He sells millions of books by writing about human degradation in a Scottish phonetic vernacular. Is this Britain's strangest literary phenomenon?by Alexander Linklater / May 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
Published in May 2001 issue of Prospect Magazine
In his new collection of essays and criticism, The War Against Clich?, Martin Amis has a section called “Popularity Contest” in which he chews over the qualities of writers who dwarf his own sales. Dissecting Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park sequel, The Lost World, Amis first makes witty sport with dinosaur lore in order to display verbal powers to which Crichton himself could never aspire. Then Amis signs off with the scrupulous superiority of a literary author who nevertheless can’t quite waft away the rude pong of another writer’s popularity. “Like all good bad stuff,” he writes, “it is conjured with eagerness and passion.”
Irvine Welsh makes a very peculiar kind of stink. Since his first book, Trainspotting, was published in 1993, he has sold well over 2m books in Britain alone. And Welsh is capable of writing not just good bad stuff, but bad bad stuff. He once described Ecstasy, the work which launched a thousand articles about Britain’s chemical generation, as “the crappest book I’ve written yet.” On a sunny day in north London, when I asked Welsh what he meant by the word “yet,” he laughed softly, as if at ease with the prospect of failure. “I’m sure I’ll be able to write a worse one.” He is not being entirely serious. Ecstacy, published in 1997, represents for Welsh a benchmark of ineptitude beneath which he intends never to descend again. “I still beat myself up about it,” he adds. “But it was the first paperback original to be a number one bestseller, so you have to look at these crass commercial considerations and say, ‘well it was worth it.'” Ecstasy has now sold 345,000 copies, and you can almost smell it. Some bad novels will sell even when written with neither eagerness nor passion.
So maybe Welsh’s popularity, still buoyant eight years on from Trainspotting, just boils down to notoriety. It’s now almost funny to think that Martin Amis was once considered the bad boy of British fiction. Welsh tends to have made news for being arrested at a football match in Glasgow, or for distressing passengers on a train to Exeter, rather than sacking his literary agent or falling out with Julian Barnes. More importantly, though, the controversies that have dogged this lanky, shaven-headed Hibernian supporter involve a fictional treatment of underworld substance abuse, sexual depravity and recidivism that makes the armchair macabre once practiced by Amis and Ian McEwan seem a mere brand of nastiness-lite. Welsh’s personal habits have long been a good target for the tabloids. But it was the huge success of the 1996 film of Trainspotting, and the peculiar interconnective alchemy of cinema, media and publishing worlds, that have made Welsh the most infamous writer in Britain.
Yet while Amis, in his recent memoir, Experience, acidly notes how his “free will” has been compromised by his own fame, Welsh, with a good deal more of it on his hands, makes no such complaint. “I could see Trainspotting as a big albatross hanging around my neck,” he mumbles in his soft Leith patter (lip movement kept to a functional minimum). “But I’ve been so lucky to achieve so much with one book. I’ve been able to do basically what I like from there on in.” Welsh says that it is only with his latest novel, Glue, a revisitation of the housing schemes and networks of friends among which Trainspotting was set, that he has actively come to think of himself in literary terms. “I never described myself as a writer before, because it was a bit like a hobby. It was interesting and it paid. And I saw it in that way. But I’m on to my seventh book in almost as many years, so I can’t really say I’m playing at it now.”
The point of pitting Amis’s bitter sophistication against Welsh’s shrugging unconcern is not to imagine a meaningless skirmish between the cultures in which they each operate (after all, in Jonathan Cape, they share a publishing house). There is a distinction, a big one, but it’s tribal rather than literary. Welsh can only think of two friends living in London who are also writers: John King, the author of books about football hooliganism, and Ben Richards (“who I know because he’s my friend from Edinburgh’s brother-in-law.”) In other words, he doesn’t like to work the literary metropolis.
