Thank you to Rob for moderating Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize.
Shuggie Bain is the story of young Hugh “Shuggie” Bain, a gentle and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland.
Thatcher’s policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city’s notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.
Shuggie’s mother Agnes is on a downslide slide into chronic alcoholism. She seeks solace in cans of extra-strong lager to escape from her world of grinding poverty and her philandering taxi driver husband. Agnes is the centre of Shuggie’s world. However, her dysfunctional household places demands far beyond the years of Shuggie and his older siblings, Catherine and Leek.
Agnes keeps her pride by looking good with a beehive, make-up, and pearly-white false teeth. She aspires to the glamorous image of a Glaswegian Elizabeth Taylor. Her looks attract men, her addiction makes her vulnerable to sexual exploitation. She drains away most of each week’s benefits, all the family has to live on, on alcohol hidden in handbags and poured into tea mugs. Agnes’ older children find ways to get a safe distance from their mother. They abandon Shuggie to care for her as she swings between alcoholic binges and sobriety.
Shuggie is struggling to become the normal boy he desperately longs to be. Everyone has realised that he is “no right,” a boy with a secret that all but him can see. Agnes is supportive of her son, but her addiction and its tragic resolution eclipse everyone close to her.
As we listened with great interest, it was clear we would overrun the traditional ten-minute introduction. We wanted Robert to continue his presentation, so we took a different tact. Rob paused regularly to allow us to discuss and elaborate on the points he raised.
- We found the autobiographical nature of the work poignant. The story was more tragic knowing it was rooted in personal experience.
- We expanded on Stuart writing in the third person. It was effective in adding to the bleakness of the work. Many of us had not spotted that Shuggie‘s thoughts and feelings were absent from the prose. We wondered how different it might have been if Stuart had written in the first person giving an insight into Shuggie’s interior world. The Scottish brogue with evocative words, such as driech, gave the work a strong sense of place.
- Themes of Shuggie‘s alienation and loneliness were painful to read. One member noted that his heart lifted in hope when Agnes attended AA, regained her sobriety and entered into a relationship with Eugene. The emotional dread we felt as he tempted her back to drink, and its inevitable consequences to Shuggie’s home life, was a testament to the strength of Stuart’s characterisation.
- We were touched by the bond between Shuggie and Agnes. He tried so hard to look after her and there was no doubt she loved him. One member noted a child psychiatrist friend commented that children who play truant from school often do so not because they didn’t like school but because there are issues at home they cannot leave. This rang true for the Bain family. Where were social services? The unemployed coal miners and their families were invisible to authorities.
- We were horrified by the exploitative and commonplace nature of the men’s sexual and physical violence towards many of the women. The women trapped by poverty and alcohol dependence had no means of escape. Often, they were forced to use their sexuality for money for food or a “wee carry oot”.
- We were relieved Stuart found humour in his characters, particularly in the banter between the women. Nan’s advice to Catherine to open two bank accounts when she got married raised a laugh amongst OBGers. Good advice for us aII!
- We ruminated over Rob’s comments about Thatcher’s Britain and the similar social issues in America today which led to the rise of Trump.
- We were all entranced by the last chapter when Shuggie, at last finds a like-minded friend, acknowledges his sexuality and embraces the freedom to dance. This brief sign of light raised our spirits.
Robert’s overarching and insightful moderation notes are below:
ShuggieBain – by Douglas Stuart
I trust you have all recovered from reading this relentlessly depressing catalogue of male brutality and the human depravity that poverty engenders. This is a book that testifies to a childhood scarred by material deprivation, neglect and emotional abuse. As such it is deeply autobiographical so I propose to begin with a brief sketch of the author’s life.
Douglas Stuart was born in Sighthill, a poor Glasgow suburb, in 1976 and “Shuggie Bain” is a fictionalised account of his childhood, covering the period from 1981 to 1992. His mother died when he was 16 – “My mother died quietly one day of addiction” as he later put it – and after his mother’s death, he lived with his older brother, before moving into a boarding house when he was 17.
