Futures of Postimperial Glasgow

Britain’s “Second City” profited from shipbuilding and the slave trade, but has slowly declined for decades. What should Glasgow’s future hold?

When the United Kingdom possessed the largest empire in human history, Britain’s second largest city was Glasgow. Like many British cities, Glasgow’s population increased exponentially over the course of the 19th century. But while other industrial centers like Manchester, Sheffield, and Birmingham increased between 500 percent and 750 percent, Glasgow swelled over 900 percent. All of these cities were transformed by industrialization, but while Manchester produced textiles and Sheffield made steel, Glasgow built the product without which Britain’s global empire literally could not have functioned: ships. With its massive population and world-changing export, Glasgow earned the moniker “the Second City of the Empire.”

Of course, Glasgow’s status as Second City did not last through the end of the 20th century. The British Empire steadily shrank after the Second World War, and with it shrank Britain’s need for ships. It would be misleading to single out Thatcher’s Conservative government for shipbuilding’s decline, but the privatization of Britain’s key industries removed the support that could have revived the sector or reduced the scale of unemployment. Subsequently designated the “Sick Man of Europe” due to its disproportionately high mortality rate, Glasgow can be viewed as a city that rose and fell with industrial capitalism.

In Young Mungo, 2020 Booker Prize winner Douglas Stuart depicts a Glasgow free-falling into the early 1990s. Yet, though postindustrial decline weighs heavily on Stuart’s characters, they lack a shared narrative for talking about it. Predictably, some indict Thatcher’s legacy. A former shipbuilder advises young men to “join the navy … and then drive one of thon nuclear submarines right up Thatcher’s cunt.” Such disproportionate blame placed on Thatcher’s shoulders—by this time she was no longer the prime minister—causes another character to retort, “Stop fucking blaming it on the women.”

In other instances, what divides characters’ assessment of Glasgow’s downward trajectory is knowing history at all. During an early scene of flirtation with a more sophisticated love interest, protagonist Mungo Hamilton becomes self-conscious when he fails to understand an allusion to a statue of St. Mungo, the city’s patron saint, that sits above the entrance to Glasgow’s grand Kelvingrove Museum. To expand his knowledge of the city’s history, Mungo has to seek out parts of his hometown that he, as a working-class East Ender, rarely sees. In a car ride through the city center, he thrills at the sights of ornate 18th- and 19th-century facades unnoticed by the pedestrians, who “didn’t look up at the grand buildings, heavy with Corinthian columns, that the Tobacco Lords had built for themselves.” Bitterly, he reflects, “If he could walk these streets every day, he would never take the beauty of the city for granted.”

Whether ranting about a former prime minister or fascinated by Victorian architecture, Stuart’s characters can feel stuck in the past. By extension, they might feel alienated from their future and our present. The Scotsman, for instance, notes the curious fact that while chart-topping Irish novelists like Sally Rooney “are writing about present day Ireland,” contemporary Scottish writers often revisit “the hard and gritty 1970s–1990s.” But maybe the gritty 1990s and present-day Scotland aren’t so discontinuous. Mungo reflects so many of Stuart’s characters when he indulges in the fleeting fantasy of working in the city center. Such a fantasy is the result of communing with the past.

But can knowing the past open up possibilities for the future? History naturally provides fantasy its fuel, given that to fantasize means to expand one’s imagination of what’s possible, and the past is, by definition, what is possible. But the past’s link to the future is forged not only by fantasy. By placing his characters’ postindustrial malaise within the context of the city’s ongoing histories of artistic achievement and economic dynamism, Stuart holds out the possibility for endurance—and even hope.

A century after Glasgow’s industrial peak, a novel focused exclusively on life in the historic city was rejected by 44 publishers due to concern that it could be unintelligible to readers—a fact made much of in coverage of Douglas Stuart’s unexpected win of the 2020 Booker Prize for Fiction for Shuggie Bain. Yet, despite the challenge faced in getting Shuggie published and his newfound international literary stardom, Stuart’s follow-up is even more Glaswegian than its predecessor. Whereas Shuggie Bain’s socially ambitious mother makes him speak the Queen’s English, Mungo Hamilton speaks in a thick Glaswegian accent faithfully rendered by Stuart. Because the Hamiltons are marginally more financially secure than the Bains, Mungo and his siblings enjoy a greater mobility and therefore greater contact with the city’s elegant, Victorian landmarks: the Mitchell Library, the Necropolis, the Kelvingrove Museum, the Royal Infirmary. And because the Hamiltons can afford to live in a tenement flat, Mungo becomes literally melded to the city’s most iconic architectural feature. In what becomes his defining character motif, Mungo copes with his chronic anxiety by clamping his teeth into the soft wood frame of his family’s bay window.