“For me it’s difficult to conceive of people like Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie as actually existing in the real world,” he says. “It’s like trying to imagine Tom Cruise and John Travolta fucking about around a pool in Hollywood, it’s so culturally removed.” Welsh pulls a trick like this somewhere else; in his own fiction. A short story in The Acid House, called Where the Debris Meets the Sea, has pin-up stars Madonna, Victoria Principal and Kim Basinger lounging around a pool in Santa Monica, dreamily flicking through magazines with titles like Wide-o, Scheme Scene and Bevvy Merchants. In a daft inversion, Victoria Principal fantasises about a picture of one of the wide-boys back in Edinburgh’s housing estates. “Phoah, ya cunt ye!” Principal exclaims. “Even through the shell-suit, ye kin see ehs tackle bulgin oot… fuck me, ah’d gie ma eye teeth tae get ma gums aroond that.”
Born in 1958, Welsh moved with his family from the old Edinburgh docklands of Leith to the new housing estate of Muirhouse when he was four. They lived in prefabs before moving to a maisonette in a two-floor block where the under-floor heating was too expensive to turn on. He left school at 16 to train as a television repairman. In the late 1970s, he moved south, where he shifted to punk, singing for The Pubic Lice and Stairway 13. His twenties seesawed between London and Edinburgh. Things got more lucrative, and more boring, when he was sponsored to take a computing MSc by the Manpower Services Commission. He also learned to pull a trick or two in the property market, making about ?50,000 according to some accounts. Back in Muirhouse in the mid-1980s, Welsh pitched up in the middle of Europe’s worst heroin and Aids epidemic. Accounts of his own addiction vary, but there’s no doubt that this scene was the catalyst for Trainspotting.
During the Thatcher years, James Kelman, the austere godfather of contemporary Scottish fiction would fire off dark polemics impotently savaging the linguistic hegemony of Britain’s cultural elites. When it was his turn, Welsh never bothered. Trainspotting, a book written in an Edinburgh vernacular that should, according to traditional analysis, have been marginalised, sold 150,000 copies before the film came out (it has since shifted over 800,000). Instead, Welsh became the runaway hoodlum of literary resistance. He certainly believes the power of established British culture is real, in much the way that the far greater power of the Hollywood studio system is. But he expresses his removal from it in an unrepressed dialect of comic, yet genuine, obscenity.
To ask if Welsh is posturing in his “resistance” to what is anyway rather a disjointed concept of literary establishment is the wrong question. He isn’t himself particularly interested in striking the pose and if he didn’t sell so many books the subject wouldn’t come up. More interesting is the question of what kind of books they actually are, because they fit no ready genre or publishing category, pulp or otherwise. In his last novel, Filth, he wrote about a corrupt policeman of staggering vileness; but he’s certainly never done detective fiction, like his almost equally popular Scottish contemporary Ian Rankin, or sci-fi, like another bestselling Scot, Iain M Banks (even Banks’s general fiction is far more conventionally spoken than Welsh’s ferocious vernacular canon). Other categories can also be discarded: there’s nothing approaching a horror, thriller, adventure, romance, travel, historical, picaresque, confessional, cyber, or children’s writer in Welsh.
The only popular slot into which he almost fits, is the kind of single issue lifestyle packaging which would include Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity or Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary. In Marabou Stork Nightmares, after all, Welsh wrote about football casuals. But with rape, shame, Boy’s Own parody, penile dismemberment and dog-torturing thrown in, it didn’t much resemble Fever Pitch. Trainspotting is reducible to a simple drugs novel only if you discount its social panopticon, its vision of a city, the materialist contemplation of death, and the almost Dostoevskian notation of an underground. The single exception to this is Ecstasy, a book written to service a mediagenerated “chemical generation.” Having exhausted all possible genres, you are left with only one weird conclusion: Welsh writes literary fiction.