He left Glasgow to study textiles at college in Galashiels soon after. This was the beginning of an adult journey which would see him move to America and build a distinguished career as a fashion designer with Gap, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. But his move to America was ultimately the start of his return to his childhood – Douglas Stuart began writing “Shuggie Bain”, at the age of 30, in hotels and airports as he flew around the world as an essential part of his life as a successful professional.
Stuart has said that whilst the character Agnes in the novel is “totally fictitious”, his own mother’s struggles were “at the heart of the book”.
“My mother was a wonderful mother,” he said. “I grew up in 80s Glasgow but my mother suffered from alcoholism. She was a very proud, hardworking, generous woman – but she was hurt and she was deeply unwell.”
“Addiction sort of marred my entire childhood – it wasn’t that there was drink in the house every single day, but we were always sort of anticipating or getting over it.
“When I was about 16 my mother died of her addiction and so writing the book was a way of conjuring her back up and putting that feeling on the page and making us feel seen.”
So clearly the novel is deeply autobiographical and perhaps we can judge it’s success against his stated intention of “conjuring her back up and putting that feeling on the page”.
In literary terms we might reflect on the difference between autobiography, memoir and what has recently come to called autofiction, which is dramatised and fictionalised personal experience. Perhaps the best known example is the multivolume epic My Struggle by the Norwegian Karl Ove Knausgaard. The way the term is used tends to be unstable, which makes sense for a genre that blends fiction and what may appear to be fact into an unstable compound that is perhaps, fiction. One identifying feature of autofiction is that, like Karl Ove Knausgaard, the first-person narrator has the same name as the author.
I’m reminded of the famously acerbic remark made by English writer, Martin Amis. “It is often said that everyone has a novel inside them, but this is not true. What most people have inside them is a badly written memoir.”
I would like to suggest that “Shuggie Bain” is certainly not a badly written memoir but a finely crafted work of fiction.
The novel is not structured in a conventional chronological manner, as the first chapter takes place in 1992 and subsequent chapters take the reader back to Shuggie’s early childhood, and the final chapter returns us to 1992.
In the opening chapter we meet 16-year-old Shuggie working on the deli counter of a supermarket. The job is dull and boring and we learn that Shuggie has endured this mid numbing routine for at least a year. The third person narrative voice opens the novel with prose that is as flat and monotonous as the routine being described. “The day was flat… The empty body went listlessly through its routine, pale and vacant eyed under the fluorescent strip lights, as his soul floated above the aisles…”
There are several significant themes introduced in this opening chapter – one of which is the sense of estrangement and alienation that is a feature of Shuggie’s life experience. There is an accompanying sense of unworthiness, a lack of self-belief that is expressed in the account of Shuggie’s attempt to enrol in college. Unnerved by the brash confidence of the other young people he quietly abandoned this project. The description of this process is rendered in the same flat monotone we identified in the opening sentences.
“He watched them go in the front door, then he recrossed the street to catch the bus going the other way. “The third person narrative voice effectively distances the reader from the both the character and the event – we are told nothing about his thoughts or feelings at this set back. This is characteristic of the way in which events are described thoughout the novel. Shuggie’s thoughts and feelingsare largely absent from the narrative and events are described in a disturbingly distanced manner. Perhaps a first-person narrator would offer more scope for exploring the interior world of a character whose prescence in this opening chapter is both tentative and wary.
The second theme is Shuggie’s preference for the company and camaraderie shared by women.
“He had liked the way they sat easily together” – and he enjoys their easy familiarity and raucous banter. There is the first indication of a major theme throughout the book – Shuggie’s lack of heterosexual impulses, as illustrated by his failure to respond to the women’s blatant sexual overtures. This lack of interest on Shuggie’s part leads the women to conclude that “something about the boy was no right” and this phrase becomes something of a motif throughout the novel. Shuggie himself tries to find “something masculine to admire in himself… ”when examining himself in the mirror and concludes ‘ It wasn’t right. It wasn’t how real boys were built to be.”
