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Cut and Run

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Corgi, London, 1967
(first published by Hammond, Hammond & Co, 1962)
price: 3s 6d; 160 pages

The blurb on the back:

Cut and Run is a story of the Glasgow slums, its streets, its people, its pubs, gaols, betting shops, brothels, dance halls and the teeming life behind the grimy walls of the great grim tenements, where lust and violence walk hand in hand.
Nobody is better equipped to write this novel than Bill McGhee. He was born and reared amind the sprawling squalor he describes, and there is a pitiless authenticity in his picture of the seamy side of a great city seen through uncoloured glasses.

opening lines:
I have always tried to find excuses for Ben, even for those deeds of his which won’t brook any excuse or forgiveness, and I still do so by laying most of the blame at Jenny’s door.

According to the British Library, this is the only novel written by Bill McGhee. Which is a shame, because while it’s not entirely successful, it does have some strong indications that he could have developed into a fine writer.

Although it was first published in 1962, the action is actually set some twenty years earlier (presumably when Mr McGhee was growing up), at a time when some of the hardest of Glaswegian hard men are being called up to fight Fascism rather than simply each other. A pair of these characters return from their training camps in order for one of them to get married, and promptly throw themselves into a round of gang violence and robbery.

It’s not a pretty sight, and to some extent it’s treading on very familiar territory – selling images of working-class viciousness to a thrill-seeking public – but there’s also something really quite effective going on here. The narrator is a reluctant participant, dragged along by his much wilder childhood friend, and his description of the internal processes of the terrified youth engaged in violence out of fear of something worse – loss of face – is convincing in its simplicity. And, while the dialogue is written in dialect, the narration is in conventional English, giving a sense of distance and passive observation. It also allows for some really strong bits of writing, such as this description of an ex-whore:

Maggie herself was a striking figure. If you were the type to hit women. Her hair was luxuriant in a sort of gypsy way. You know. Straw hanging from a midden. The only features of her face could be discerned under the folds of flesh were the beads that were her eyes, darting about in tiny slits, and, when she opened her mouth, a row of broken teeth that lacked but one colour – white – for a snooker-set. (pp.39-40)

Ultimately it looks and feels like an exploitation novel, but one with aspirations to something more. Worth tracking down, either in this edition or in the 1980s reprint.


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