With his latest novel he has gone back to the territory of Trainspotting in an odd revisionist act. If he’s really just the one-book wonder his critics have assumed, he clearly doesn’t fear the risk of diminishing himself with contrasts. On one level Glue actually enlarges and complicates the world of Trainspotting. The ragged association of central characters belongs to the same generation as the Trainspotting crew of Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie, Tommy and Rents. Every now and then, they flit across the pages of Glue. For avid Welsh readers it will be sadly informative to know that Spud is still a comedy loser on the skag; a bit of a worry that Begbie is out of prison and terrorising American tourists; ironic that Renton is back, despite his promise at the end of Trainspotting never to return to Edinburgh after ripping off his mates.
This time, it’s Juice Terry, Carl, Gally and Billy who are the associates trying to stick together through internecine rivalries in a brutalising environment. But unlike the teeming monologues that made Trainspotting a raid into interior worlds, Glue gives its characters histories and futures, and a generational canvas to move across. “Windows ’70” is Welsh’s title for the opening chapter of Glue. He begins as the initial light and space of the modernist housing estates have degenerated into the glaring isolation of a social nowhere.
The characters in Glue grow up amid the decay of the bonding myths of union power and working class solidarity. By the time they are teenagers (“Windows ’80: The Last Fish Supper”), this has been replaced by relationships between men are shaped by a socially competitive sado-masochism. Heading for their forties (“Windows ’00”), they have gone their different ways, or died; but they’re still clinging to the idea of friendship like… well, like the title says. Everything Welsh has written is, in one way or another, about a struggle to find community in environments where the idea of community seems redundant, where physical appetite and brutal self-interest are rampant, and where authority is synonymous only with repression. Another weird conclusion, then: Welsh as an unreconstructed Scottish socialist romantic?
Well, not quite. In fact Welsh is a deconstructed Scottish socialist romantic; hence the nihilism. Heroin in Trainspotting is the deathly bond of an abject community. The feral tribalism of football casuals in Marabou Stork Nightmares creates a community headed for gang rape. The policeman at the heart of Filth is a hate-riddled authority figure who represents the precise opposite of community. Ecstasy grew out of Welsh’s flirtation with the idea that rave culture’s outsider communities could generate some kind of meaningful mass experience. But by the time Carl, the DJ in Glue, has grown old, dance and dance drugs have left him paranoiacally alone.
So is Welsh himself clinging on to a doomed world view? “Yes, as far as the possibilities I can see go. Structurally there doesn’t seem much that can happen.” He says this without the slightest nod towards the possibility that it might be he, and not the world, that could do with a change. The most important “paradigm shift” for Welsh was the swing from Thatcherite exclusion which generated a new underclass (wherein lie Welsh’s loyalties), to a Blairite inclusion “that forces people to take part in a game that’s rigged against them.” But with a studied perversity, Welsh needs to dislike the way things are: “I don’t think things will get really interesting until this whole globalisation dynamic has worked itself out. You’ve got to think, what’s multinational capitalism going to do for an encore once the whole globe is globalised; there’ll be a new set of political relationships emerging. Resistance; even if it’s doomed in the short term, it’s all part of the process of change. The human spirit just craves to do that; it craves to resist.”
Nihilistic maybe, but cynical Welsh is not. His characters have a peculiar habit of generating affection, or anarchic delight, that explains a good part of his popularity. There are bars in Edinburgh where punters still perform drunken Trainspotting parodies. Even Bruce Robertson in Filth and Begbie in Trainspotting-Welsh’s quintessential sadists-are not left without some sympathetic qualities. And it’s this perversely humane attachment to violent, socially aberrant or broken people that explains the title of Welsh’s best known, bestselling and, still, most important book. Towards the end of the story, at the foot of Leith Walk, Renton and Begbie are confronted by a lurching drunk in the derelict station.
What yis up tae lads? Trainspottin, eh? He sais, laughing uncontrollably at his ain fucking wit.
Aye. That’s right, Begbie sais. Then under his breath: fuckin auld cunt.
As they walk off Begbie is strangely subdued. The auld cunt was his father.
