“If a writer’s novels are their psychic children,” Irvine Welsh once wrote in a tribute to Anthony Burgess’s 1962 novel A Clockwork Orange, “[this] was the troublesome bastard who ran away from home, lived the savage life of a drug-addled, thieving wastrel and then won millions on the lottery.”
He might as well have been talking about his own debut, Trainspotting, an excrement-smeared, fast-acting pessary shoved up the bum of high culture in August 1993, which depicted life on the meaner streets of Scotland’s capital and revelled in the sleaze of the city’s heroin culture.
Trainspotting’s collection of stories-connected-by-characters, which detailed the degradations enjoyed by Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, Simon “Sick Boy” Williamson and Daniel “Spud” Murphy, with brutal contributions from Francis “Franco” Begbie, is now a quarter of a century old. It inspired an era-defining film and is written in an Edinburgh dialect so thick that it is at first as impenetrable as the “Nadsat” that Alex and his droogs speak in Burgess’s masterpiece.
Yet while Burgess aspired to high art at every turn, with grandiose literary fiction, criticism, commentaries, scholarly translations and musical compositions, Welsh has stuck doggedly to the lurid, the violent and the obscene in a succession of novels that either return to his old stomping grounds (Glue), find new gutters to crawl through (Porno) or give free rein to his talent for page-turning narrative, such as The Blade Artist (essentially a nastier Get Carter with Begbie in the Michael Caine role). All of Welsh’s psychic children turned out to be bastards.
But for a boy from the notorious Muirhouse council estate, in the north of Edinburgh, the son of a restaurant worker and a docker-turned-carpet salesman, Welsh has forged a career that is a triumph by any standards. Muirhouse is the place of last resort for Renton at the start of Trainspotting, when he needs one last score before going cold turkey: “Two choices; one: tough it oot, back in the room, two: phone that c*** Forrester and go tae Muirhouse, get f***ed aboot and ripped oaf wi some crap gear.”
The estate is a Fifties housing scheme that offered many a bright new start after the city’s slum clearances, but gradually fell victim to unemployment, drugs and crime. A pub on the estate became known as one of the toughest in Scotland. As John Neil Munro’s entertaining semi-biography of Welsh Lust for Life! reveals, Muirhouse was not only home to the Welshes, but “among the family’s close neighbours on the avenue were a Mr Renton and a Mrs Frances Begbie”.
The young Welsh hung around the chip shop, underage drinking, and underachieving at school – one report made it clear “he would never amount to anything”. He left at 16, became a TV repairman, then left for London, where he played in a punk band called Pubic Lice, before getting a job with Hackney Council, marrying and starting out on the property ladder.
When he moved back to Edinburgh, he studied for an MBA at Heriot-Watt University, and worked in local government, where he was “diligent, hard-working and well-liked”, according to a former colleague.
The “game changer”, Welsh told a newspaper in 2015, was “getting seriously addicted to heroin in my early twenties. I didn’t have any money to lose, so for about a year I got into the dark world of scams and multiple giro claims, petty shoplifting and theft.”
It turned out to be a very profitable fall from grace, though it would be another decade before Welsh’s writings gave birth to a novel. When it landed, Trainspotting was at first quite coolly received by literary critics, although some picked up on the hidden sophistication of Welsh’s prose. Nicholas Lezard in The Independent noted that it was “finely enough tuned to differentiate between amphetamine- and ecstasy-induced gabblings”. One review made the point that its use of street slang and the vernacular was heavily influenced by Glasgow writer James Kelman, who would go on to win the Booker Prize in 1994 with How Late it Was, How Late. Yet even that novel’s brilliantly visceral opening – a man wakes up under a tree after a bender, hits a “sodjer”, gets a beating, and is locked up – can’t compete with the eye-poppingly vivid first chapter of Trainspotting.
“The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy,” it begins, as heroin need kicks in while Renton is trying to watch a Jean-Claude Van Damme video, but from the moment Renton responds to his friend’s gasp that he’s got to visit their dealer, “Mother Superior”, Welsh the novelist has arrived, in your face and unforgettable.
“Aw, ah sais. Ah wanted the radge tae jist f*** off ootay ma visage.”
The characters are already coming flying off the page – Welsh’s ear for voices and dialogue is key to his gift – and there is not a single second where the text suggests emotion recollected in tranquillity or that sombre, silent space of the writer’s room that somehow seeps into even the best prose. Societal norms are dispensed with hurriedly, the narrative demands that we understand that junk hunger is much more powerful than pride, that a Van Damme stomping is something to be gleefully anticipated, and that when it comes to the Aids crisis that arrived in the drug community with the sharing of needles, “It’s easy tae be philosophical when some other c***’s goat shite fir blood.”
Critics were not required. Word of mouth would sell the novel and the screenplay, and when the film came out, the book would just go on selling. Welsh made heroin addiction seem filthy, nightmarish and glamorous at the same time. It could be worse, Trainspotting screams, you could be living the “whole home/garden/kids kind of suburban existence. DIY and all that” about which Welsh had once told a reporter: “I’d much rather be selling my arse in King’s Cross.”
But was Welsh even better than his later success suggests? His was easily the most startling new voice to emerge in the Nineties, even if it was not to all tastes. And in his determination to confine himself to the seedier side of life, he had a strong example to follow. In 1953, William S Burroughs wrote a semi-autobiographical novel he called Junk, an almost journalistic account of heroin addiction and the culture surrounding it. It was then published as a pulp novel called Junkie. Burroughs would continue his descent into the drug underworld in Naked Lunch, published in 1959, and remain a taboo-breaking writer to the end.
Yet there’s a nagging sense that Welsh could have done more surprising, exciting things with his talent. Maybe a meta-fiction about a writer from Muirhouse who got rich and moved to the US and started share dealing with his fortune? Maybe not. “Writers tend to indulge the necessary conceit that they do their best work in their later years: a payoff from a lifetime’s accumulation of knowledge, wisdom and skill,” wrote Welsh in his tribute to A Clockwork Orange. “Like most creative artists, however, it’s often the freshness of their (relatively youthful) voice that tends to captivate the public.” And in a writer’s life, one book as good as Trainspotting is more than enough.
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