In a particularly humiliating incident later in the novel Agnes Bain attempts to introduce a masculine influence into Shuggie’s life by asking a neighbour to take Shuggie out with his boys. As do s many of the men we encounter in the book, this neighbour exploits her desperation by trading sex for a promise to include Shuggie in the next fishing expedition. With dreary predictability he fails to deliver on his promise and the image of Shuggie waiting to be collected, after having excitedly packed ready for the trip, is another reminder of his loneliness and isolation.
We are also introduced to the petty humiliations inflicted by grinding poverty, searching through the discount bins for damaged tins of tuna, jealously guarding his 50 pence worth of hot water in the shared bathroom, and the bleak, shabby and impersonal nature of his squalid bedsit. There is also a slightly ambiguous implied potential sexual encounter between Shuggie and one of the older men.
Chapter 2 moves us back in time to 1981 where we first encounter Agnes Bain. She is 39 years old and is living on the 16th floor of a block of council flats at Sighthill, a housing development built in the 1960s by the Glasgow Corporation Housing Department. Crammed into the small flat are her parents, as well as her husband and 3 children. Shuggie is the youngest of the children and Agnes’ husband, Big Shug, is his father, whilst the two older siblings are the product of an earlier marriage. To add to Agnes Bain’s problems her husband is being openly and serially unfaithful and this causes her a great deal of distress, manifested in her recourse to drinking – the vodka bottle hidden under the mattress. In a striking image that conveys the physical sensation of distress when she discovers fresh evidence of Shug’s infidelity the author tells us “Her ribs broke anew.”
Agnes is depicted as bored and irritated by the other women in the Friday night card school that is going on as she balances herself dangerously on the 16 th floor window sill. She is also described as ‘wanting to show the city this claret velvet dress “and there are other references to her good looks and the welcome male attention that her appearance generates. For example, there is a retrospective account of a holiday trip that Agnes and Big Shug take to Blackpool in the early days of their relationship. Shug is described as looking smart in his good, narrow black suit. “He looked like he was somebody”. And it is clear that Agnes is besotted by him. For his part he takes a perverse pleasure in other men admiring what he clearly thinks of as his possession.
“Shug watched the men swivel their greedy eyes to look at her and felt a sick pride burst in his chest. “However the evening concludes with Agnes getting spectacularly drunk and Shug brutally beating and raping her.
The way poverty impinges on and conditions people’s behaviour is underlined in two ways in this chapter.
Firstly, the mercenary attitude of Big Nan, who exploits the friendly card games to supplement her family income, thinking “about the bit of ham she could buy for Sunday’s soup, and the money the weans would need for next week’s school.” She also offers this advice to Shuggie’s elder sister, Catherine, who has just started working.
“First thing to do is to open two bank accounts. One for when you take a man. The other for yersel. And never fuckin’tell him about it eh.”
Secondly there is a ribald exchange between some of the women about using sex as a bargaining tool to extract money from their husbands. As Reeny remarks “I once held off so long I got a new colour telly in the bedroom.”
We are also reminded that economic conditions are dire, with widespread unemployment. “The women all had men at home. Men rotting into the settee for want of decent work. “
In this context we are also told that Agnes’ interest in Big Shug is at least in part motivated by his relative wealth.
“Big Shug Bain had seemed so shiny in comparison… he has been vain in a way only Protestants were allowed to be, conspicuous with his shallow wealth, flushed pink with gluttony and waste.”
In Chapter 3 authorial attention turns directly to Big Shug and we follow him on a night shift through nocturnal Glasgow. In addition to some insights into Shug’s character and motivations we also encounter the physical presence of the city of Glasgow. The general impression is one of dour melancholy.
