It starts with an E

Irvine Welsh is not just the begetter of 'Trainspotting', he's the founder of a genre. But his new literary salon is no place for a quiet read. By John Walsh
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The Independent Online
'TOP BLAG" announced the sticker on my complimentary pass. It was, I assumed, a variant of "VIP GUEST"; but then I had a steep learning curve in front of me, as I stood in the cloakroom queue, crushed between a spindly biker, who was shedding unfeasible amounts of insulating material like an over-lagged boiler fussily divesting itself, and two very zonked young women with Vampirella make-up and silver bolts through their lips. It was 11.15pm at The End, a fashionable rave club off London's New Oxford Street, and I was on the threshold of discovering a whole new literary genre.

Or is it new? The concept of yoking together the prose recital and the wail of avant-garde music isn't exactly hot. Edith Sitwell, declaiming the syncopated rhythms of Facade through a megaphone while hidden behind a curtain, accompanied by the fractured honks of William Walton's score, was an obvious precursor, and that was in 1923. But what we were there to witness was more than a mere performance. It's where literature meets the street. It's where the E Generation and the TLS generation make common cause. When Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting made it to Number 10 on the Waterstone's Top 100 Books of the Century, commentators were quick to point out that for many 18- to 25-year-olds, Welsh's tall stories and urban myths from the junkie backstreets of Leith was probably the only serious, grown-up fiction they'd read at all.

As Trainspotting became a play and a wildly successful film, two things became apparent. One, that the parameters of what is allowed to be literature would have to be stretched to accommodate Mr Welsh (who is actually an extremely talented writer); and that the uncharted sea of Welsh fans, their interest aroused, would have to be kept serviced with fiction. A sub-genre grew up of writings that explore the more wayward expressions of the Zeitgeist. A hybrid of New Age mysticism, Internet data-gathering, "smart" drugs, raves and terrible techno music, it crossed fiction, SF, cultural studies and autobiography. Names such as Douglas Rushkoff and Jeff Noon, Martin Millar and Alan Warner vied to become British counterparts of the American visionary Douglas Cuopland's Generation X.

Their names can all be found in Disco Biscuits, an anthology of acid house writings edited by Sarah Champion and subtitled "New fiction from the chemical generation". Intended as a tribute to 10 years of "acid house" culture, it emerges as a singularly bleak document of bad vibes, overdoses, paranoia, violence and neglect, larded with the lexicon of clubland, from "bpms" (beats per minute) to "coming up" (getting stoned) and umpteen variations on the words "vibe" and "groove". The idea of tonight's event - which kicks off a small tour of Leeds and Birmingham - is to see if the punters will respond to having prose read out to them in a club environment, to having dispatches and snapshots of their own culture reflected back at them.

The stage is a tiny table on which a huge and conceited MC called Trevor exhorts the crowd to buy the Disco Biscuits volume. You suspect that he may be a stranger to the Waterstones 100 Best Books of the Century. He introduces Nicholas Blincoe from Rochdale, who read from his cautionary tale, "Ardwick Green", about a violent recidivist called Conrad and what he gets up to in a club gents. Douglas Rushkoff, a slight and swarthy New Yorker reeking with intelligence, shyly delivers a bit of his story about a dying clubber reflecting on his downfall; the story begins with a neat complaint: "In the UK, a rave meant a road trip. In SF it meant a hike to the beach. But in New York City, it meant a subway ride (with two transfers) through rat-, bum- and cop-infested tunnels that smelled like human piss, just to get to stand in line in the cold and wait for a fat guy with a walkie-talkie to decide whether you were cool or rich enough to be let inside."

Jeff Noon, a short, suburban-looking man in a red shirt and a florid complexion, reads from the piece that gives the collection its name, an overwrought fantasy about the day when acid dancing is controlled by the Government and "DJ" comes to stand for "Dirty Judas". Then, in front of the tiny stage, serious lenses and great phallic sound booms jostle the crowd. Is some climax at hand? Why yes, for here is Irvine Welsh, the star of the show, a vision with his baby-bald head, Peruvian fleecy jacket and bright red leather shoes. He soon reveals that he is the only true pro in this curious new art form. "This is something I wrote when I was poor, not a rich cunt like I am today," he tells the audience to cheers, and reads from a single sheet of paper a mildly emetic burst of surrealism in which a character's mother extracts from her vagina a book of first- class stamps, a bus ticket, a shopping list and a pounds 20 note. Wild cheering greets his arrival on and departure from the stage. In the cultural war that is now at hand, Welsh is the undisputed Forces Sweetheart.

A suspicion crosses your mind that the crowd likes Welsh's contribution better than the others, not only because he is famous, but because he has delivered the equivalent of a three-minute single, brisk, rude and silly but an undeniable hit.

The trouble with his confreres is the impossibility of communicating any sense of structure or any accretion of effects when you're reading a snatch of your disco adventures. It bears no relation to poetry, to rap, to music or song, or to the rhythms of literature. Vernacular, anecdotal and transient as this stuff mostly is, it cannot help sounding merely conversational. You can see people glazing over during Charles Hall's fatuous reminiscences ("The vibe was perfect: underground and mellow. The boys on the gate were super-chilled ... I'd come down with a right posse, and it was all laughs and the buzz of being together on a summer night"), only to wake up during a long Irvine Welsh monologue called "Headstate", performed as one-man theatre by Welsh's long-term collaborator Tam Dean Burn. Only Mr Burn's bald, disembodied head is on view, rising from a plinth and surrounded by mirrored screens projecting frantic club scenes, so that his bulging-eyed declamatory gurning seems to have an external visual correlative for its internal frenzy. It is rapturous nonsense ("I want to spend the rest of my existence in the blur of ecstasy") but hard to take your eyes off this rebarbative Punch and Judy show.

Later, in the VIP suite, a curious atmosphere of mingled sleaze and gentility prevails. The suite is a nasty backroom with metal pipes, a dark sofa and a Grolsch-dispensing machine, but everyone is behaving as if it's the River Room at the Savoy. In the gents (which one approaches with a certain trepidation, given the toilet-bowl obsessions of Acid Lit) the first thing you see is a can of Glade Pot-pourri Bouquet air freshener; not very Irvine Welsh, that. A chunky Scot offers me some hashish, but in a little mahogany pipe, as you might offer someone snuff in the Athenaeum.

And I meet Sarah Champion, 26, who edited the anthology. Ms Champion is a Mancunian writer on dance and club matters who planned the volume as a tribute to the acid house decade. "I wanted a celebration," she says, "but that doesn't mean it's got to be all good." Was she surprised by the bleakness of the stories? "I thought they'd be more nostalgic, but then that's the nature of fiction, to prefer it when things go wrong. Writing about good things isn't very hooking."

Ms Champion is a keen proselytiser for rave culture and its music and drug accompaniments. "I think acid house saved a lot of people," she says sternly, "from going down the path of crack and heroin and alcohol addiction." Does she consider ecstasy a Good Thing? "When you've been in a room with two thousand people dancing, smiling, hugging each other, people who don't want to know where you went to school or where you work - well ..."

I look around the curious company in this scabby little room. Irvine Welsh is miming something into a microphone and beaming hard. Sophie the tough-bunny poet and Trevor the DJ are hanging on his every word, sharing an aura of deep amusement. Can this really be the literary salon of the new century?n