Letter from America

Scott Hames

Douglas Stuart is the first Scottish writer to win the Booker Prize since James Kelman in 1994. Stuart has cited How late it was, how late as his ‘bible’, though Shuggie Bain has more in common with Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes (1996), another transatlantic misery-lit smash. Its more obvious Scottish precursors would include the tender brutalities of Jessie Kesson’s The White Bird Passes (1958) and the Gorbals shocker No Mean City (1935). From the perspective of literary Scotland, the harrowing content of Stuart’s novel is largely beside the point. What matters is that a Scottish novel has been recognised on the world stage, boosting the prestige and marketability of the category itself.

This reception traces a shift in literary nationalism over the past few decades. In 1994, the London press poured a ‘suppuration of racist, xenophobic class hatred’, as John Linklater put it, on Kelman’s language and protagonist. But Scotland’s first Booker winner was disowned at home, too: How late it was, how late was denounced by a former lord provost of Glasgow and regretted as an ‘unfortunate portrayal’ by the Saltire Society. Kelman explained to a Canadian journalist that ‘it’s a small country, and there’s a tacit assumption that artists and writers are employees of the tourist industry, meant to enhance the image of Scotland for overseas investors. I’m bad for the image.’

Shuggie Bain presents us with a far more depraved and disturbing Scottish scene than either How late or Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting (subject of its own 1990s moral panics), but the Scottish publishing and media worlds are united in their rejoicing, and the country’s most influential literary commentator, Nicola Sturgeon, gave a glowing endorsement. So far, the Team Scotland ethos of celebration has discouraged critics from voicing their reservations about the novel and its historical cues. Stuart himself, who lives in New York, has gone out of his way to nationalise his success, describing the Booker win as ‘a great thing for Scottish voices, for queer voices, for working-class voices … I owe Scotland everything.’

Both the open-armed acceptance of Shuggie Bain’s sordidness, and the banal celebration of ‘Scottish voices’, owe a lot to the literary culture of devolution. The rhetoric of national representation that powered the 1990s consensus for a Scottish Parliament helped to produce ‘Scotland’, in the words of the sociologist David McCrone, ‘as an ideological category incompatible with Conservative Anglo-British rhetoric’. Unified by the rejection of Tory rule, this image of Scotland – electorally silenced, culturally and linguistically ‘othered’, industrially dispossessed – became the key carrier of literary and political identity into the 2000s, around the time Stuart left Glasgow for New York. Strong on symbols and short on power, devolved political culture values the performance of nationality as an end in itself, but especially cherishes voices that uphold the vintage 1980s image of national working-classness. Through this idiom, all of Scotland – from the Proclaimers to the bus tycoon Brian Souter – bear the wounds of Thatcherism, and the warrant to mobilise against them.

Stuart has described Shuggie Bain as an act of witness to Tory social destruction, but the 1980s are anything but unprocessed trauma in Scotland today. Scorn of Thatcherism is fully incorporated into the logic of Scottish government, and both the parties that have led Holyrood administrations fiercely define themselves, and Scottish social democracy, against its legacy. These scars are the common currency of Scotland’s modern cultural identity: the injuries of class are incorporated into the national self-image, and the class speech of the ex-industrial central belt has been refigured as a tongue of national pain and protest.

This week, the pain feels far away. Stuart has generously shared his big moment, helping other Scottish writers to reach the massively expanded audience the Booker confers. There is nothing exactly nostalgic about Shuggie Bain, but the reception of its triumph has rekindled the warm consensus of the 1990s Scottish literati, this time free of insecurity about the dignity of the national image. It isn’t so much that Scotland has achieved a grown-up reckoning with its social history (warts, booze, paedophiles and all), as that these wounds have become a source of cultural and political capital. Today, nobody’s afraid of a Shuggie effect that might detract from Scotland’s good name, or spoil the lucrative touristic fantasies of Outlander.

The strength of Scotland’s ‘identity’ means we are free to choose between myths, and the popularity of one need not trouble the appeal of the other; which is another way of saying their truth-content is irrelevant. And this matters for whatever dimension of Stuart’s novel is grounded in memoir. Absorbed into the logic of national literary representation, the personal torment that seems to lie behind Shuggie Bain is transmuted into a display of Scotland’s unofficial stigmata, wounds beyond all healing. In the words of a leader in the Times, ‘Douglas Stuart’s Booker prize win is a shot in the arm for the Scottish novel.’


