I wanted to read and yet didn’t want to read Douglas Stuart’s Shuggie Bain, winner of the 2020 Booker Prize.
Set in Glasgow in the 1980s, the novel’s location and period were both things I could relate to, as was the fact it involved working (sometimes) class life, and council house living in the West of Scotland.
I was desperate to read it, but benched it for a while as I was still writing the first draft of a novel based in the West of Scotland and during a period just a few years earlier than Shuggie Bain’s. One, I didn’t want to be influenced at all by the language, or style. And two, I didn’t want to have my enthusiasm and motivation squashed flat as a cowpat by reading what, by all accounts, is a brilliantly written novel; the sort of book which would have me muttering “this is shite” about my own words, and throwing my manuscript into the virtual dustbin.
Meanwhile, I had to endure Andy telling me how brilliant Shuggie Bain was on a daily basis.
I completed the first draft of my book last week and immediately started reading Shuggie Bain. And yes, it is brilliant. Bleak? Yes. Depressing? Yes. Hopeless? Yes. Disturbing? Yes. Funny? Oh yes.
It’s oozes authenticity, the sort of authenticity that only comes from a writer knowing their subject matter first hand. I, Daniel Blake was an enjoyable and moving film, but it felt to me like it was a take on the life of the most disadvantaged in society by someone who hadn’t experienced that world for themselves. Despite its bleak subject matter, some characters were created through a rose-tinted keyboard. It wasn’t authentic enough, not in the way Shuggie Bain is. Shuggie’s world is a place I recognise. Thankfully though, not one I had to live in.
For the first seven and a half years of my life we lived in three-room apartment. Two of the rooms were bedrooms, the third was the living room, kitchen, bathroom, and sports room (there was a dartboard on the inside of the pock-marked front door). The toilet itself was outside, in a stand-alone brick cupboard beside a small green where the washing was hung out. The loo’s light was operated from inside the apartment. Having the control of the cludgie’s light in the hands of someone else is not a good design when you’re a wee feartie. When we moved to a new council house it felt like moving to the lap of luxury. But we didn’t think of ourselves as being poor, and, thank the fates, it was nothing like the nightmarish world wee Shuggie Bain inhabits.
I’m not sure what some folk will make of Shuggie’s world. Some readers won’t be able to handle it, even from the luxury of viewing it on a page. It will be too alien to many. There will be some who will be offended by the language and behaviour of characters. However, it’s easy to be offended whilst viewing from a privileged pedestal where it’s impossible to understand the dynamics involved in an environment like Shuggie’s; or to understand and appreciate how essential humour is when it comes to using it as a pressure valve when life is hard and seemingly hopeless.
Thinking about this reminded me of an incident in a pub aimed at British visitors on Tenerife where we’d taken a friend to watch a Manchester United game. The match prior to the United one was an Old Firm derby, and there were still some opposing fans lingering; two of whom were engaged in a post-match bout of loud and lively, but non-aggressive, sectarian banter.
The sectarian jibes passing between them shocked my friend to the point she announced she was going to intervene. She’s English and has an RP accent (what used to be known as a BBC accent), which is relevant to this particular story.
“You know what will happen if you do?” I warned. “All they’ll hear is a posh-sounding English woman sticking her nose in. At least it will stop their sectarian banter, as they’ll both team up to turn on you. But, as you’re a woman, it’ll be me they batter. So please don’t say anything, it is only banter … at this point. That’s just the way it works.”
Thankfully, for the shape of my nose, she kept schtum. But she struggled to understand their world.
I’m only halfway through Shuggie Bain, and am loving it. It is compelling reading and does what a good book should do, draws you into its world so you care for the characters who inhabit it, flaws and all. It is deserving of all the accolades and then some.
I needn’t have worried about being influenced by Shuggie Bain, it is a very different landscape to the one I’ve been writing about, even though geographically it’s close. I was also worried some of the scenes I was writing might be too dark. I needn’t have. Mine are Disney compared to those in Shuggie Bain.