Shuggie Bain: Douglas Stuart in Conversation with Kerry Hudson

Douglas Stuart

The School of Arts have teamed up with WoWFest2021, with students from across the School previewing events from this festival of radical writing, taking place throughout May. 

Naomi Adam (PhD English) previews Shuggie Bain: Douglas Stuart in Conversation with Kerry Hudson, Saturday 8 May, 6 pm. Tickets: £8/£4 concessions 

Back in November, author Douglas Stuart became only the second Scot to win the Booker Prize in its 51-year history, and the first ever to receive it via video link. Now, he is set to appear (again by the magic of Zoom) at Liverpool’s annual Writing on the Wall (WoW) Festival, in conversation with fellow Scottish novelist Kerry Hudson. ‘All these wonderful things keep happening’, he has said, ‘and I’ve never left the sofa!’ During this ‘In Conversation with...’, he will be discussing the process and inspiration behind writing his lauded debut Shuggie Bain, as well as plans to adapt the novel into a television serial. Expect, too, some pointers on literary perseverance: his novel took him 10 years to write, and was rejected by 32 publishers, prior to being picked up by Picador. 

At its core, the novel Shuggie Bain is a chronicle of Glasgow. It is a city gritty with stour, streets slicked with ‘smirr’, air heavy with ‘haar’ (as any tourist to have ventured north of the border will know, Scottish weather is often less than dependable). Its tenements are pebbledashed, its people ‘pale and bronchial’. Meanwhile, its centre is slowly being shut down. And unlike our recent experiences with Covid-forced lockdowns, this situation looks set to be permanent. Shipbuilding cranes hover abandoned, left to ruefully observe the post-industrial decline like some weary, Weedjie variant of the T. J. Eckleburg billboard that overlooks the ‘valley of ashes’ in The Great Gatsby. (A Weedjie is a Glaswegian, if you don’t know your Glasgow slang.) An undeniable achievement of the novel, proclaimed by the Observer to be a book of ‘rare and lasting beauty’, is its intricately, almost claustrophobically, observed sense of place. 

Set against this backdrop is Agnes Bain, mother of the eponymous Hugh ‘Shuggie’ Bain, a woman negotiating her own, personal decline. Thatcherite reforms may have ravaged Glasgow’s traditional industries; alcohol has ravaged Agnes. Initially a coping mechanism for an unemployed, recently jilted single mother of three, it soon overtakes her children in terms of priorities. Partway through the novel comes a scene of market-store maths: twelve cans of Tennent’s lager in the (purposefully opaque) shopping bag = tins of custard (to quiet the rumbling in Shuggie’s stomach) back on the shelf. Yes, Tennent’s is Agnes’s drink of choice: even the book’s depicted tipples are authentically, 100% Scottish. And as her circle of family, friends and acquaintances slowly dwindles, alcohol remains the one constant. 

‘Howse aboots some light entertainment?’ a character in the novel proffers at one point. Shuggie Bain is most definitely not that. What it is, though, is a nuanced and sensitive exploration of family dynamics, love and unswerving loyalty. This is what makes the tale so transcendent: its setting may be Glasgow, circa 1985, but these themes are universal. 

The novel is also something of a twisted love letter to Glasgow, city of the author’s birth. Nowhere is this more in evidence than in the novel’s language. Stuart does for Glasgow what Irvine Welsh did for Edinburgh in Trainspotting, perfectly pitching the living language of the city in the speech of his characters. This also serves to distinguish between them on a class basis: Agnes is immensely proud of her middle-class ‘Milngavie voice’ despite her working-class upbringing. Shuggie’s ‘posh voice’, however, earmarks him for further unwanted attention from his classmates. Preferring to play with his My Little Ponies than join local games of bladder football, he’s considered a neighbourhood oddity. His mother’s drunken antics certainly don’t help his reputation, either. 

Stuart clearly has a powerful sensor for social class, having written on the subject for LitHub. In past interviews, he’s also been keen to underscore the relevance of Thatcherite Glasgow to today’s world, citing Marcus Rashford’s recent campaign for free school meals as chiming with Shuggie’s situation in the novel. Additionally, he’s a proponent of queering the canon when it comes to widely read and promoted works of British literature. So, expect more prescient social and political commentary, alongside the literary, when Stuart appears at Liverpool’s twenty-first annual WoWFest. What better way to celebrate turning 21? 

Part of WoWFest21: celebrating 21 years of radical writing. Check out the full programme here