If you love Glasgow, and Stuart clearly does, then this abundance of site-specific detail will make Young Mungo an even greater pleasure to read than Shuggie Bain. But if reviews are any indication, it’s safe to say that few readers will actually have much familiarity with the city (a number of reviews, for example, erroneously describe Mungo as growing up in a tenement like Shuggie, when in fact the latter grows up first in a tower block and then a compound for miners’ families).1 Because of its Glaswegian setting as well as its immersion the city’s history, Young Mungo carries the risk that it might feel doubly removed from whatever life a 21st-century reader might be leading in a place that’s probably not Glasgow.

That risk could manifest in overlooking and misinterpreting crucial details in the novel. If you’ve never seen street after street lined with tenements, erected when late-Victorian city planners had to figure out how to house the city’s swelling population, you might not be able to see in Mungo’s coping mechanism the implication that he is fixated on (and literally fixed into) Glasgow’s industrial history.

And if you haven’t experienced the full range of Glasgow’s tenements, you might not be able to grasp the polyvalence of Stuart’s image. In discourse about Glasgow, “tenement” often functions as a byword for decrepitude, yet the tiles and stained glass that decorate tenement closes are also documents of the history’s pivotal contributions to the Arts and Crafts movement. Mungo’s oral fixation on the tenement window could be seen as signaling that he is stuck, literally, in the city’s history of economic exploitation, but it could also be seen as signaling an identification with an artistic history that he might not be fully conscious of. Yet as the novel proceeds, Douglas Stuart teaches the reader how to look at Glasgow in order to perceive both the beauty and the exploitation that created the empire’s Second City.

Stuart captures the oscillation between struggle and endurance that characterizes life amid historical change.

Before Glasgow became a global capital for building ships, it was (and would remain) an important destination for their cargo, often the products of Atlantic slavery. Stuart draws Mungo and the reader into this history by describing the buildings that stimulate Mungo’s fantasies as those that “the Tobacco Lords had built for themselves.” “Tobacco lord” is a common term for the merchants who made their wealth through this trade, regardless of their own socioeconomic origins, but the juxtaposition of “tobacco” with “lord” also serves as a reminder that many Scottish peers reaped the rewards of plantation management when the Highland Clearances eroded the traditional sources of their power. But can Mungo connect the dots between the longue durée of Glasgow’s economic history and the beauty that enraptures him? It’s unclear. In contrast to constant asides about Thatcher, Mungo usually does not straightforwardly talk about the architectural history he sees. Because Mungo’s grasp of Glasgow’s more distant past isn’t clear, Stuart turns to free indirect discourse—or unmarked transitions between the narrator’s perspective and a character’s words or thoughts—to show what it’s like to longingly look at a history from which one has been alienated. Given that “Mungo felt envious,” the sentence “If he could walk these streets every day, he would never take the beauty of the city for granted” can be safely attributed to Mungo, but do the earlier words about the “Corinthian columns” built by the “Tobacco Lords” belong to Mungo or the narrator? In these two short phrases, Stuart compresses the history behind Glasgow’s exquisite architecture as well as his protagonist’s distance from such an economically dynamic, exploitative past.

