The Other Side of the Crown

I binged the latest episodes of the Crown as soon as they became available last Sunday. The fourth season undoubtedly belongs to Diana and Margaret Thatcher. Their lives and actions undisputedly left long-lasting marks on many people’s lives. My Crown –experience was enhanced by Douglas Stuart’s ‘Shuggie Bain’ that I was reading at the time.

I like the Crown as much as anyone else. It’s brilliantly done and offers comprehensive-seeming – if slightly dramatised and rearranged – snapshots of recent history of the United Kingdom through the eyes of its longest-serving monarch. The entire concept of having a monarchy in today’s world anywhere of course seems like a quaint relic from the bygones. At best they can serve as a fun curiosity, prancing about in their ballgowns and bearskins, at worst sobering reminder of the demoralisingly undemocratic ways of the past.

While the earlier seasons of the Crown served up a neat(ish) picture of the highly dysfunctional, imaginary royal family and especially the ever hardworking and loyal Queen, the fourth season truly spares no gunpowder as it marches forward a bunch of incomprehensibly entitled, pompous arses who are way past caring about how degenerated their antics actually come across.

The juxtaposition between wallowing in otherworldly privilege and being plunged into absolute socio-economic devastation is embodied in the series by the character of Margaret Thatcher, who’s out to teach the sloppy Britons a thing or two about grit. Her neoliberalism-leaning ways left a highly disputed legacy, and while she’s widely considered the most hated and vilified public figure of her time, she remains the longest-serving British prime minister (interesting snippet, given the recent revolving doors in the Downing Street). And she has her defenders as well – British economy outperformed many of its Continental counterparts for years.

Anyway. Mass-unemployment and social devastation was the outcome of some of Thatcher’s policies, and Scottish author Douglas Stuart‘s account of a Glaswegian family’s struggle is one of those stories. Shuggie Bain is not necessarily something I would instinctively reach for in a bookstore. I read New York Times review of the book and was intrigued by the author’s story: Stuart was born into a working class Glaswegian family, lost his mam to alcoholism when he was 16, came to terms with his sexuality, enrolled in the Royal College of Arts in London, moved to New York at 24 to pursue career in fashion, and started writing ‘Shuggie’ as therapy.

Have a listen about the novel here:

I have fiercely recommended ‘Shuggie’ to anyone I know would have the slightest interest. While the Scots are notorious for shamelessly capitalising on their misery, ‘Shuggie’ rises above self-pity and instead is a piece of devastatingly, heart-wrenchingly brilliant literature, despite the extremely dire straits of its characters. I got an excited text from my Scottish cousin on Friday evening: “Shuggie Bain just won the Booker Prize!” and it released all kinds of emotions. Mainly absolute joy, as I so loved the book.

Given the yet unknown consequences of the pandemic, ‘Shuggie’ is a useful portrayal as well as a reminder of what absolute poverty means for many children who live in Europe (and, indeed, for many, many women). Reading ‘Shuggie’ was also such a healthy counterbalance to the surprisingly widespread obsessing over Diana’s fashion choices in the 80s (also important, but on an entirely different level).

Shuggie’ will quite certainly shake you to the core, but not just in a tragic way. The book is not miserable. The characters exist in total misery, but the book still manages to be actually funny, and just, ah dinnae ken, the most brilliant thing I’ve read in very, very long time.

Get this book for your holiday break.

The man finished his cigarette and went on studying Agnes. “He’s not the reason you’re headed down the plughole, is he?” Agnes didn’t answer. He began to howl meanly: “Ah-ha, ye daft eejit. Doin’ yersel in for a man.”
Her shoulders pulled up proudly again. “What if I am?”
“Do ye know what to do, if ye really want to get yer own back?”
He paused.
So like a man, she thought, to have an opinion on everything.
“What?”
“It’s quite easy. Ye should just get the fuck on with it.” He slapped his hands and threw them open in a wide tah-dah gesture. “Get on wi’ yer fuckin’ life. Have a great life. Ah promise that nothing would piss the pig-faced baldy bastard off more. Guar-rant-teed.”

Quote from Shuggie Bain.

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