Great Scottish Writers, Douglas Stuart (2022) Young Mungo.

The same, but different. Most writers write the same book again and again. (I do that too). Publishers like that. It’s an easy sell, especially if your debut novel won the Booker Prize. Different characters, different haircuts, the same predicaments, with much the same outcomes. Write what you know. Young Mungo (Hamilton-Buchanan) is Shuggie Bain.

A rundown housing estate in the Dennistoun, East End of Glasgow (of course) after Thatcher destroyed the mining community, helped shut down many of the shipyards and what she thought of as lame-duck industries that made things. The workshop of the world has moved to China. Mr Campbell batters his wife after Celtic unexpectedly beat Rangers 2—1  and end their 45 game unbeaten run. John Collins and Andy Payton scored. Mark Hateley got a goal back near the end. The game took place in the 92/93 season. A meaningless fixture, but not for Mrs Campbell. She’s a good neighbour. (‘Her ankles were chalky blue from bad circulation.’) She looks out for Young Mungo and his sister, Jodie, but not their eldest brother, Ha-Ha, who’s gone feral at eighteen, and has already fathered a child with a fifteen-year-old girl. His mother was also pregnant at fifteen with him

Nobody looks after Ha-Ha, but he’s determined to make a man of Mungo. He’s too soft, too girly, and it’s bad for his reputation.

The cautionary tales lives at the bottom of the close. Poor-Wee-Chickie can only walk his dog early morning when the kids aren’t hanging about ‘the Paki shop’ to harass him for walking funny, talking funny, for being a wee poof. He’s seven or eight bolts on his door, but follows the world through his net curtains.

Young Mungo is fifteen going on sixteen. His sister Jodie is a year older than him, and mother’s Mungo. Somebody’s got to do it. Hers is a secondary storyline. The narrative switches to her point of view. Mr Gillespie, the Modern Studies teacher, is grooming and  fucking her over and has been since she’s been fifteen. (Like mother like daughter, but she doesn’t like sex with the paedophile, she endures it.) But he’s promised her great things. He’s promised to get her into Glasgow Uni and out of the East End and into the West End of Glasgow where English people live. 

Murdo joked with James Jamieson that he could rent his doo hut out for £45 a week to a single mother with three wains. James lives across the back from Murdo, but they’re worlds apart. It’s not so much what light through yonder window breaks, but whose arms and legs will be broken, rather than whose heart. Shakespearian rivalry. Gang warfare between the Montague’s and Capulet’s. Bernstein’s and Sondheim’s early musical scripts rivalry rang between Catholics and Jewish gangs in a musical called West End Story set in New York. East End story in Glasgow is the old I’m not a Billy, you’re a Tim. Catholic Bhoyston, an unconquered country linked by the bright lights and a narrow motorway bridge.

  James is a Catholic. He lives in Dennistoun. He’s got to provide his own bright lights, but also to keep them muted. His da is a widower who works in the rigs. He might even get him a job on the rigs when he too is sixteen. But he’s worried about him. He’s caught him out when the phone bill came in and it was astronomical—chat lines, which would have been something to be proud of, but GAY chat lines. His da wants him to sort it and fast. James has his own plans to run away. His dreams are Young Mungo’s dreams. They could run away together. But James tells him, he’s too scared. Too tied in with what his ma wants and needs. He’ll be there for her like Poor-wee-Chickie was for his ma. And he’s still there.

Mungo, like Shuggie Bain’s ma, like Douglas Stuart’s ma, was an alcoholic. Any notion of her bringing the wains up was purely accidental. Ha-Ha had that figured before he could reach out of his crib and chib somebody. He’d a keen grip on the Dennistoun reality of life being poor, brutal and then you die. Every man for himself. His ma wasn’t against him, but neither was she for him. She was too busy getting drunk and having fun. With sober interludes when she went to AA meetings. The promise of hope was the promise of failure. Mungo, like Shuggie Bain, tries to protect his ma.

But there’s a sense of jeopardy that was missing from Shuggie Bain. What kind of ma, the police asked Mo-Maw—without getting a reasonable answer—gave her wee boy to two men from an AA meeting, she’s just met and didn’t know, to take him for a fishing trip up North? They might be paedophiles. They were paedophiles not long released from Barlinnie Prison. It’s not far. James and Mungo cycle to it. For big families in the scheme, it provides alternative accommodation. What type of mother is Maureen, Mo-Maw?

The book begins with The May After. Mungo is wearing his cagoule and he’s going fishing with an older man, St Christopher. He’s an alcoholic with a room, one of 300 in the Great Eastern Hotel. Gallowgate was wiry, tattooed and younger, and he keeps the old guy in line. Mungo hadn’t strayed far from the half-dozen tenements he’d be born in. Scotland was a foreign country.

