The Guardian view on universal stories: the undoing of expectation

Editorial
·2-min read
<span>Photograph: Clive Smith/thebookerprizes/AFP/Getty</span>
Photograph: Clive Smith/thebookerprizes/AFP/Getty

Douglas Stuart’s debut novel Shuggie Bain, which was last week announced as the winner of the Booker prize, tells the story of a young boy growing up in the 1980s with an alcoholic mother, absent father and amid a climate of unemployment and prejudice. Set in Glasgow’s Sighthill, South Side and East End, the story could hardly be more specific to its time and place. The rhythm of the words, the cultural references, the vocabulary (sleekit and dreich, gallus and eejit) pin the novel firmly down to one city and one moment in history.

Stuart has spoken about not wishing to present readers with a kind of “poverty safari”. He has succeeded: the novel plunges the reader directly into the room with its characters, rather than loftily observing them from afar. It is the uncompromising exactitude of its depictions that, paradoxically, makes Shuggie Bain such a generous book. It presents a world so minutely observed that anyone may step into it.

Lovers Rock, the second of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe series, launched by the BBC and Amazon last week, is a discursive hour-long film centred loosely round an attraction that sparks between two young people at an all-night party in Ladbroke Grove, London, in the summer of 1980. Aside from the shared setting in Thatcher’s Britain, in some ways it could not be more unlike Shuggie Bain: a totally different milieu and culture is explored. What it shares with the novel, however, is its meticulous, immersive detail. The film puts the viewer among the crush of bodies, brings one the taste of warm, cheap alcohol, offers the feeling of dancing to extraordinary music like Janet Kay’s Silly Games and the Revolutionaries’ Kunta Kinte.

It is still unusual, on British TV, to see a story told entirely from the point of view of black characters. In Lovers Rock, white people are barely seen; they are merely peripheral, fleeting reminders of a more hostile world outside the charmed circle of the party. The party of Lovers Rock is its own universe, its own mainstream, and the generosity of the film – like that of Shuggie Bain – is to invite the viewer into it. You may not have been to this kind of party, at this kind of time, in this kind of place, but – particularly in this most joy-deprived of years – Lovers Rock is like a memory of all the best parties.

Shuggie Bain and Lovers Rock are examples of art’s capacity to change perspectives, to radically deepen empathy, and to shift the “universal” viewpoint from its old misleading default position of white, male and straight. “Everyman” might be a black teenage girl at a London party, or a gay working-class Glaswegian kid. It matters who has the platform to tell stories, and what stories are told. And when that platform is shared widely, it is the audience that is enriched.