Where were the new rhythms?” Martin Amis asks in his novel The Information. So much British breath and ink has been spilled over the last decade in complaints about the smallness of British novels by contrast to their monster American cousins, that when a young writer like Zadie Smith emerges, disporting wit and multicultural brio, the book chat is deafening in its excitement. What the rumbling farrago over scale and ideas and America-envy tended to miss out, however, was the simpler question of voice. Finding a voice, after all, is what a writer does to become a writer.
For a while the new rhythms of the 1990s seemed to be coming out of Scotland. A raft of promising and startling debuts, distinct and realised, from Janice Galloway, Alan Warner, Duncan McLean, Jeff Torrington, AL Kennedy. Not uncoincidentally, most of them wound up in the same couple of publishing houses-Secker & Warburg and Jonathan Cape-with the same Scottish editor, Robin Robertson. All of them also owed some debt, even if argumentative, to James Kelman’s disavowal of mainstream English. By the end of the decade, however, these voices faltered, with writers apparently unable to transform promise into important work. It’s odd that, of all of them, it should be Trainspotting which stands out as perhaps the most original British novel of the 1990s.
It’s odd, because when he wrote it Welsh had little notion of being published, let alone reaching a mass market audience. Welsh wasn’t yearning for big US fiction if he bears comparison to any American writer it’s not Saul Bellow or Philip Roth, but pimp author Iceberg Slim. Most of all, though, Welsh was odd because he did not absorb his central voice-as did almost all his Scottish contemporaries-into a generic literary language. Welsh has always stuck, with varying degrees of intensity, to a geographically specific phonetic vernacular. His achievement was to make his own specialised demotic sound like the counter-cultural speech of anyplace.
Among the British writers who have set out to speak a literary language with street rhythms, Welsh remains one of very few convincing cases. He successfully made socially dysfunctional working-class characters the central voices in his fiction, without setting them against some standardised narrative language. He started off writing Trainspotting in straight English, but it sounded “pretentious”. On the few occasions when it does crop up, the English is intentionally awkward and out of place. Meanwhile, among the jagged association of interlinking stories which forms the main body of the book, Welsh modulates his language with economy and cunning. He distinguishes characters not just by what they say, but sometimes actually the density of their language. We know Begbie is a social terrorist from the beginning, but its when he speaks his mind that we actually feel it gurgling in a thick spew of verbal rage:
Ah wis fuckin game fir a swedge. If the cunts hud’ve fuckin come ahead it wis nae problem like. Ah mean, you ken me, ah’m no the type ay cunt thit goes lookin fir fuckin bothir likes; but ah wis the cunt wi the fuckin pool cue in ma hand, n the plukey cunt could huv the fat end ay it in his pus.
What Welsh achieves most insistently, though, is verbal obscenity. It’s as if the language itself is allowing him to scoop out every unspeakable, illicit subconscious imagining available. Welsh has a standard line on his books. They must include the following four basic motifs: mockery of “soapdodging” Glaswegians, torturing of dogs, anal sex and bedsoiling. But this is just the cartoonish side of Welsh’s obscenity, and it has a darker and more compelling side. There’s the famous Trainspotting scene, tidily airbrushed in the film, where Mark Renton discharges his opium suppositories in a fit of diarrhoea and has to reclaim them from the toilet bowl. Or Bruce Robertson’s obsession with the smell of his own genitalia in Filth. Or the scene in Glue, where Juice Terry’s passion for anal sex has begun to worry him: “She lets go a thunderous fart which brings ays back tae aw the animal nastiness ay what we are and what we’ve been doing.”
Welsh is quite happy to go along with the idea that he is indulging an infantile nostalgie de la boue in this compulsion to revel in bodily functions. In fact he quite likes it. “Yeah, you’re getting back into that mentality where there’s no responsibility; it’s fuck everything, fuck society. You’ve got no one to answer to except your own depravity.” Welsh pauses for a moment and goes deeper. “But I also think it’s a way of kicking back against the powerlessness; to control your own body, your own secretions. It’s like that Freudian thing of witholding faeces; but maybe expelling it all instead.” Welsh is a writer of scatology and he has a ready explanation for the masochistic loathing implied by this: “I think self-hatred is a form of morality gone wrong. If you’ve done something terrible, nobody blames you as much as you do yourself. It’s a perverse morality.”