  • 25 November 2020 at 7:31pm
    Michael O'connor says:
    having to do with America what?

    • 25 November 2020 at 9:20pm
      Thomas Jones (blog editor) says: @ Michael O'connor
      Click on the Proclaimers link in the piece … (and Douglas Stuart has lived in New York since 2000).

    • 2 December 2020 at 8:54am
      Gilbert O'brien says: @ Michael O'connor
      So, Thomas Jones, Douglas Stuart having lived in New York for 20 years means...? Is it then an American novel about Scotland? This entire blog/letter (define terms please) seems to be a lot of words in search of a focus. Someone having a hissy fit about a novel that has been swept up by the self-generating publicity machine that attends the opening of most envelopes these days. And who is Scott Hames anyway, and why should I care. I read Snuggie Bain, I liked it, and that’s enough for me. Oh, and it made me laugh, too. A lot.

  • 26 November 2020 at 2:39am
    neddy says:
    I read the review by Christian Lorentzen. It may be just me, but I detected no enthusiasm (in the review) for the story. What is a reader supposed to take away from such an unrelentingly nasty tale? Booze, beatings, child abuse, neglect, failure, resentment, poverty, the occasional escape courtesy of talent; hasn't it all been done to death? I won't bother with it. Life's too short.

    • 29 November 2020 at 8:20pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ neddy
      As it happens, I am reading ‘Shuggie Bain’ right now and, neddy, you are spot on: it is a dispiriting tale of relentless grim misery. As yet there is no shaft of light to pierce the gloom. Reading it is a struggle. I prefer Kelman.

    • 30 November 2020 at 1:47pm
      Marmaduke Jinks says: @ Marmaduke Jinks
      A postscript: I finished the book; it doesn’t get any less grim but the ending is quite affecting - not cheering but affecting - though I’m not sure the view was worth the climb

  • 26 November 2020 at 10:09am
    Phil Edwards says:
    I haven't read either SB or HLIW,HL, but a quick glance at Google Books tells me (a) that I really need to read the Kelman and (b) that there's a big difference between the two books as well as between the two periods, in terms of register, tone and (not least) politics. The contentedly smarting, proudly subaltern literary class which (Hames suggested) rolled out its own red carpet for

    "Mr Kilfeather was a parsimonious bastard; he liked to staff the shop with anyone he didn't have to pay a full adult wage, and Shuggie found himself able to take short shifts that fit around his patchy schooling. In his dreams he always intended to move on."

    might still draw the line at, or well before,

    "And here they were courtesy of the town council promotions office, being guided round by some beautiful female publicity officer with the smart tailored suit and scarlet lips with this quiet wee smile, seeing him here, but obliged no to hide things; to take them everywhere in the line of duty, these gentlemen foreigners, so they could see it all, the lot, it was probably part of the deal otherwise they werenay gony invest their hardwon fortunes, that bottom line man sometimes it's necessary, if ye're a businessman, know what I'm talking about."

    (Quotes selected more or less at random from page 2 of each book.)

    • 2 December 2020 at 7:55pm
      UncleShoutingSmut says: @ Phil Edwards
      I haven’t read Shuggie Bain, but I’d certainly encourage you to read How late it was, Phil, or indeed any other of Kelman’s prodigious output. The ‘contentedly smarting, proudly subaltern literary class’ you refer to no doubt feel a certain frisson of class transgression at this Booker, as they did back in 1994 - I still remember the commentator on the telly cooing approvingly at Kelman’s refusal to sport a penguin suit and dicky as he approached the podium. However, beyond such issues of representation, Kelman’s iconoclasm does appear difficult for the novel-reading public, of whatever class, to digest: most of Kelman’s novels are already out of print. While you can still get How late it was in paperback, works such as The Busconductor Hines, A Chancer, Not Not While the Giro, and the truly amazing Kieron Smith, Boy (the review in the LRB is an excellent introduction) are no longer available new. Kelman indicates on his website that e-book versions are on the way. This, well, disaffection, to me suggests the bind that a novelist of the working class finds themself in: grit, warts and other proletarian trappings are fine as long as they’re safely cordoned off in other unfathomable places and times. But give it a hundred years and Kieron Smith will be up there with Jane Eyre and Oliver Twist. And hopefully the Scottish tourist board will have a fresh set of bêtes noires to hamper their PR.

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