Shuggie Bain, the 2020 Booker prize winner, was Douglas Stuart’s debut novel. It has sold around 1.5 million copies worldwide. His follow-up novel, Young Mungo, is also set in the Glasgow of Stuart’s birth and follows a gay son trying to hang on to the coattails of a mum that is lost to drink, but sometimes finds her way home.
Readings come from the big hitters of Scottish culture. Lulu, who’s been there and done it and is doing it again, did a terrific reading from Shuggie Bain. Val McDermid, who has written more books than the Bible and sold more than Douglas Stuart, spoke about the sinister elements that make Young Mungo’s apparent friendships with St Christopher and Gallowgate nauseating even for a thriller writer. Alan Cumming, who followed a similar trajectory, from a small Scottish town to worldwide queer icon also contributed.
It’s better to be a stupid cunt than a dick. Discuss? The problem of dialect. There is something miraculous about Douglas Stuart’s success because it happened twice. His alcoholic mum died when he was sixteen. He was still at school, yet on the verge of homelessness. But he wasn’t good at school. The only thing he was good at was art. Yet, he somehow, with the help of his art teachers, got a place in the Royal College of Art in London. He went from there to work as a chief designer for Calvin Klein in New York. He tells us how most folk couldn’t place his accent. In other words, they couldn’t patronise him.
Class matters, let’s not kid ourselves. Douglas Stuart is a success story by any measure and he did it the hard way. It’s one of those unbelievable stories that rich people tell to show anybody can do it if they work hard enough. To show how rich people aren’t rich because they are rich, but because they are innately talented. Fuck off.
When travelling from the meatpacker district to the fashion capital of the world, Stuart had thirty minutes every day to write. He wrote about his mum. He wrote about people he knew. He wrote about Glasgow. 1800 pages that haunted him. Every writer needs a reader. His husband was first in line. There’s humour when they speak about it now. He annotated the text, ‘No Douglas. No. NO. NO.’ I like that. They wouldn’t speak for days. Goin fuckin yersel is ner easy.
Darren McGarvie Poverty Safari’s success story mirrors Douglas Stuart’s but in localised form. McGarvie is used as the authentic voice of working-class lives for programme makers who have come to gawp, but claim to understand. Let’s be honest. We all hate the fuckin Tories and it’s not all location, location, location. Facts have never mattered less. We lost the propaganda war. These guys tell it how it is. If you’re on a pedestal, the Glasgow thing is to knock yeh aff.
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.
Who will speak for us? —is sometimes as simple as who speaks like us. We all might be Jock Tamson’s bairns, but in the real world debut novelists, and those using Scottish dialect don’t win prizes. How Late it Was, How Late, well it was 1985 when something like this happened. James Kelman caused a kerfuffle. Rabbi Julia Neuberger saying the book was ‘crap’. I prefer Jeff Torrington, Swing Hammer Swing, or a Janice Galloway’s memoir that’s not a memoir, or even Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-cream Float Before He Stole My Ma, but I don’t get to choose. I’ve not even got around to reading Douglas Stuart’s book—although like many others I will, instead of reminding myself I should—so why should I be going on about it?
Because I’m a reader. That’s what I do. That’s who I am. It’s the first thing I do in the morning and last thing at night. I’d brush my teeth with a book in my hand, but it’s just not practical. But books should never be practical. They should be otherworldly.
I don’t change, but the world around absorbs me molecule by molecule. I look at the world differently after reading. I’m even one of few readers with input into a small Scottish literary prize. It’s not glamourous. An unpaid task to box-tick and summarise a novel in a pithy line that few will bother reading and which is churned up with other’s lines and average scores.
But, hey, I write stuff too. I’ve got a whole number of novels lying about like scrap cars with their wheels off waiting for that spark of the ignition key. When something like this happens the literary bar doesn’t come down. Failure and me get along just fine. We’ve been in a regular relationship so long some folk assume we’re married. And every spring a guy in a dress puts a black mark on my head and reminds me.
‘Remember you are dust and to dust you will return.’
I’ll leave the afterlife until after life. Still, we dream of leaving a mark—on a page. The Pied Piper of public opinion is playing our tune. We’re marching today from a slightly different beat, one that I recognise, one that others might recognise too. I’m not the type of person who writes a book. It’s only brainy and successful people that do that sort of thing. Only those sort that get published. Aye, right! Dream on.