Welsh can explain the filth of his books in political terms, as the auto-destructive impulses of underclass characters. But he gives no real clue, either personal or literary to explain their grotesque emotional intensity. There’s more to writing his vernacular than just listening to the way people talk and constructing a roughly phonetic version of it. Welsh points to the oral influences behind his writing (words like “radge” and “gadge,” which acquired a whole new popular purchase thanks to Trainspotting, are both Romany for “guy”) but not literary influences, and certainly not the literary background that, in Scotland, created a huge modern literature by reviving and reinventing old Scots.
However, there is one older generation Scottish writer in whom Welsh has a genuine interest. Alexander Trocchi was the only beat writer of any real significance to come out of Britain. An associate of William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg, Trocchi was an extraordinary, destructive literary outsider. Emerging from a grimly inhibitive Glasgow of the 1940s, Trocchi wrote pornography in Paris, became the first person in Britain to take heroin in front of television cameras, and narrowly escaped a death sentence for peddling in America. His heroin novel, Cain’s Book, remains a relatively little known cult classic; but this, and Trocchi’s credo-“the invisible insurrection of a million minds”-represented for Welsh the opposite of everything that was hideous and backward in Scottish writing. At a 1962 Edinburgh Literary Festival, Hugh MacDiarmid, the great old man of Scottish poetry, had attacked Trocchi and the other beats as “cosmopolitan scum” and the brief drunken spat that followed went down as a little literary legend.
When a small and scrappy literary magazine called Rebel Inc was publishing extracts from Trainspotting in the early 1990s, Trocchi was a figurehead for the writers involved. “There were all these people in Edinburgh,” Welsh explains. “And if we’re talking about cohesion and solidarity, that was the glue: Trocchi versus MacDiarmid. We were on Trocchi’s side because everyone else was on MacDiarmid’s.” Welsh might have liked the idea of Trocchi as a symbol, but it didn’t mean he had to like the writing. Contributing a recorded interview to a book about Trocchi, Welsh said: “I was quite disappointed in Cain’s Book, which is seen as his classic. I thought it was just a sub-Burroughs junkie type thing; it didn’t appeal much. It was just an existential, middle-class figure mythologising drugs and the junkie experience. Trainspotting was a reaction against that, against the Burroughs-Trocchi dark, Bohemian figure. What I was saying is that now it’s different; it’s a chemical society, it’s a mass experience. It’s as likely to be a working-class person in a network of friends-a community-that’s involved in any drugs scene, rather than this existential rebel.”
Welsh is a straightforward materialist. Where Trocchi eulogised himself as a “cosmonaut of inner space,” and attempted to find spiritual release in the “inviolability” of the personal space provided by heroin, the characters in Trainspotting are creatures of society, and their addiction is a brute physical refusal to obey its demands. “Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream,” observes Renton. Normal life or addiction? It’s not a moral preference, but a material one. This is the sarcastic world-view that was picked out as the signature voice-over moment in the movie:
Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing games shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.
Where does Welsh stand now in terms of British fiction? The answer is both inside and out of it. He is one of the most prominently successful writers in the country and produces books which are entirely unlike anything being written by anyone else. That in itself takes stylistic ingenuity. But they are also mixed books, sometimes brilliant, sometimes leaden. Glue is the first time he has produced a significant social structure, but it is nothing like as searing or hilarious as the internalised world of Trainspotting. Meanwhile, Welsh has no plans for posterity. He has made himself rich, and he’s not quite sure what to think about that. “It’s another tension with me, and it’s been a big working-class tension since time began: social revolution or upward mobility. Do you take an individualistic route or do you look at it in a collective way?”
But if he stops writing now, it will be because he can’t think of anything else to resist. “That’d be another bonus for having a less repressive society; you’d get rid of scum like me. I wouldn’t be able to function with nothing to kick against.