Tuesday, 13 August 2013

The Banks of the Molendinar by Sam Gracey

Reviewed by Chris Longmuir

This book was recommended to me by a fellow writer, someone I respect enormously and who doesn’t readily hand out praise. So I looked it up on Amazon, and bought a copy.

At first glance this book gives the impression that it is a misery memoir, but it is far more than that. It is a book set in 1860s Glasgow, so I’m not sure what to classify it as. If it had been set in the present day I would have been tempted to describe it as non-fiction, but its historical setting probably rules that out. Suffice to say it is an excellent story.

Young Willie McCart, aged seven, is growing up in The Wynds in Glasgow, a slum area where poverty and deprivation are the norm. His family, Irish immigrants, form part of a diverse community, which includes Irish, Scots, Jews, Russians and Armenians. The family live in one room, with no running water or toilet facilities, and the house is overrun with insects, including cockroaches. Their water, drawn from the polluted River Clyde, is obtained from an outside tap, and they use a bucket for their toilet facilities. This bucket is emptied onto the midden in the courtyard. This midden never increases in size because the rats gain their nourishment from it. Because of the cramped conditions of buildings all crammed together in one area, disease spreads rapidly throughout the population, and illnesses like smallpox, typhus, measles, scarlet fever and tuberculosis are common. Before Willie was born there was a great cholera outbreak, and thousands died and were buried in mass graves.

The descriptions of the living conditions are vivid and give the reader much to think about, however Willie thinks everyone lives like this so he is accepting of his circumstances, and this book is much more than a simple statement of fact about the living conditions of the time.

During the course of the book Willie grows from the age of seven to twelve, and much happens during that time. The lower half of The Wynds where the squatters are in residence is demolished to make way for the railway, and this provides an insight into how these matters were achieved in the 1860s. The Peelers were sent in to forcibly evict the squatters and this was done in a particularly vicious way, culminating in the buildings being consumed by fire and then blown up with people still inside.

Willie’s friend, Goose, a nickname he prefers to his own name of Isaac because he doesn’t want it thought that he’s a Jew, introduces Willie to a whole different way of life. Goose’s parents are Irish travellers who live in Glasgow but who go travelling in the summer months. So Willie is introduced to hawking, and tobacco and poteen smuggling. Willie is taken travelling with them and meets other travellers, as well as Gypsies and the Summer Walkers (Highland travellers), at the various fairs, where Mr Lavery is involved in fairground boxing and Mrs Lavery tells fortunes. This section of the book gives a real insight into the travellers and their traditions.

Back in Glasgow we are introduced to music halls, musical saloons, pubs and shebeens. Then there is the building of the railway and the erection of the grand St Enoch Station and Hotel.

The education and justice systems are also illustrated in this book, with vivid scenes of birching, and the type of treatment meted out in the Slateford Industrial School. I don’t think I will ever forget Willie’s description of Goose’s birching, ‘Goose was called up first. He was stripped from the waist down and made to lie on the table with his arms inserted in two holes so that they dangled freely below the table. His privates fitted into another hole which had a bucket underneath. His waist was secured by a strap and his feet were bound together and secured to the table by another strap. His head was turned towards me and I could not believe my eyes when he winked at me. The man who was to administer the punishment selected a bound-bunch of twigs from one of the jars. I noticed that there was water dripping from the twigs. This water was, in fact, brine and was used to keep the twigs supple and to act as an antiseptic for any cuts. In reality, all the brine did was to add weight to the twigs to exacerbate the punishment.’ I’ll leave it there, but he goes on to describe the actual birching and the attitudes of the men administering the punishment, then relays his own experience.

The descriptions of the Industrial School are just as vivid and just as horrific, and the book comes to a violent climax which will leave most readers perturbed and give them lots to think about.

In conclusion, I found this a brilliant, hard-hitting book, which gives a good insight into the life of Willie McCart and the poverty that abounded in Glasgow in the 1860s. It also gives an insight into the lives of the Irish in Glasgow as well as the travellers, plus a good portrayal of living conditions, and the justice systems that operated at this time. The brutality of the Peelers, and the inhumane treatment meted out in the name of justice is well illustrated. Plus an insight into institutional life and the treatment the boys were subject to in the name of helping them to lead a productive life. This is one book I would have no hesitation in recommending.

Find this book on Amazon UK here

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