‘Shuggie Bain’ and ‘Young Mungo’ : What About School?’

A couple of weeks ago, I had the privilege of attending an event at the excellent Portobello Bookshop (the ultimate proof of Porty’s gentrification) at which Douglas Stuart, the much feted author of ‘Shuggie Bain’, read from his new novel ‘Young Mungo’ and answered questions. He is a very impressive person, clever, elegant and warm and well on his way to being a Scottish National Treasure. Quite right – his backstory is an inspiration; the two novels, particularly the first one, have huge autobiographical elements; his escape into the fashion industry, to the USA, to a happy gay marriage and to becoming an internationally admired author is an inspiration. He is clearly very affected still by what he has left behind. I liked him very much.

I quite liked ‘Shuggie Bain’; I didn’t love it in the way that many people did (though not, I should say, all that many I know). It was undeniably very moving – though I think much of that came from the awareness that the author was talking of himself when he was the young, vulnerable, gay child of an alcoholic mother. I thought it was too long – but then I think that about lots of contemporary novels: this is becoming a thing for me and may explain why my favourite novels read in the past year have been Carys Davies ‘The Mission House’, Claire Keegan’s two novellas and Denis Johnson’s ‘Train Dreams’ none of which finds p 200. ‘Shuggie’ is not, in my view, a Great Scottish Novel; the closest I have read to one of those (‘Sunset Song’, ‘Brodie’, ‘Kidnapped’ etc) in recent years was ‘And The Land Lay Still’. I’m not sure I even think it the best of the recent encouraging group of novels about young working class Scots – by a fraction I liked ‘Scabby Queen’ better (Kirstin Innes chaired the evening with D Stuart), though I also liked Graeme Armstrong’s ‘The Young Team’, which was less accomplished and had a rawer voice. I obviously didn’t read all the novels published in English in 2020 (I probably read about 4 novels published in English in 2020) but I find it hard to believe that the Booker judges found ‘Shuggie’ to be the best, even though I was, of course, very pleased that it was won by a Scot. Dare I say of these distinguished academics and writers that the prize was awarded by their hearts?

I have just finished ‘Young Mungo’; I thought up to half way through that I was going to like this one a lot more but I found the plot of the second half both unpleasant and incredible. I won’t dwell on that for two reasons – because to explain it would involve massive ‘spoilers’, but also because for me to judge a book like ‘Young Mungo’ is terms of its realism obviously risks the ‘what would I know?’ question. I was a boy of Scottish working class origins – the mines, the General Strike, Churchill and the tanks in Glasgow, outside toilets, no running hot water – but my parents had overcome this legacy by the time I appeared. I had a childhood free from squalor and almost free from violence – though not from homophobia – and, crucially, I was encouraged in my education, both at home and at school.

The title character of ‘Young Mungo’ is a clever, damaged, possibly neurodivergent gay 15 year old and he suffers terrible neglect and abuse and violence and prejudice in the book at the hands of various characters on a spectrum from the indolently self-obsessed and addicted to out and out psychopaths and paedophiles. He is shown kindness occasionally, by his sister and by two neighbours, one a battered wife and another a fractured and repressed gay man. Otherwise his life is dirty, neglected and brutalised, until he falls in love. His gentle, tentative, terrified relationship is well portrayed and I was, despite all my misgivings, weeping at the very end.

However, school, education, formal learning, play virtually no part in either novel, and I am very perplexed by all this. It’s almost as if Stuart’s characters don’t actually go to school at all. Both novels are set in the late 20th Century, and I accept that things have tightened up a great deal since then, but it does seem extraordinary that there’s no chance of help or escape or redemption proffered to Shuggie or Mungo or his boyfriend James by teachers or pastoral carers or social workers ; the police are described at one point as ‘smelling of pork’ which I thought was a bit strong given their working conditions. Indeed, the only teacher described in any detail at all grooms one of his pupils, has sex with them, then abandons them and runs away, just another one of the predatory older people these teenagers are at risk from. One character does indeed get some qualifications, offering them the chance of escape from this hellhole, but there isn’t the remotest suggestion that any schooling or benign teaching has helped achieve this. Does no-one in the school notice that Mungo smells, is filthy, is undernourished, is frequently battered and bruised, twitches, is absent a lot? They know his brother is a disordered bully and thug. Do they just not care? Is that how it was? Really? 

Back in the Portobello Bookshop, as an older man now almost definitionally middle class, I kept quiet. Now, having read Douglas Stuart’s second novel and having again found this curious educational absence, maybe I should have asked a question : ‘Douglas, how was school for you?’



  1. Interesting article. I have finished reading Young Mungo and almost finished Shuggie Bain. As you will know both books deal with the rivalry between Protestants and Catholics. Religion played a major part in the lives of both Mungo and Shuggie. Mungo raised as a Protestant and Shuggie a Catholic, received no help from either church. It wasn’t just the education system that let the boys down.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. No you’re right – there’s no actual intervention from priests or ministers, but of course neither of them has to go to church whereas they must have been at school.


  2. The older I get the more I reflect on how Scottish education has been devalued. In my younger day a good education ( or vocational training )was seen as the best way out of poverty. Our parents all wanted us to do better than they had and were supportive of our schooling. If they weren’t there were teachers and librarians to “take an interest “.
    Changed days.


    1. I think there are still many, many teachers and librarians and ministers and social workers taking an interest and encouraging young people. This is all absent from these books, though. I fear it may be that some parents don’t value education in the same way.


  3. Yes – Roberstons ‘Land Lay Still’ must be the best of any Scots fiction in the past 50 years….Just staggering in its scope and its depth. Must be due a third re-reading for me.


  4. I’m afraid your self-defined middle class outlook hasn’t helped in your understanding of the book Cameron. I agree that there is an absence of input from his school, but we have to accept that for some families education undermines their own (working class) culture. His sister struggles to win a place at university by her own efforts. She’s the exception, refusing to believe higher education is not for the likes of her class. I’m afraid to think this, but I suspect the system still favours those that succeed rather than those that struggle to succeed. It was ever thus. I benefitted from a university education through learning as an adult, and not through school.


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