When Margaret Thatcher died in 2013, many tributes were paid to the ‘Iron Lady’ of British politics. Predictably, most came from the upper echelons of Britain’s notorious class system for the United Kingdom’s first female prime minister who, ironically, came from a working-class background, famously being the daughter of a grocer.
The numerous adjectives of praise included terms such as ‘visionary’, ‘bold’, ‘tough’, ‘determined’ and ‘pivotal’. Thatcher was the most consequential British prime minister of the second half of the 20th century, credited by those on the political right with having saved Britain from the swamp of socialism, setting it on course for a robust economic boom and bringing it at par with Germany.
But the praise was not universal. While members of Thatcher’s Conservative party, and some from the opposition Labour party, paid tribute, so-called “death parties” were also held in the UK’s working-class areas, where people — with high fives and kegs of beer — celebrated the demise of the prime minister they despised more than any other.
The not-so-complimentary song ‘Ding Dong! The Witch is Dead’ from the film The Wizard of Oz shot to the top of the UK charts, with listeners expressing joy that the woman they regarded as the real Wicked Witch of the West was now in the land of the dead.
It was not surprising that many working-class people and trade unionists celebrated Thatcher’s death. She had, after all, been the woman who broke their chokehold over British industry with her aggressive privatisation of key industries such as mining, steel and railways, that de-industrialised many parts of Northern England and Scotland.
Unemployment skyrocketed. Entire communities were devastated. Many people, having lost their jobs, fell into the trap of poverty, broken families and alcoholism. The 1980s may have been a great time for greedy entrepreneurs and yuppies but, for working-class people, Thatcherism was hell in every sense of the word.
The 2020 Booker Prize-winner is a superb piece of world-building that exposes the devastations caused to working class families in the United Kingdom by Margaret Thatcher’s economic policies
So it is in this grim and divisive environment of 1980s Glasgow that newcomer author Douglas Stuart sets his debut, Shuggie Bain. As a Scotsman, Stuart channelled his own experience as a youngster during those grim times to tell us a fictional tale of the Bain family and how they disintegrated, first in the cold bath of unemployment — thanks to Thatcher’s policies — and then the poison of alcoholism.
The Bain family comprises Hugh “Shug” Bain, his wife Agnes and their children, Catherine, Leek and Shuggie — the youngest of the three and the book’s eponymous protagonist. Shuggie is the quiet, sensitive and good-hearted child who bears witness to his family’s implosion after his father walks out, leaving them to fend for themselves. His father is a tough but irresponsible head of the family who spends what money he makes as a taxi driver on drink and women. His endless infidelity to his wife, and eventual abandonment of the family, pushes Agnes’s already serious drinking problem into full-fledged alcoholism.
The themes of betrayal, loneliness, abandonment and longing to be loved are shared between mother and son. She finds her solace in endless bottles of alcohol; he in the hope that someday they will leave their desolate environment and his mother will kick her habit and get her life back in order.
Shuggie’s elder siblings, however, are not under any illusion and leave the toxic environment of their home. One of the most powerful moments of this superb novel comes when big brother Leek tells Shuggie that he shouldn’t fool himself into believing their mother will get better: “Don’t make the same mistake as me. She’s never going to get better. When the time is right you have to leave. The only thing you can save is yourself.”
Alcoholism is a disease and addiction that destroys not only the drinker, but the immediate family as well. The theme of the demon of alcohol that strangles those that dare drink has been the basis of many books, songs and especially films — the 1995 Nicholas Cage-starrer Leaving Las Vegas and Billy Wilder’s classic 1945 film The Lost Weekend starring Ray Milland, both show alcoholic writers who want to drink themselves into oblivion and don’t care if it hurts those who love them the most.
Milland’s contemporary, Hollywood star Richard Burton, was infamous for his heavy drinking, consuming at his peak three bottles of hard liquor a day. In a television interview, Burton gave perhaps the best analogy of what it feels like to be an alcoholic, in that the drinker is always in an endless boxing match. He said: “you are always fighting and the other fella is booze. You evade him, you evade him, but one of these days, unless you’re careful, he’s going to nail you right on the chin and down you go. It’s a continual fight, everyday it’s a fight and when you get through the day and you finally put your head on the pillow and you sleep, you say I’ve beaten that boxer for yet another day, and so, for the rest of your life, you are stuck with that shadowy figure always coming at you.” Burton never managed to beat that boxer, and died of a brain haemorrhage brought on by a lifetime of heavy drinking.
For Agnes Bain, it’s not even a close boxing match, but a complete rout. Her son is the only person in her corner; everyone else has abandoned her. Shuggie can’t earn money for her, nor can he save her from drowning in alcoholism. He serves only as a lifebuoy, a sense of security that he won’t abandon her like her other children and the all the men in her life have.
The pain of living in a broken home is all too real for the youngest in the family, especially when the child’s parent is a substance abuser and has no one to fall back on for support. Being a daily witness to your alcoholic parent killing themselves slowly and feeling helpless is a pain no child should ever endure. The lucky ones manage to escape such an atmosphere relatively unharmed. Most, however, carry the mental scars of a traumatic childhood for the rest of their lives.
The author has written a magnificent book about a tough subject matter — alcoholism and its impact on a family’s children — and one can see why Shuggie Bain won the prestigious Booker Prize. It certainly is an impressive achievement for a debut novel.
Writing with dramatic flair, Stuart is relentless in describing the grim environment for a young working-class boy in 1980s’ Thatcher-era Britain. Using references to American soap opera Dallas, Jane Fonda’s workout videos, Madonna and even Page 3 model Samantha Fox, he transports readers back to that era, while exploring how a shattered family, particularly a young boy, manages to overcome their dreadful circumstances.
George Orwell’s 1933 book, Down and Out in Paris and London, described what life was like for a tramp, desperate to escape his impoverished circumstances, but unable to do so. The tramp steals, cheats, does menial labour — anything to survive. Orwell’s non-fiction book The Road to Wigan Pier also gave voice to those living on the margins of society. Reading Shuggie Bain, you feel that Stuart has managed to channel Orwell’s stream of thought and present the reader with an unremitting tale of poverty, desperation and disillusionment. Orwell gave voice to the outsider in his books and so does Stuart.
No doubt, the novel has a depressing subject, drags a bit and may not be to everyone’s taste. But it is well worth a read for anyone who wants to understand a deep flaw in human nature and how an inability to take control of our lives, when in a downward spiral of addiction, destroys those who care about us the most.
The reviewer is a writer and journalist interested in history, politics, music, literature and film. He tweets @razmat
By Douglas Stuart
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 6th, 2021