In a strikingly poetic formulation, the author informs us that “Rain was the natural state of Glasgow. It kept the grass green and the people pale and bronchial. “
One aspect of the style of the novel is the way in which authorial comment is inserted into the narrative flow. When Shug reluctantly accepts an old drunk as a fare. We are told directly, not as part of a character’s thought processes but as an authorial aside that “The auld Glasgow jakey was a dying breed – a traditionally benign soul that was devolving into something younger and far more sinister with the spread of drugs across the city.”
The impact of Thatcherism and the human consequences of deindustrialisation are also pointed out.
“Thatcher didn’t want honest workers any more… Industrial days were over and the bones of the Clyde Shipworks and the Springbourn Railworks lay about the city like rotted dinosaurs. Whole housing estates of young men who were promised the working trades of their fathers had no future now. Men were losing their very masculinity. “
I would suggest that this description could be applied to many developed countries where neo liberal policy settings have resulted in off shoring manufacturing and the degeneration of previously relatively affluent industrial areas which have become “rust belts” plagued by social problems and drug abuse. This is particularly noticeable in the US, where effective suicide through the use of addictive prescription drugs has reached epidemic proportions. This is the constituency of redundant, irrelevant and embittered men that propelled Donald Trump into office.
After the move to Pithead there are several descriptions of the aimless groups of men (redundant miners) gathered at the Miners”Welfare Club, still wearing their working clothes and trying to emulate the patterns of the working days that are now behind them.
The move to Pithead, a bleak housing development next to a closed down coal mine, is orchestrated by Shuggie’s fatherand we quickly learn that this is part of a cynical plan to rid himself of the troublesome and troubled Agnes and move in with the receptionist from his taxi firm, with whom he has been conducting a semi clandestine affair. The new abode is physically unattractive and depressing.
“They were the plainest, unhappiest looking homes Agnes had ever seen. The windows were big but thin looking…the houses were incurably cold even on a mild summer’s day.”
Similarly on closer inspection we learn that the “wood framed windows were poorly fitted, and the chipped glazing putty warned of cold nights and wet walls.”
Despite Big Shug’s casual violence and open contempt for her, Agnes remains fatally attached to him, and displays the characteristic dependence that is often a feature of domestic abuse. Her daughter, Catherine urges that they return to Sighthill but Agnes refuses to do so. The authorial voice informs us directly about the damaged sense of self that plagues Agnes, and,at least in part, explains her recourse to alcohol.
“But Agnes couldn’t explain though the hurt. She knew he would never return come back if she returned to her mother’s.
She was to stay where she was dropped.
She was to take any little kindness he would give.”
Agnes’ descent into full blown alcoholism is exacerbated by the death of her parents – her father from an industrial lung disease and her mother in an accident that may have been suicide.
Her daughter, Catherine, escapes though marriage and emigration to South Africa and her elder son, Leek, withdraws from the family and is quietly planning his own escape.
In the domestic chaos produced by her drinking Shuggie tries valiantly to care for his mother. He often adjusts her clothing to make her more comfortable when she is unconscious, and he devised a routine to help her recover when she wakes up badly hungover.
“Shuggie arranged the three tea mugs: one with tap water to dry the cracks in her throat, one with milk to line her sour stomach, and the third with a mixture of flat leftovers of Special Brew and stout that he had gathered from around the house… He knew that this was the one she would reach for first, the one that would stop the crying in her bones.”
Shuggie’s attendance at school is erratic for obvious reasons, and he is also subjected to homophobic bullying, teasing and ridicule. The refrain that echoes though the novel “he’s no right “refers to his effeminate disposition, evidenced by his liking for feminine toys, My Little Pony and a favourite doll, his penchant for dancing, particularly to please his mother, and his experimentation with his mother’s make up. He also has a “posh” English accent presumably modelled on his mother’s attempts to speak in that way, and emphasise her imagined superiority to her neighbours.
Two aspects of life on this god forsaken council estate are underlined in various sections of the novel. The first is the type of predatory credit arrangements that poor people have to resort to. The catalogues from which everyone orders clothes, household goods and Xmas presents are a highly expensive and exploitative form of credit. The other type of predatory lending is the provident cheques that are referenced. These were cheques issued for specific amounts and the funds were quarantined and could only be spent at specified clothing stores, mainly used for school uniforms and other kids çlothes. The coin metering of gas, electricity and rented television sets provides an opportunity for “recycling “the coins in the meter as required, usually to but alcohol.
