Having just read a book based in my one of my favourite cities, Birmingham, move on to this, based in another, Glasgow. This one however, is delightfully, a history lesson too, of the best kind. It opens in Glasgow in 1912 in a tenement – that is – a one room dwelling. The poverty of Glasgow has been well-documented and when I visit now and look at the gorgeous architecture in the West End, it’s astonishing to think those lovely buildings once held multiple families. Large families too and the one featured in No Mean Affair is that of Mary Ireland, the grandmother of the author.
Her husband didn’t think much of it, but Mary had bigger plans than to raise their three bairns in one room in a smoky, smelly Glasgow. Mary didn’t think it was right that women couldn’t vote either, but her main concern was the living conditions of the poor. They moved to Glasgow to live in the same building as his brother who gave him a job as a milkman – a job she took on when he went to war.
It was while standing up for the rights of the poor that Mary came across John Wheatley, a prominent, wealthy businessman who had raised himself up from his boot straps. A miner’s son, Wheatley built his business interests through suspect methods, including using thugs to chase money, which is how he came across Danny, the third main character.
He hired Danny, as his right hand man who lived in the big house along with his wife and family and then progressed to do more for the poor in the city. During a #MeetTheAuthor event, Robert Ronsson tells us there is a biography of JW (as Danny, who holds more than a torch to Mary, refers to him) which helped with the research.
Being a key player in the new Independent Labour Party, JW moves to improve conditions including reducing the working week down from 54 hours and letting women join political parties. I learn at this stage they can’t vote and even later in the 1930s can only vote if they are a home owner. How many women owned homes then?! This only really started happening to a greater degree in the 1980s.
So why No Mean Affair? The story is centred on the 20 year deep-rooted affair that eventually developed between Mary and JW. Despite the generation gap between them, they had the same believes and sacrificed much to develop housing reform in the 1920s. While JW rose to be an MP, Mary was still in the one room with her husband and now four children. Neither will get a divorce in Catholic Glasgow and Mr Ireland turned a blind-eye to the affair to a point, as it kept him in money to stay drunk. Mrs Wheatley was less patient but the managed to stay married while the affair evolved to a solid working relationship as well as a deep affection.
Of course this book is fiction based on historical events and real people and that’s the best way I know to learn about history.
I thoroughly enjoyed learning how JW seemed to have his heart in the right place while political ambition roared inside him and we learn exactly why a poor women from Glasgow left three of her children behind to come and live in London.
Take me back to 1930, I need to know more!
Smile factor 9/10