WE ended last week with the sense of self-awareness that was growing and developing in Scotland through the first decades of the 20th century, both in terms of patriotic Unionism and socialist republicanism. Let’s stay in Glasgow for a while, and look at the fiction relating to that industrial city across the era.

When Duncan Thaw in Alasdair Gray’s Lanark (1981) says that Glasgow is a city where many people live but few have imagined living, his judgement is convincing in terms of his own character and time, in Gray’s novel, but in fact there are a number of Glasgow-set precedents that not only present aspects of “Red Clydeside” but also of “Blue Clydeside”, the well-off, middle-class, conservative social milieu.

Frederick Niven (1878-1944), in Justice of the Peace (1914), vividly set in Glasgow just before the First World War, tells the story of a young artist trying to get away from the traps of commercialism represented by his father’s business world and his mother’s stifling oppression. O Douglas (Anna Buchan, John Buchan’s sister, 1877-1948), in The Setons (1917), presents a minister’s family in prosperous, middle-class Pollokshields on Glasgow’s south side: he’s a widower and his daughter Elizabeth is central, looking for love, once again in the pre-war years. She finds it with Arthur Townshend, a visiting Englishman. Edwin Morgan comments: “The book has much to say about accent and social class”. Anna Buchan’s first book, Olivia in India (1912) bears out her own history of class and social privilege. It’s an epistolary novel, lightly disguising real people with fictional names, and based on her own experiences of a winter spent visiting her brother William, in the Indian Civil Service, 1907-08.

On the other side of the First World War, and addressing a different social world entirely, Dot Allan (1892-1964), in Hunger March (1934), takes us into the 1930s Depression, ending her novel in George Square, with a panoramic vision and an ambiguous central character, Nimrod, revolutionary or maybe counter-revolutionary. The events of a single day close in to a confrontation between the marchers and the police, and the novel ends with what Edwin Morgan called a “cinematic effect” of scale and sweep, like D.W. Griffith’s film, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The Association for Scottish Literary Studies republished Hunger Strike along with another Dot Allan novel, Makeshift (1928), in a newly annotated edition edited by Moira Burgess in 2010.

That epic scale is also evoked in The Shipbuilders (1935) by George Blake (1893-1961), which gives us Glasgow in the Depression years with recession hitting the Clyde’s biggest industry. He presents an exploration of class relations between owners, managers and working people and their families. Published in the same year, perhaps the most notorious, myth-forming portrait of the city, No Mean City (1935) by Alexander McArthur (1901-47) and H Kingsley Long, also explored social conditions, but far more sensationally. The central focus is not only Johnnie Stark, the Razor King of Glasgow’s Gorbals but also his society, with its unemployment, poverty and violence. Later in this tradition are The Clydesiders (1961) and Tribal Town (1964) by Hugh Munro (1909-82).

The central character of Fernie Brae (1947) by JF Hendry (1912-1986) is the young David Macrae, growing up in Glasgow in the 1920s, repulsed by its industrialism and finally leaving for America. The early parts of the book are the most affectionate and haunting. Guy McCrone (1898-1977), in Wax Fruit (1947), takes us further back. This is a trilogy of novels following the stories of a late Victorian Glasgow family, where the characters’ inner lives, especially that of young David Moorhouse, and the life of the city as a whole, are equally vivid, confusing and exhilarating. Edward Gaitens (1897-1966) developed his Dance of the Apprentices (1948) from earlier short stories, to give an account of a working-class family in Glasgow from the First World War into and through the 1920s. Central are the conflicts between war, socialism and pacifism.

Moving forward to the 1960s, Chaim Bermant (1929-1998), in Jericho Sleep Alone (1964), presents Jericho Broch, who grows up in a middle-class Jewish family, goes to university, tries Israel, then London, then returns to Glasgow. Fast, sharp dialogue keeps the action moving. Skinner (1965) by Hugh C Rae (1935-2014) is a crime novel, based on the actual multiple killings of Peter Manuel, with each chapter in the voice of a character giving different perspectives on the murderer. Tension rises as the plots converge. Rae’s more famous successor in the crime genre is William McIlvanney (1936-2015) but McIlvanney’s early novel Remedy is None (1966) is not strictly in that genre: Charlie Grant, studying Hamlet at Glasgow University, has to deal with the death of his father and the remarriage of his adulterous mother. He does so with warm humour, sharp intellectual observation, and violence.