‘The men lumbered in the sunshine. They were weighed down with armfuls of plastic bags, a satchel filled with fishing tackle, and a camping rucksack. Mungo could hear them complain of their thirst. He had known them only an hour, but they had mentioned it several times already. They seemed always to be thirsty. “Ah’m gasping for a guid drink,” said the elder of the two.’

Working-class characters like Mungo talk in the Scottish dialect. This interests me, in particular, because I’m trying to get a feel for it on the page.

Poor-Wee-Chickie, for example, talking about ‘doohuts’ and James’s da. ‘He lives there, doesn’t he? I used to ride the mornin’ bus to work wi his father. He was a miserable big batstard. Didnae have the time of day for anybody. Wouldnae smile at ye if you bought him a new set of teeth.’

There’s a trade-off here (and other parts of the book) with dialect, which is always an approximation. For consistency, ‘wouldnae smile at ye if you bought,’ would read ‘wouldnae smile at ye if ye bought’.

Glasgow humour injects humanity into the characters. Parts don’t need to add up, because in community living they don’t either. Gallowgate, for example, likes talking on the pay phone to random people he’s never met. It’s a useful skill for a sociopath and convicted paedophile. But in Shuggie Bain, his ma also loved to chat on the phone. It was how she kept in touch with the world. Her trait became his trait. Same but different.

I could use terms like this is a more rounded work than Shuggie Bain, but I can’t really be arsed to remember if it is. In both of Stuart’s novels life is breeched and broken. The leading narrator tries, and fails, to sellotape a palatable future together with his mother, but there is no sticking point. Only a continued sense of failure. There’s more a sense of danger to Young Mungo. And that adds to the frisson of the follow-up novel. The truth is I just like it better. Read on.         

Elton John (2019) Me

Not many folk get to call their book, Me, and expect you to know who they’re talking about. The Glasgow imperative applies here: Who the fuck dae yeh think yeh are? If the answer is Elton John, you go, oh, aye, that’s alright then. Elton John seems to be everywhere at the moment, BBC 1, BBC 2, BBC 4, Radio Four, Channel 4, but I can’t find him on ITV, which is a bit disappointing. He’s an institution.

I thought I’d have a quick shifty at Reg Dwight’s memoir. We already know his story from gossip columns. His love of Princess Diane (Candle in the Wind) and her children, the little royalings. Throw in the queen mother for lunch and yes, I would have thrown her, but you can see how he’s part of the establishment. Remember Elton’s first wife left at the registry office? Gargantuan drinking and drug sessions with the likes of Rod Stewart. I often wondered how the shagger of tall blonde woman and the gay guy that doesn’t shag tall blonde woman got together. The answer is here. Both of them got their start in the music industry as backing for Long John Baldry as he attempted to conquer the world with Bluesology. Baldry is a footnote in the rise and rise of Elton and Rod, both of whom love football. Elton knocked the name off from a band member and loves Watford -forever- and Rod loves Celtic far longer than he caroused with the latest blonde.

Then there’s the Elton away from all that showbiz glitter, hats and hairweaves. He didn’t screw his lyric writer the way many stars would and claim all the credit and profits. Bernie Taupin is worth around $150 million, but Elton did take £15 for the first gig, since he was playing piano, Bernie got a tenner. Elton, I’d guess, is worth considerably more now. The adopter of Take That renegades and other would-be rock stars that fell off the wagon.  The Elton addicted to AA meetings and Drugs Anonymous, give him a sniff of anything like that and Elton will turn up. Throw in his charity work. Raising tens of millions for AID’s charities. Bringing the homosexual into the Establishment and mainstream in a way that Peter Tatchell never could.  

Then there’s his late fatherhood, two boys (I think) with David (I can’t remember what’s-his-name, [Furnish?] which shows who I think is the one that matters).

So, to recap, I don’t really need to read this book to write about it. I did read the mandatory first 50 pages. I should really turn it into a rant about how Me is muscling out me and other authors scratching a living.  How out of the 1.6 billion books bought in the UK in 2018, I sold one Kindle copy that remains unread. Dead. If you turned that into percentages the book would run several volumes longer than War and Peace and be more interesting. Read chapter 1 here free: 0.000000000000000000000000000000000000000000000…% .

Or I’d be snide and say things like Reg Dwight didn’t really write the book, his kinship to books is like the moron’s moron in the Whitehouse, the book was really written by Alexis Petridis a music critic and if Petridis was really a music critic he should find someone else to work with. I’d probably throw in something that has nothing to do with Elton, David Walliams entering the writer’s club that holds those that made more than £100 million in sales. For some reason I can’t stand Walliams, there’s no logic to it, just gut instinct.  

Reg Dwight, the child prodigy that grew up to be Elton John, I don’t know why, but I kinda like him. Maybe it’s because I don’t listen to music and I’m jumping on the bandwagon. Read on.