Young Mungo therefore counterbalances conversations about Thatcher’s cruelty with a more capacious view of the cultural achievements and commensurate profiteering and neglect that define Glasgow’s history. In fact, seeing this history—either first- or secondhand—becomes an important condition for imagining a future not defined by the local forms of exploitation Stuart’s characters readily perceive. Mungo’s sister Jodie begins to dream even more fervently of studying biology at the University of Glasgow, a historic capital of scientific research, when she hears her brother tell stories about selling drugs there. Even the lives of queer people might not be as confined as Mungo fears. A neighbor of the Hamiltons seems to be virtually housebound because each time he leaves the flat, he is the target of homophobic bullying from unemployed youths. Yet Stuart complicates this dire view of the character’s situation by describing his imagination passing by the loiterers and “swooping … to the La Scala picture house.” Students of Glasgow’s queer history will immediately grasp Stuart’s meaning. The La Scala was on Sauchiehall Street, the former nucleus of a 19th-century gay subculture—arguably the first in Scotland—that emerged around the city’s bustling theaters. Were Mungo able to see this history, he’d learn that, even historically, Glasgow has been more hospitable to queer love and socialization than he assumes.

Present-day Glasgow is rather different from the world of Young Mungo. In fact, Scotland has become a bit of a dreamworld for Western liberals and leftists, with First Minister Nicola Sturgeon its reigning deity. During Sturgeon’s eight years overseeing Scotland’s devolved government, the White House and 10 Downing Street have changed hands frequently and dramatically, but Sturgeon has continued her steady, progressive leadership. Tuition fees are rising everywhere in the UK except Scotland, where higher education remains free for Scottish nationals. Against the tides of Westminster, Sturgeon’s government pushes for the rights of refugees and every group in the LGBTQ coalition. And, thanks to the withdrawal from the EU Scottish voters didn’t vote for and the increasing dysfunction of British politics, Scotland might be headed to a second independence referendum (#indyref) in the next couple of years.

Because of its crowded past, Glasgow’s future is closer to Stuart’s characters than they realize. Thatcher’s policies fomented the nationalist sentiment that would culminate in the 1997 vote for devolution only three years on the horizon. The novel is set the same year that saw the creation of the Glasgay! arts festival, which helped to cement Glasgow’s place as one of the leading gay capitals of Europe. Mungo sees the venues of Glasgay!, as well as the Merchant City neighborhood, to which the city’s historic queer scene would relocate, when he expresses awe at the “grand buildings” in the city center. And, perhaps most significantly, the main character’s professional futures would likely benefit from the devolved government’s protection of low-cost higher education. The artistically inclined Mungo never fantasizes about matriculating at the renowned Glasgow School of Art, but his sister opens up this path by scattering design books from the nearby Mitchell Library across the floor of their flat.

It is this aspect of Stuart’s fiction, the way he writes about characters experiencing a dialectical shift they don’t fully grasp, that most aligns his work with his literary forefather—not Dickens, as critics assume, but Thomas Hardy. For Marxist theorist Raymond Williams, Hardy was a chronicler not of timeless rural life but rather of “change,” particularly the “difficulty of choice” in an evolving world where the range and consequences of one’s choices are difficult to assess.2 Often, characters’ choices result in tragedy. Most famously, in Tess of the D’Urbervilles, the decision of Tess’s parents to dispatch their daughter to a manufacturing family, in the hopes that she will make an eligible match, results instead in a sexual violation that culminates in Tess murdering her rapist and her subsequent hanging.

Such brutal fatalism has come to define Hardy’s work for many readers, but Williams complicates this reputation through his focus on what he calls a “structure of feeling,” the prevailing but inarticulate experiences that characterize a historical moment.3 Williams sums up the mood of Hardy’s fiction with the phrase “slighted and enduring.” Hardy’s communities are “slighted in a struggle to grow—to love, to work with meaning, to learn and to teach,” but “enduring” because this impulse to grow, love, and work “pushes through and beyond particular separations and defeats.”4

One could easily apply Williams’s words to Young Mungo. As adolescents, the protagonists’ primary preoccupation is their struggle to find love, work, and learning in postindustrial Glasgow. They certainly experience defeats. In a particularly Hardyan subplot, Jodie’s educational prospects are jeopardized when her teacher impregnates her. The novel becomes even more brutally Hardyan when, during a fishing trip arranged by his mother, Mungo kills two men who raped him.

Yet Stuart gives greater weight to the prospect of endurance, perhaps because, compared to Hardy, he has greater reason to be hopeful. Thanks to the kinship of the tenement close, neighbors arrange an abortion, enabling Jodie to accept her offer of a seat at the university. Stuart thereby captures the oscillation between struggle and endurance that characterizes life amid historical change. Chapters about the violent fishing trip feel headed toward inevitable devastation (and they are), but they’re offset by retrospective vignettes of Mungo’s fascination with Glasgow’s architectural beauty and his budding relationship. Stuart’s use of this bifurcated narrative ensures that, as in any dialectic, struggle and endurance remain intertwined but equal.

