Irvine Welsh: We're all Trainspotters now

The Scottish author – and the young writers he influenced – assess the legacy of his debut

At my first ever book reading, I got hassle from the chair of the event for not writing in Scottish dialect. It was 2006, at the now defunct Debut Authors' Festival in Edinburgh. I was sharing a stage with two other first-time writers, Gautam Malkani and Nicola Monaghan, whose novels were written in Pakistani London slang and Nottingham vernacular respectively, and here was me, with my (admittedly sweary) Standard English and non-phonetic vocabulary. The chairwoman was like a dog with a bone, going on about us being in the home of Irvine Welsh, and insinuating that I was disgracing my literary heritage. It's an indication of how astonishingly pervasive the influence of Welsh's debut novel Trainspotting had become that, 13 years after its publication in 1993, it was seen as the benchmark for young novelists to aspire to.

Now, Welsh has revisited its cast of characters for a second time (after the 2002 sequel Porno), in the prequel Skagboys, an early-Eighties period piece about how the lads got into heroin in the first place. It's a brilliant, funny, scary, sweeping novel with all the energy of Welsh's debut, but imbued with a wider sense of political and social engagement.

Welsh had 100,000 words of it written at the time of Trainspotting, and he's spent the past few years revisiting those, his copious notes from the time, and – although he hated having to do so – the original novel.

"Aw man, it was fucking shite re-reading Trainspotting," he laughs. "You know what it's like, you don't want to read your old books again. All you can see are the flaws, what you would do differently. It wasn't a great experience."

Welsh might not have enjoyed re-reading it, but the impact of Trainspotting remains colossal. For the authors who came after him, myself included, it blew the doors of literature off their hinges and seemed to make anything possible. Of course, it was also a mixed blessing. Every author under pensionable age writing about young people taking drugs in a vernacular language is lazily compared to Welsh, even now. But a quick straw poll of young British novelists shows that, cutting across location, gender, class and narrative styles, Trainspotting remains a pivotal book.

"I must have been 13 or 14 when I first came across it," says Helen Walsh, whose debut Brass created a stushie in 2005. "It was the first working-class British novel that was validated by both the literary establishment and the working classes it sought to portray. Welsh created a modern proletarian English literature, while becoming the voice and hero of a disenfranchised generation. Later, as a young writer, it gave me the confidence to depict the extremes and excesses of a marginalised end of society, in the rhythm and patois of the streets."

The young Middlesbrough writer Richard Milward agrees about the effect of the novel on impressionable teenage minds. "It made me realise you can write about anything," he says. "Irvine's book was the first, and possibly still the best, example of high and low art colliding in literature. And it seemed unflinchingly honest. Irvine is about as punk as literature can get. He validated breaking any taboo worth breaking, and he's still doing it, with a cracking sense of humour, to boot."

As for myself, that mix of high and low art and the often-overlooked comedy were crucial. James Kelman had been writing about working-class culture in Scottish vernacular for years, but his books didn't speak to me like Welsh's; they seemed rather humourless and never contained contemporary cultural references. In contrast, Trainspotting was full of comedic set pieces, recognisable scathing banter and mentions of Iggy Pop and Sean Connery. I was sold.

Fellow Scottish novelist Ewan Morrison, who writes in Standard English about middle-class Gen X-ers, agrees: "What I really like about Welsh is that, after Trainspotting, you didn't have to try to pretend that you were writing high literature, flagging up big themes: mortality and timelessness, love and loss, all that baby boomer pish. He just said, no, we're trapped in this culture, a lot of it is really shite and we should write about that with a sense of humour and empathy for those trapped within it."

For the Welsh writer Niall Griffiths, that empathy was key. "The total lack of authorial censure in Trainspotting gave those characters humanity and dignity," he says. "I thought the compassion in that book was astonishing. Trainspotting was about an entire class that was being dehumanised and made invisible. Welsh showed that world, and that literature doesn't have to be about posh Oxbridge people. I remember thinking it was a world away from Amis and McEwan. Books should be psychic fuel for the living, and Trainspotting gave people the idea that there is an alternative which is just as literary, just as thoughtful and intelligent, but that also has urgency."

