KEN HOUSTON questions the purpose of recent academic research into gang warfare among teenagers in Glasgow.

“I was told stories about broken arms, a broken back from falling from a cliff, nails through feet, being hit with cars, someone being set on fire, suicides, shootings, stabbings…”

A foreign correspondent, managing to dodge bullets and barrel bombs, reporting from the Syrian front line perhaps?

No, not exactly. These words came from one Ms Johanne Miller, of the University of the West of Scotland, in the more peaceful surrounds of the recent annual conference of the British Sociological Association, held in Glasgow.

Ms Miller was addressing the conference with details of her research into the gang culture in Glasgow “carried out….with 60 members of 21 of the estimated 170 gangs in the city”.

No doubt the information led to much furrowed brows among the corduroy-jacketed sociologists attending the Glasgow conference, very possibly leading for a call for ‘more specific research’ into the issue.

For the greater part of the population, however, whose working lives are based around logic rather than theory, the reaction might have been: “Tell us something we don’t already know.”

Although, to be fair to Ms Miller, “falling off a cliff” is new; Glasgow gang leaders usually dispense justice on their own patch rather than heading down to the Ayrshire coast for a bit of ‘cliff-throwing’. Also new is “nails through feet”. I do recall one infamous Glasgow murder trial in which, according to a witness, hands were nailed to floorboards but nothing even more horrible as nails being driven through feet.

For as long as I can remember there have been endless studies by academics into violence and poverty in socially deprived areas of cities, whether it be Glasgow or Dundee or Newcastle or Bristol without any improvement for those members of the population being “studied”.

Ironically, the most effective intervention of all came not from the public sector but from that popular entertainer of the 1960’s and 70’s, Frankie Vaughan. While in Glasgow for a concert he became concerned about reports of gang warfare in the giant Easterhouse housing scheme and made several visits there, meeting gang members and eventually negotiating a weapons amnesty, mainly involving knives but also mallets, hammers, screwdrivers, etc.

Vaughan also organised a fund-raising gala – ‘Not the Gang Show’ – which eventually led to the Easterhouse Project, one result of which – thanks partly to commercial sponsors and help from the Army – was the construction of a community youth club.

Some said Vaughan did it for the publicity but this was highly unlikely. The entertainer was at the height of his fame and did not require additional PR. Also, growing up in Liverpool, he had encountered similar problems in his own youth and saw the benefits boys’ clubs and similar organisations could bring.

The project was not, of course, a panacea but it led to a greater sense of community which to some degree still exists to the present day.

The personal initiative of this one individual rather than those of careerist academics probably did more to improve the social structure of Easterhouse than all the publicly-funded projects put together.

Which begs the question: for how much longer will government money be spent on middle-class sociologists ‘studying’ deprived communities and at the end of the day coming up with the bleedin’ obvious?



Being a social smoker means I can usually pad out a packet of cigarettes for a week or more.

Indeed, by stocking up during short holidays abroad, I had not bought fags in this country for at least two years until the other day, when the current price of a packet of 20 was only one of two surprises that awaited me at my local corner shop.

The other came when my request for a particular brand led to a lengthy wait while an assistant searched furtively under the counter as if the product was something dodgy. It was like entering a 1950’s time warp with me in the role of middle-aged customer in a grubby raincoat asking the newsagent (in whispered tones) for the latest copy of ‘Busty British Blondes’ or ‘Housewives in Suspenders’.

Only later did the reason for this surreptitious behaviour dawn: that since my last purchase in the UK, it had become illegal for retailers to openly display cigarettes.

The purpose of the law, I believe, is to discourage teenagers from taking up the smoking habit. But barring the sale in itself inevitably drew younger teenagers, being both rebellious and inquisitive, to smoking; putting packets out of sight as well as out of reach have probably made them even more ‘forbidden fruit’ – and therefore something they are more likely to want to try even more.

No one can argue with initiatives to prevent young people taking up smoking in the first place but there must be a better way than this. Unless the real purpose of the legislation is to further demonise smokers in general?



Making a recent rare shopping trip to Edinburgh city centre there was something about the place that seemed not quite right the moment I stepped off the omnibus.

It wasn’t just that the crowds were thinner than I remembered for a Bank Holiday Saturday; there was something else that, initially, I just could not put my finger on.

Only after visiting several establishments over an hour or so, did what was ‘missing’ become apparent: while people were still buying, hardly anyone was using a retailer-branded carrier bag but tired, second-hand supermarket versions instead.

It’s the consequence of the government-imposed levy of 5 pence on carrier bags – which, incidentally, includes those tiny, flimsy things from Boots that hold no more than a couple of packets of Paracetamol.

Contrary to tiring accusations of parsimony often aired south of the Border, Scots are a generous people and they usually do not scrimp when spending on themselves either.

So why the reluctance to pay a measly 5 pence for a carrier bag, when it might be loaded with an item of clothing worth £200 or more?

The reason, I believe, is not the size of the tax per se (in itself miniscule) but people’s objection to compulsion by politicians to pay for something which was gladly offered free by retailers.

For the latter, branded bags are marketing tools, resulting in a variety of eye-catching designs. But with customers now eschewing these (on principle, not cost), and making do with drab, re-used supermarket versions, city and town centre shopping has lost just a little bit of its pizazz.

As if the High Street didn’t have enough to deal with, what with high business rates and competition from online sales.





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