The second is the insidious nature of the drinking circles that develop and the ways in which confirmed alcoholics will connive and cheat each other but still need the camaraderie provided by drinking together.
“It was the first time in three weeks that she hadn’t woken up to a living room full of clammy sodden bodies. It was a funny kind of lonely.”
As mentioned earlier in the context of acquiring more alcohol men are invited round on the proviso that they bring a “wee carry oot” and what is effectively on offer is casual sex as a tradable commodity. Agnes is depicted in various degrading and physically abusive sexual encounters, often when she is more or less insensible, therefore debatably, properly described as rapes.
There is a hopeful interlude where Agnes succeeds in stopping drinking for over a year but her now regular boyfriend, Eugene, in a conversation that is designed to illustrate the general misunderstandings about the disease of alcoholism, persuades Agnes to drink on a special occasion to test her reactions and resolve. Predictably she relapses into destructive drinking again.
Leek, exasperated by her behaviour eventually leaves and Shuggie is left at the mercy of his mother’s erratic behaviour. We do, however, learn in the concluding chapter, that Leek has tried to keep a fraternal eye on Shuggie, albeit from a cautious distance.
Agnes manages to engineer a housing swap and she and Shuggie move a tenement block in another part of the city. Despite Shuggie’s care and attention Agnes descends further into the degradation of chronic alcoholism.
This is illustrated in the scenes around her birthday in Chapter 31. We are told that Shuggie had stolen some flowers from the Paki shop as a present and given her some of the meter money which he had specifically hidden so she could go to the bingo on her birthday.
However, and again I’m quoting directly from the book here, “When the police brought her home the next morning the air was already thick and sickly with the pollen of the decaying daffodils. They had found her wandering by the River Clyde. She had lost her shoes and her good purple coat.”
Shuggie’s concern and care for her is exemplified in his response to her latest escapade. He pours her a deep bath, irons and lays out clen clothes and makes her some tea, which he leaves outside the bathroom door.
He then leaves for school but spends the day roaming around and when he returns, he is confronted by this horrific scene.
Read Page 409 “Agnes was asleep in her chair…last night.”
Then 410 “Shuggie reached..deep in the drink”
We learn later that the devastated Shuggie sits with her body for two days, before phoning his brother Leek, who returns to organise the funeral.
In the final chapter we rejoin Shuggie, on the same day we discover him in the opening chapter. He is on his way to meet his only friend, Leanne, a strong character whose rapport with Shuggie is based on her own experience of same sex attraction. She is meeting up with her homeless, alcoholic mother to provide her with food and clean clothes. Again, we are presented with the degrading consequences of long term alcohol dependence with a humiliating scene in which Leanne, changes her mother’s underwear in a public place.
However the novel concludes on an optimistic note, as Shuggie responds the Leanne’s jocular taunting by dancing in an uninhibited manner, suggesting he has freed himself from the internalised shame imposed on him by society because of what is perceived as his deviant sexuality.
Other themes –
- Clyde boatman p.149 Refer to length of writing process first draft 900 pages – every detail deliberate and purposeful. Sign of hope inhumanity.
- Religious divide – history of Irish in Glasgow – Celtic v Rangers – Celtic set up as a Catholic club because of prohibition on Catholic players at Rangers. The lines of allegiance are – Irish, catholic, republican, Celtic – Scottish – Protestant – Loyalist – Rangers.
Shuggie Bain is an emotionally difficult but rewarding read with strong memorable characters. Knowing Stuart has survived, and blossomed, gives us hope for young Shuggie.
Thank you for your continued support over the past year, from gathering in the meeting room to zoom and back again. Who knows what next year will bring but OBG will continue to bring you satisfying reading and great discussions.