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The hope and tragedy of poverty

'Shuggie Bain' by Douglas Stuart (Picador; HB £14.99) reviewed by Christopher Boyle.

17 June 2021

Douglas Stuart’s 2020 Booker Prize winning novel Shuggie Bain is a love story as much as it is a story about hope. Stuart tells the fairly tragic story of a childhood in absolute poverty in and around 1980s Glasgow. It is a very grim portrayal of the high rises, the misery, the alcoholism. Poverty makes a home in many towns and cities where opportunity or effective supports are lacking. It could be any UK city, but it just so happened that this story of a growing wee boy was set in my home city.

With poverty often comes isolation. For most of the story the central character Shuggie lives in fictitious Pithead on the peripheries of Glasgow. With no money, little transport, and few shops, there is the additional burden of required extra expenses to travel and to buy even the most basic of groceries. Once upon a time many real communities like this had a purpose such as coal mining and were largely forgotten when that stopped under the grim policies which became known as Thatcherism. People who had the means were able to exit for jobs elsewhere, and those who stayed had limited employment opportunities. Social housing was more likely than not to be appalling and built in isolated areas with limited transport and a scarcity of standard services such as entertainment or a GP practice.

It becomes the tyranny of distance. Even on the peripheries of cities the lack of opportunity quite often leads to poverty for children such as Shuggie. For many years in Glasgow, the Council, in their wisdom, built massive sprawling housing estates at the four points of the compass peripheries of the city boundary. Places like Castlemilk in the South, Easterhouse in the East, Drumchapel in the West, and Sighthill in the North developed a dubious reputation for unemployment and crime. I grew up in the 1980s on the boundary of Castlemilk and delivered papers there on many a cold morning. I could see the boarded-up flats and the wasteland, but I also saw factories and people heading to work in an industrial estate. It looked like a tough environment for many, and I was lucky to be just on the other side of the trainline.

Poverty in different forms, even if not absolute, might seem quite contained in certain areas but it permeates more widely. In 2017 the then Scottish men’s national football team manager, Gordon Strachan, came out with an interesting excuse for not qualifying for another major football tournament. Strachan said, ‘genetically we are behind’. In football circles his comment was much derided, but he was specifically talking about the lack of height of Scottish players compared to other nations. In essence he was referring to poverty and the lack of nutrition which affects growth through childhood and adolescence.

Poverty is a blight on our society and a stain on our credentials as a rich nation, with 22 per cent of the UK population experiencing it in some form or other. The government needs to really target the eradication of poverty especially through equity in policies.

A by-product could even be the regular qualification of Scottish football teams for major tournaments, which would make many people stand tall, not just a few. Shuggie deals with poverty the best he can. He always retains hope that aspects of his life will improve. Despite so many knocks and so much adversity he can see a positive future, although for many surrounding Shuggie, hope has been long vanquished. They are unable to retain the hope that, as Viktor Frankl argued, can be a psychological shield in desperate circumstances.

Poverty is a beast and Stuart makes you feel it creep up behind you and put a cold wet hand on your shoulder. For those who have experienced abject poverty that hand is never far away. Stuart’s incredibly vivid account of poverty, drawn from his own experiences throughout his early life teaches us that there can be hope and incredible resilience despite a very inequitable society. It also gives us insight into the thoroughly damaging and hellish effects that poverty continues to have for many in the UK and beyond. Sadly, without political will, it could be with future generations for centuries.

- Reviewed by Christopher Boyle PhD FBPsS, University of Exeter