torch kill for fun" and "To Spur from Torch – Boom ya Bass". At the time a mother was quoted and her words are as relevant today as they would have been a century ago: "It used to be a scheme where you could walk in safety.

"But now you take a chance every time you walk down the road. We used to go out every Saturday night, now you are scared to cross the doorstep. There are two gangs in one street, the Torch and the Spur, and when they are on the prowl life's just not worth living."

While another added: "They don't care who they do it to. You could know them for years and they would still do it to you. It's bedlam sometimes. What can you do?"THE DIRECTOR'S STORY

PETER Mullan, below, the writer and director of Neds, joined the Young Car-D, in Cardonald, at the age of 13. A bright boy from an alcoholic home, he was told by the mother of a middle-class friend he was no longer welcome and, stung by the rejection, rebelled. "I remember consciously thinking: 'F**k it.' I honestly believe that for a lot of kids it's as simple as that. No initiation, just someone saying: 'Come and hang around with us'. Before you know it, you're identifying with them and graffiti-ing walls – it gives you a label and, weirdly, a sense of belonging.

"The first action I remember was when two guys from Ibrox dug up one of our lot at the cinema. He came out of the cinema and told us. We saw them coming out and chased them all the way back to Ibrox. But when they got there, they rounded up their mates – ten times the number we had – and chased us back. The first time I saw bloodshed was when one of the older guys in the Car-D was in the shop at lunchtime. There was a flurry and another guy calmly walked out the shop after slashing him. The Car-D lad had both his cheeks slashed wide open and you could see gum and teeth.

"I never carried a knife. I was never into that. I remember a guy attacked me with a skating boot. I got it off him and, as he ran off, I just threw the boot away. I was a tourist in a way. I fought but never felt the need to carry anything, but I saw plenty who did. Car aerials filed down to a razor-sharp point were popular. They were easily concealed and could be flicked out like an extendable policeman's baton.

"I got lucky – they threw me out. I was boring and used too many big words. I was lucky because at that age you have perverse role models and I was already thinking how good it would be to be the hardest guy in Glasgow. It's not difficult to get out. They won't come and get you. You just don't hang around with them, but the difficulty is when they try and entice you back in. Kids really have to get out of the area.

"Ninety per cent of gang life is very boring, just standing around getting cold. Some form of adolescent tribalism will always exist, but I don't think it needs to be as violent and anti-social."