Reheated Cabbage, By Irvine Welsh

Charm and carnage for the trend-spotters
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

There must have been a few raised eyebrows at Jonathan Cape when news fizzed through that Irvine Welsh's next book, a collection of rare short stories, was going to be titled Reheated Cabbage. A few more may have gone skywards when they saw the jacket, which contains a flea-ridden roast chicken and some spilled Brussels sprouts. The whole design is purposely off-putting: "Beware of contents, Irvine is emptying the spares drawer".

All of which would be refreshing if it was true – an honest admission of an author defrauding his readers. But Reheated Cabbage isn't the collected dregs at all, but a powerful reminder of what made Welsh such essential reading in the first place. It's Welsh at his wildest, most unafraid and, crucially, at his most charming. The violent extremities of his writing are well-documented. The humour is generally ignored.

Many of the stories appeared in places Welsh refers to as "those toe-curlingly Scotsploitation or drugspoiltation anthologies", for which he here accepts partial blame. Toe-curling they may have been, but Welsh was producing some of his best work then, and some of these are genuine finds.

Others have already assumed mythical status among fans. One is "Elspeth's Boyfriend", where the infamous Begbie (one of several Trainspotting-related reappearances) head-butts his new brother-in-law on Christmas Day. Another is "The Rosewell Incident", a bizarre alien landing last seen in Children of Albion Rovers, a collection published by Rebel Inc. magazine, which helped kick-start Welsh's writing career in the early 1990s.

That book also showcased energetic early work by James Meek, Alan Warner and Laura Hird. North of the border, it's seen as a valuable shapshot of Scottish writing at that time, and Welsh's fine contribution is worth republishing here.

These stories are twisted morality tales set in a surreal landscape, part-Edinburgh, part-hell, where most characters are comically, tragically, doomed. In "A Fault on the Line", protagonist Malky and his family cut across train tracks to save time – he wants to get home to watch the Edinburgh derby on TV. When a train hits his wife and swiftly removes her legs, Malky instructs his tearful daughter to pick up the offending limbs and hurry or else they'll miss kick-off. Later, at the hospital, he asks a doctor whether (if his wife survives being split in two) his sex life will suffer. Social realism this is not.

The book ends with a more recent unpublished novella. "I Am Miami" features Albert Black, a retired grandfather who believes corporal punishment is "as essential to good teaching as chalk" and is on holiday visiting his American family. He's horrified by it. Some lines are funny but, overall, this story makes the whole collection less coherent, and Welsh is less convincing inside the mind of an uptight, traditional God-fearing Protestant than when dealing with Edinburgh junkies.

Albert may rage against secularism, but it's hard to believe in him: it's obvious where the author's sympathies lie. And, like too much recent work, the quality of the prose is incredibly patchy. Still, there's plenty in this book to satisfy any Welsh fan, and it should also interest new readers. That is, if they can bring themselves to buy Reheated Cabbage.

Rodge Glass's novel 'Hope for Newborns' is published by Faber & Faber

Comments