IN Brond (1984), Fredric Lindsay (1933-2013) begins with a young Glasgow student witnessing a strange man, Brond, push a boy to his death over a bridge: a menacing relationship develops as Brond lures the student into the shadowy world of “British Intelligence” and “nationalism”. And Jeff Torrington (1935-2008), in Swing Hammer Swing (1992) takes us through a week in the life of Tam Clay, in Glasgow’s Gorbals, introduces us to his friends, a few oddballs, his pregnant wife, debt collectors and some strangely wise old men. Both humorous and tragic, stories abound.

One of the most surprising first novels set in Glasgow is Buddha Da (2003) by Anne Donovan. She followed this with Being Emily (2008) and Gone Are the Leaves (2014) and her collection Hieroglyphics and Other Stories (2001) has been popularly taught in Scottish schools, but Buddha Da stays fond and startling in the memory. It’s a remarkable balance of comedy and almost tragic seriousness, calling into question on every page the authority of language in speech and writing, presenting characters in a close-knit family and surrounding society both as individuals with lives of their own, sometimes in conflict, sometimes supportive, but also as citizens in a social world. Serious as things are at times, that sense of the inhabited, endlessly curious, ever-surprising world of different ways of seeing is sustaining. If anything, that might be called the “character” of Glasgow. The first paragraph of the first chapter gives a good flavour of the book and invites you in: Ma Da’s a nutter. Radio rental. He’d dae anything for a laugh so he wid; went doon the shops wi a perra knickers on his heid, tellt the wifie next door we’d won the lottery and were flittin tae Barbados, but that wis daft stuff compared tae whit he’s went an done noo. He’s turnt intae a Buddhist.

At the heart of the book’s comedy is a dark double question: what is likeable? and can it be trusted? What’s likeable, or even, what’s beautiful, always depends on the eye or the intelligence or disposition of the beholder. Donovan’s novel, each chapter from a different character’s viewpoint, each of three members of the same family building up the narrative as it develops, clearly implies that different approaches, perspectives, preferences, will affect interpretation and bring, or not bring, pleasure.

Even with the books I’ve listed above, I’ve only scratched the surface of the Glasgow novel. But Edinburgh has its fiction too, beyond Jean Brodie. In A Judge of Men (1968) by James Allan Ford (1920-2009), a High Court Edinburgh Judge delivers hard sentences upon offenders he sees as sexually immoral in the increasingly permissive 1960s, but his own and his wife’s past are not unquestionable either.

ANOTHER law-centred novel is By Law Protected (1976) by Alistair Campsie (1929-2013), another one of those novels now out of view but worth tracking down. Its immediate gambit is salacious: the Marquis of Strummet is suing his wife for divorce, citing two battalions of foot soldiers as co-respondents, but this repulsive premise gives way to something even uglier, unveiling a whole world of corruption and vice in the “higher” strata of society, which becomes as terrible a nightmare for the Army Press Liaison Officer, the wonderfully-named Alain Gerontian-ffylde, as it is a treasure-trove for the Edinburgh lawyers. Spite, nastiness, greed and venom, all the lowest common denominators of society, are everywhere in plentiful evidence. Hugh MacDiarmid, of all people, praised its author as “exact and adroit in his handling of the technicalities of conspicuous waste and permissiveness”.

Coming forward to Ron Butlin (b.1949), The Sound of My Voice (2002) is a short novel about a biscuit company executive, a child of the Thatcher era, and a chronic alcoholic. It’s a remarkable work, easy to read but without a trace of the frivolous. The novel’s subject belies its strength, sensitivity, tension, emotional drive and depth of sorrow, its evocation of the needs for oblivion, human contact and redemption, and what drives us to such needs. Every word is balanced in a febrile atmosphere, matching the central character’s combination of destructiveness and vulnerability.

These novels, all taken together, endorse MacDiarmid’s dictum that it is an “astonishing truth that Bible-black Scotland was also responsible for Ian Fleming, the inventor of James Bond.” Maybe, rather than veering from one excess to its polar opposite, it would be wiser to be, as MacDiarmid claimed he would wish to be, in the rich terrain where such “extremes meet”.