To capture his characters’ uncertainty about their futures, Stuart grants victory to neither. The police question the deaths in Inveraray, but Stuart doesn’t end with Mungo being arrested or punished. Instead, he ends with Mungo’s sighting of his paramour, raising his hand “in a frozen greeting” and looking like “the statue of St Mungo at Kelvingrove.” This final image holds out—without promising—a future not just for queer love but for Mungo Hamilton’s embrace by Glaswegian history. Placed above the Kelvingrove Museum’s doors, the statue of St. Mungo functions as a portal to a late-Victorian building that documents the city’s innovative contributions to the history of design. Maybe the artistic Mungo will advance that history and, in so doing, experience the kind of resurrection that defines both the legend of St. Mungo and the city of Glasgow itself.

What is Glasgow’s future in 2022? The past few years have witnessed a shift in consciousness about Glasgow’s identity: from being a postindustrial city to that of being a postimperial city. Glasgow has been “ahead of most UK cities” in confronting its involvement in the entwined histories of colonialism and chattel slavery, yet, because of the magnitude and complexity of Glasgow’s participation in this history, this project is far from finished. Statues of slavery’s beneficiaries are being toppled or graffitied across Britain, but what do you do when the entire city center is, as a recent headline from the Herald puts it, “a monument to barons of slave trade”? What do you do when the beauty that makes Glasgow such a special place, both on the streets and in the galleries, was funded by the gross exploitation of labor overseas?

At the very least, you can shift your perspective in order to see both beauty and exploitation at the same time. Though not a sustained reflection on Glasgow’s postimperial status, Young Mungo shows how novels can cultivate this refracted perspective. Through free indirect discourse, dialogue, and a potentially vast cast of characters, novelists are especially well equipped to make readers see through many views almost simultaneously. In a few short lines, Stuart has readers inhabit both Mungo’s awe at the city center’s “grand buildings” and a more detached view of the colonial exploitation that created them. Offhand comments reveal how colonialism’s exploitive operations occurred within the city itself. When a character lists his grievances against the English, accusing “boatloads of the starving Irish bastards” of being coconspirators in a plot to take work from honest Scots, he acknowledges the city’s reliance on the labor of those dispossessed by the British government’s negligent response to the Irish famine. And Stuart’s unsentimental writing about industrial labor makes it clear that, for all who built the empire’s ships and mined its coal, the cost of a steady wage was endangering one’s life.

But what about Merchant City, the neighborhood whose “Corinthian columns” fascinate Mungo? Literally postimperial, Merchant City couldn’t have become the contemporary site of Glasgow’s LGBTQ community if it hadn’t been built and vacated by the suppliers of the city’s imperial wealth. If Stuart is Hardy’s successor, chronicling a single community on the cusp of the present, then it’s reasonable to hope that, in a future novel, he’ll take readers into Merchant City. Stuart’s nimble, shorthand way of incorporating Glasgow’s history into his descriptions of its contemporary landscape is ideal for registering the presence of its most popular gay bars, housed in grand Victorian buildings, on a street named for Britain’s most consequential American colony: Virginia. Stuart shows that you don’t have to write directly about the legacy of Glasgow’s imperial past in order to make tobacco profiteering and the exploitation of Irish refugees central to the idiom for describing the city.

Perhaps his fictional worlds are not so stuck in the past after all.


This article was commissioned by Tara K. Menonicon

  1. Some reviewers mischaracterize the tower block where Shuggie initially grows up as a tenement. Other reviewers, while not technically incorrect in their assertion that both Shuggie and Mungo live in tenements (the 15-year-old Shuggie moves to a tenement after his mother’s death), fail to acknowledge that Shuggie lives in other types of social housing for the vast majority of the novel, thus encouraging the confusion that’s explicit in other reviews.
  2. Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford University Press, 1973), 197.
  3. Williams, The Country and the City, 138.
  4. Williams, The Country and the City, 214.
Featured image: George Street, Glasgow. Photograph by JR James / Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)