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Shuggie Bain - Douglas Stuart - Picador 2020

Updated: Jun 29, 2021

The tale of Shuggie Bain is an all too familiar Glasgow story.

Glasgow has always been a tale of 2 cities. From its grand days as the "2nd city" of the Empire to its squalor and decline from the 1920's onward and its slum tenements, now as synonymous as its Victorian grandeur. Its wealthy merchants scouring the empire and repatriating their gains to the city and its working masses composed of lowlanders and immigrants cohabiting with each other for a place in the city. Glasgow was and is a complex melting pot of violent sectarianism and class struggles reflected in its literary story.

"Shuggie Bain" is the latest incantation of that literary story and can be regarded as a sequel to the 1935 novel "No mean City" by Kingsley Long & McArthur about life in the Gorbals tenements in the 1920s. 50 years on and life for Glasgow's working class has hardly evolved. Squalor, drink, casual sex and broken relationships and of course sectarianism remain the imprisoning shackles of the underclass. The tenements have become post war high rises or cheaply built housing schemes. No mean City's Johnnie Stark(aka Razor King) has become one of Glasgow's taxi drivers; Lizzie Ramsay has become Agnes Bain and just as the closing line of No Man City says - "and... life goes on its way. just if nobody could help it."

Set primarily in the late 70's and 80's Shuggie Bain is a dark and unpleasant tale of the depth to which segments of the Glaswegian population are able to self-inflict interminable abuse on their vulnerable lives and succumb to the inevitable exploitation and damage by others. It is an existence of self-destruction. Whilst the title and book may well be about the childhood of Shuggie(Hugh), the central character is without doubt his mother, Agnes Bain, born into a catholic family, to a hard working labourer father and housewife mother. A first marriage leaves Agnes alone with 2 young children living with her aging parents and when she finally meets and marries Hugh Bain, the protestant taxi-driver, the young Shuggie appears. As the relationship with her philandering husband deteriorates they attempt to normalise life by moving away from the claustrophobic and flat sharing life with her parents. Hugh finds accommodation in a declining miners housing scheme on the outskirts of Glasgow, but from day one he never moves in with his "family" leaving Agnes to curse the "shithole" he has left her in. Imprisoned in this derelict community surrounded by neighbours with whom she is unable to connect her aspirations to better herself and her children, she is consumed in an alcoholic spiral. First her eldest daughter from first marriage Catherine desert her - marrying and migrating to South Africa and then Leek retreating into himself and his art, leaving the youngest boy Shuggie to try to nurse & shelter his mother from the abuse and torment of her wasted life.

A sensitive and attractive boy, Shuggie's formative childhood years are lived trying to prevent his mother's self destruction whilst at the same time coming to terms with his own sexuality in the harshest of environments. His difference stands him out and his only real support is his more worldly-wise elder half brother Leek. For a year or so they manage to keep their mother off the alcohol until she finally succumbs on the insistence of a new taxi driver male friend. When a despairing Leek finally leaves home leaving Shuggie is left to shoulder the weight of his mother's deprivation.

Whilst many I am sure will read that tale of "Shuggie Bain" as an indictment of the political and social failure of Scotland and to a greater extent Glasgow, the novel does transcend the politics of its time. The novel is about character and place somewhat uniquely Glaswegian. There are few political references in the book and none of the characters engage in any political commentary. The "dreich", the poverty, the alcohol abuse, the misogyny, the loveless sex, the religious intolerance all go to make up a distinctive Glaswegian existence. It is above all a tale of human survival in an intolerably miserable environment.

Interestingly the novel has been fist published in the US where the author Douglas Stuart now lives. How the educated American will be able to relate to this story will be interesting. The cover used for the US edition may give a clue as to the perception - a young boy hugging with his mother under beautiful, soft white linen. There is nothing of that soft white and clean feeling about this novel.

US edition Cover

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