But what about the man himself? Why does Welsh think it's had such a far-reaching impact? He's understandably reluctant to blow his own trumpet, but a bit of gentle nudging gets this out of him: "I think it was two things. First, there were the characters – they're very vividly drawn, so you're pulled into their world and their thought processes. And related to that, you're seeing a world that you know exists, that everyone knows – even a middle-class student who smokes a bit of dope still has to score it from somebody – but that hadn't been depicted before.

"I think these were the things that resonated. I'm appreciative of the fact it still speaks to readers, but it doesn't have any deep resonance for me. To me, it's just another piece of work."

 

Doug Johnstone's latest novel, Hit & Run, is published by Faber (£12.99)

Skagboys By Irvine Welsh

Cape £12.99

 

"Just as the thought forms: is that aw there is tae it? ah get a sudden rush and a glow, then ma insides, body and brain, are like a fruit pastille, melting in a huge mooth. Suddenly everything that was burning in ma heid, every fear and doubt, just dissolves, ah can just feel them receding intae the distance......"

Suggested Topics
Arts & Entertainment
TV

Arts & Entertainment
Customers browse through Vinyl Junkies record shop in Berwick Street, Soho, London
music

Arts & Entertainment
Who laughs lass: Jenny Collier on stage
ComedyCollier was once told there were "too many women" on bill
Arts & Entertainment
Ian Anderson, the leader of British rock band Jethro Tull, (right) and British guitar player Martin Barre (left) perform on stage
music

VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe: Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC

    How I brokered a peace deal with Robert Mugabe

    Roy Agyemang reveals the delicate diplomacy needed to get Zimbabwe’s President to sit down with the BBC
    Video of British Muslims dancing to Pharrell Williams's hit Happy attacked as 'sinful'

    British Muslims's Happy video attacked as 'sinful'

    The four-minute clip by Honesty Policy has had more than 300,000 hits on YouTube
    Church of England-raised Michael Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith

    Michael Williams: Do as I do, not as I pray

    Church of England-raised Williams describes the unexpected joys in learning about his family's Jewish faith
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A visit to the Front Line by the Prime Minister's wife
    Comedian Jenny Collier: 'Sexism I experienced on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    Jenny Collier: 'Sexism on stand-up circuit should be extinct'

    The comedian's appearance at a show on the eve of International Women's Day was cancelled because they had "too many women" on the bill
    Cannes Film Festival: Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or

    Cannes Film Festival

    Ken Loach and Mike Leigh to fight it out for the Palme d'Or
    The concept album makes surprise top ten return with neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson

    The concept album makes surprise top ten return

    Neolithic opus from Jethro Tull's Ian Anderson is unexpected success
    Lichen is the surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus, thanks to our love of Scandinavian and Indian cuisines

    Lichen is surprise new ingredient on fine-dining menus

    Emily Jupp discovers how it can give a unique, smoky flavour to our cooking
    10 best baking books

    10 best baking books

    Planning a spot of baking this bank holiday weekend? From old favourites to new releases, here’s ten cookbooks for you
    Jury still out on Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini

    Jury still out on Pellegrini

    Draw with Sunderland raises questions over Manchester City manager's ability to motivate and unify his players
    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    Ben Stokes: 'Punching lockers isn't way forward'

    The all-rounder has been hailed as future star after Ashes debut but incident in Caribbean added to doubts about discipline. Jon Culley meets a man looking to control his emotions
    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    Mark Johnston: First £1 million jackpot spurs him on

    The most prize money ever at an All-Weather race day is up for grabs at Lingfield on Friday, and the record-breaking trainer tells Jon Freeman how times have changed
    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit