Diving Deep with Douglas Stuart: The Many Layers of Shuggie Bain
Douglas Stuart in conversation with Paul McVeigh
When I first saw the programming line-up for #JaipurLiteratureFestival2021 and spotted Douglas Stuart on the list, my heart gave a whoop of joy. I had read Shuggie Bain in the last week of last year in a quiet, sunny corner of my hotel in a remote tiger reserve, over 5 days of rooted focus, heaving emotion and unwavering awe. This is one author I wanted to see and hear and one session I daren’t miss because of the heartbreaking and compelling beauty of this debut autobiographical novel that explores, with tender clarity, the unchangeable love little Shuggie has for his beauteous, damaged, alcoholic mother Agnes.
Stuart opens the session introducing himself disarmingly as the ‘queer son of a single mother’ and reads a passage in his sonorous Scottish brogue. It is that vivid scene in which Agnes Bain, around whom the book pivots, is chafing at her lot in her ‘mammy’s’ flat on a Friday evening, where a gang of working class women had gathered to play cards, eat a greasy fish supper and drink surreptitious lager from chipped tea mugs.
Stuart speaks of his own mother on whom the character of Agnes is based – she too like Agnes had been an alcoholic and had eventually succumbed to her addiction when Stuart had been 16. In her little working class Glasgow milieu, she had perhaps been ‘insignificant’ but she had been, he says simply, ‘very significant’ to him. Like the children of all addicts, he would always be finding strategies to keep her safe, hold her to him. And one of the ways he would do so was to pretend to write her memoir and that would hold her attention. She would dictate to him to open his book with a note to Elizabeth Taylor!
What could a working class woman from a sordid, grimy, overshadowed-by-unemployment Glasgow of the 80s have in common with the glamorous Liz Taylor? Taylor was an icon but she was also difficult, challenging, forthright, strong, all of which Stuart associates with his mother. Taylor drank, loved and lost like his mother and Agnes Bain. But where Taylor was celebrated for being powerful and impactful, his mother and Agnes, living under the confines of Glasgow’s narrow-minded patriarchy, were not. He speaks of Agnes with empathy. Agnes, he says, wanted very simple things - a home, nice clothes for her children, a husband who adored her. She wanted a bit of glamour. He agrees with McVeigh that often alcoholism or any form of addiction is a way of coping when one doesn’t fulfil one’s own expectations; Douglas wonders how he would have coped had he not realised his own potential.
Here the conversation veers to the isolation of being ‘different’. Agnes always had a ‘beautiful aura’ about her. She was always perfectly made up, immaculately turned out, thanks to her innate vanity. Even when she was ‘descending’ into rejection and ‘disintegrating’ inside, she kept up an appearance completely at odds with her situation, circumstance and the grimy mining neighbourhood where Shuggie’s father had abandoned them. Agnes rejects the Glaswegian brogue to talk in a plummy English accent and people think she is affecting ‘airs and graces’ and savour her later degradation.
Both Agnes & Shuggie are coping with being different in a Glasgow where any form of self-expression is outside the norm. Shuggie is different from other boys. He is ‘precocious and effeminate’ at a time when conforming meant being a hard-drinking, hard-working, hard-loving man. To the eight-year-old Shuggie, Agnes is his sun and moon; he ‘orbits around’ her. To me, it is the redemptive, unconditional quality of Shuggie’s love for Agnes that lets him stay hopeful in a heart-rending way even when Leek, his older brother, can see that she will never be freed from the clutches of alcoholism.
This brings us to the inevitable theme of Shuggie’s sexuality. When McVeigh asks about Shuggie’s isolation as a pre-teen, Stuartsays, Shuggie, in his confused idea of conformity, didn’t reject masculinity; in fact, he craved acceptance. He tried very hard to ‘fit in’ – from trying to change the way he walked to embracing a book of Football Premier League scores (gifted to him by one of his mother’s suitors) like a rosary which he tried to memorise. Shuggie’s character had no ‘ease’; he was always trying to balance himself between his poverty, sexuality and what Agnes was teaching him to project. I realise as he speaks of Shuggie’s tragic discomfiture that it was his too. He admits having been bullied in school, dealing with feelings of inferiority, and how he was perceived as the child of an addict. When he says ‘Agnes’s life was a performance’ and mentions how we always think of the griminess of poverty but what we don’t know is how acutely the poor try to project themselves as wholesome – ‘We were sometimes incredibly hungry; but my god, did we look good!’ - I can see clearly Agnes pulling up the lapels of her purple coat, applying a coat of scarlet lipstick as she totters off to pawn the last of her trinkets to buy a bottle of vodka.
Finally, McVeigh asks how in this ‘brutal, immersive setting’ did love emerge like ‘a protective cloak’, and Stuart says quietly that love is the ‘backbone’ of this book. Everything else hung off that – the unquestioning, unconditional love children have for flawed parents. ‘Love, for me, was the reason for writing this book…these two souls clinging together…’ The book, in a sense, is the ‘end of Agnes and the beginning of Shuggie - Shuggie is the splinter of hope that comes off Agnes’. I feel a wave of emotion at this statement – having scoured the pages in which love, hope, despair, tawdriness and pain lie compressed in multiple layers of what can only be for Stuart, a cathartic coming-to-terms.