Programme Note: NEDS
Please note that these programme notes contain spoilers.
Say the word ‘ned’ to the average Scottish person and there is a stock caricature: a young, white, working-class male, wearing tracksuit, trainers and baseball cap, with tendencies towards violence and casual vandalism. The word has unmistakeable and provocative overtones of class prejudice. Say the word ‘Glasgow’ and there is also, for many, a stock caricature: a city of violence, poverty, and addiction. This image has a long history in cultural representations of the city and has also provoked much ire. Peter Mullan’s arresting new film challenges one image but arguably not the other, inviting audiences to question their preconceptions of the term ‘neds’ but not, perhaps, their view of the city of Glasgow.
Words are powerful. They come loaded with unquestioned images and associations which can help perpetuate taken-for-granted prejudices and beliefs. The title of the film – NEDS: Non Educated Delinquents – is a powerful and important challenge to the one-dimensional framing of ‘neds’ in Glasgow today. The film is set in the 1970s, at a time when ‘neds’ were more likely to be called ‘hooligans’ or ‘gangs’ (or indeed ‘Mods’ and ‘Rockers’), and the fashion was not for tracksuits and hardcore but for flares and T-Rex. In being invited to define these young people as ‘neds’, we are also being invited to replace, and therefore subvert, the set of images attached to the term – this is a very creative way of challenging the stereotype. Moreover, while the term ‘neds’ is unlikely to have been used in the 1970s, using that label invites the audience to fill in the blanks with the present day, demonstrating marked similarities between the experiences of growing up in the 1970s and growing up in Glasgow today. It thus gives pause to consider the nostalgic amnesia which presumes that the ‘youth of today’ are less moral than previous generations.
The acronym ‘NED’ (created a long time after the word ‘ned’ came into usage) is challenged very effectively in the film. The assumption of a feckless dropout is replaced with a complex narrative of blocked ambition, suppressed emotion and unrealised potential. Although John McGill, the central character, winds up both ‘non-educated’ and ‘delinquent’, the combined weight of an unenlightened education system and an unequivocally drunken (and, it is implied, violent) father lie at the heart of the matter. There is also an important class narrative woven in, with John reacting violently to his rejection and labelling by the ‘don’t say toilet, say lavatory’ mother of his well-to-do friend. As he says: ‘You want a ned. I’ll gie yez a fuckin Ned!’ Societal responses to young people and violence matter. After watching this film, you would be hard-pressed to dismiss youth violence as ‘just neds’.
The other word which has strong associations here is Glasgow. The film takes as its central focus a relatively well-worn narrative within cultural representations of Glasgow – the personal struggle of a young man (never a woman) to rise above the violence and poverty of his environment. In depicting in such stark terms both the struggle and the environment, the film’s closest cultural bedfellow is probably No Mean City (McArthur and Kingsley-Long, 1936) – however, in setting the story in the past, the film sidesteps some of the anger that arose in the wake of No Mean City’s publication:
‘Unfortunately, it seems to us that the book may positively be harmful. The reputation of our city is undeservedly evil ... Glasgow has got a bad name, and Glasgow is suffering because of that bad name; and this book, which is widely noticed in the Press, will tend to confirm the evil reputation of our city.’1
Many years ago, when told I had been to university in Glasgow, an English acquaintance told me pointedly: ‘we lock our doors in Glasgow’. En route back from a family holiday in the north of Scotland, her dad had insisted they locked their doors when driving through Glasgow (presumably on the M8), envisaging a lumbering mass of ‘neds’, wielding knives and Buckfast. This film will do little to dilute this sensibility in the way that, for example, Deathwatch (Dir. Bertrand Tavernier, 1980) or Red Road (Dir. Andrea Arnold, 2006) might have done, but nonetheless serves as a necessary reminder that poverty and violence remain part of Glasgow today, just as they did in the 1970s. The sandblasted image of Glasgow that the city will present to the Commonwealth Games does not tell the whole story.
As someone who has researched young people’s experiences of gangs in Glasgow and the related stereotypes, I felt this film captured beautifully certain aspects of group life in Glasgow, both then and now. The boredom, banter, rivalry, one-upmanship and brinkmanship that form the centrifugal force within the group rang very true with the group of young men I worked with, as did the testing, experimenting naivety that runs alongside as John grows older. The power of territorial boundaries – and the school as the meeting point for gang conflicts – also has strong echoes with the present. Importantly, too, the film does not glamorise or glorify violence. It is banal and normalised, yet still horrifying and grotesque.
Where the film diverges from my own experiences is when John transforms, almost overnight, from swot to psycho – the change is quick, and seemingly absolute, with little hint of guilt or regret. Though Connor McCarron must be applauded for the rawness with which he lids John’s rage and shame – emotions which lie at the heart of his violent outbursts – there is no hint of vulnerability. Unlike Thomas Turgoose’s character Sean in This is England (Dir. Shane Meadows, 2006), with which there are several parallels, there is no sense of confusion or conflict within the character – almost overnight, he turns into a sneering, staring psychopath reminiscent of Malcolm MacDowell in A Clockwork Orange (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1971) or Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver (Dir. Martin Scorsese, 1976). The denouement, however, offers a neat allusion which – again like Alex in A Clockwork Orange (the book, not the film) – indicates that this change is not complete, and there is some hope.
A challenge to stereotypes of young people in Glasgow is to be welcomed, particularly from one of Scotland’s finest directors in full flow. The next generation of film-makers may wish to make different representations of Glasgow – a Big Man (Dir. David Leland, 1990) for gentrifying Glasgow, perhaps – but they would do well to take Mullan’s wit, wisdom, and way with words as their guide.
Dr Alistair Fraser
Scottish Centre for Crime and Justice Research
University of Glasgow
1 Evening Citizen, 28 Oct 1935; quoted in Damer 1990: 32-33
Bartie, A. (2010) ‘Moral Panics and Glasgow Gangs: Exploring the “New Wave of Glasgow Hooliganism”, 1965-1970, Contemporary British History 24(3): 385-408
Damer, S. (1990) ‘No Mean Writer?: The Curious Case of Alexander McArthur’ in K.McCarra and H. Whyte, A Glasgow Collection: Essays in Honour of Joe Fisher, Glasgow: Glasgow City Libraries, pp.24-42
Fraser, A. (2010) ‘Deviation from the Mean?: Cultural Representations of Glasgow since No Mean City’, in A. McNair and J. Ryder (eds.) Further from the Frontiers: Cross-currents in Irish and Scottish Studies, Aberdeen: AHRC Centre for Irish and Scottish Studies [available at www.sccjr.ac.uk]
Spring, I. (1990) Phantom Village: The Myth of the New Glasgow, Edinburgh: Polygon