This is an epidemic
By Max Dunbar.
But with this pen and blank notepad, just looking outside, I’ve never felt so focused or alive. I came close when I was writing essays at the uni, but this is different. Instead ay building facts tae develop, challenge, then ultimately sustain a hypothesis, writing freestyle subjective stuff in ma journal makes me feel I’m getting closer tae some sort of veracity. By writing, you can use your own experience but ultimately detach it from yourself. You nail certain truths. You make up others. The incidents you invent clarify and explain as much as, sometimes more than, the ones that actually occurred.
Skagboys, Irvine Welsh, Jonathan Cape 2012
Discussing Raymond Chandler, Stephen King wrote that the great crime novelist is now accepted as a compelling chronicler of 1930s America with something serious to say: however, when the literati has him to dinner, they are apt to sit him at the foot of the table. It is the same with Irvine Welsh. Trainspotting was critically admired. Savage indictment of Thatcherism and consumer society, and by the genuine article: an ex-heroin addict from the Leith council schemes who left school at sixteen. ‘They had to pretend to like it,’ Welsh said at a reading in Manchester. And perhaps they expected him to deliver his indictment and disappear back into the slums. Instead, Welsh kept writing. The range and scope of his fiction increased. He made money. He wrote more. He bought a house in Los Angeles. He exhausted the patience of his critics. The Guardian‘s John Crace, a highbrow equivalent of Brant, the physical cartoonist, satirised Welsh’s latest novel with the daring and inventive method of making fun of working class accents (‘Well thanks a fooking lot for givin us loadsa hooses and a much younga wee lassie’, etc) a technique he used three years earlier in his piece on Trainspotting itself. The literary world welcomes working class writers – as long as they know their place.
In truth, I didn’t expect much from Skagboys. It was known that there was more material of Trainspotting than went into the final draft, but that’s true of most novels. So you anticipate a lashed-together series of outtakes and bloopers. What you get is something quite different. The prequel has all the marvellous set pieces, the schemes, stories, scams and dreams and the same mad profusion of narrators that characterises everything Welsh has written. But it’s long, strange, full of lush description that gives the whole thing a haunting and elegaic quality.
Basically, Irvine Welsh books are fun: no one writes friendship this well, and creates that buzz of mischief and solidarity that every young man knows striding out onto the town with his friends. It’s that sense of fun that draws you in, and creates the weird sense of sadness and loss when things start to unravel. The unions are smashed, unemployment hits the roof, ordinary working people are hammered by the overground and underground economy alike. Cheap heroin, imported from Afghanistan and Pakistan, hits the streets. One by one, straight or crooked, fast and slow, the young men and women of Leith are sucked in. Only Begbie manages to stay out of the drug game, and this textbook street thug happens to be one of the most affecting characters in the story. He keeps Renton away from violence, because he wants Renton to do well at university and get out of Leith. When Renton and Sick Boy decamp to London, Begbie is seen hanging around with teenage casuals, trying to get some aggression going; another character, Ali Lozinska, finds him sitting against the Victoria statue, isolated and left behind.
The Walk was filling up with singing, wolf-whistling drunks spilling out of the pubs. Then, from some distance behind her, she heard glass shattering and shouting followed by a terrible stillness in the air, which was dramatically breached by screams more animal than human. Alison kept walking, knowing who would be responsible. Yet she was afflicted every step of her journey home by Begbie’s pained, malevolent spirit. In her own psychosis of loss, his was the devil’s voice, permeating all the other sounds; the grinding of cars down the street, the shivering of the bare trees in the wind, the guffaws of drunk girls, the shouts of men weaving in and out of the public houses. Her brain was blackened with remorse, gummed up like damp, dirty amphetamine powder in a wrap. She thought of June’s pain, the death’s head of her mother, then the women at the poetry group, those lassies who seemed like they’d graduated from a finishing school on some far-off planet. Making love to Simon, to Alexander, then that guy she’d met the other night at the Bandwagon, Andy? No, Adam. For a second she sensed that if she just closed her eyes, something like a pattern, a semblance of order, might insinuate itself, but she was too scared to try.
Discussions of Welsh’s fiction have a tendency to veer off into sociopolitical treatise. Much has been made of his decision to write in Scottish dialect, and at that the very specialised dialect of a small port town which many inhabitants don’t consider part of Edinburgh. The interesting thing is that while Welsh’s characters narrate in phonetics, they often use standard English against the ruling class. The best illustration of this is when Renton, in court for shoplifting books, claims that he stole the books to read, not to sell. Challenged by a supercilious judge – ‘So you read Kierkegaard? Tell us about him’ – Renton impresses the court by giving a workable academic summary of the philosopher’s work.
Although a traditional working class socialist, Welsh always resisted the simplistic reading – for example, he is a strong anti-imperialist, yet criticises and ridicules post colonial intellectualism in his work – and has derided what he calls the ‘Oh, they shut down this factory and now we’ve got nothing to do, let’s take drugs’ view of Trainspotting. Welsh also challenges the sentimental delusions that people have about the working class. His protagonist Mark Renton has rejected the Old Firm sectarianism that has torn apart his family. Sick Boy grew up in the Banana Flats but, as an adult, declares himself an enemy of the working class and everything it stands for, preferring to hang around in Armani suits trying to pick up girls from Knightsbridge. Welsh has never been afraid to face the dark side of the white working class – racism, anti-intellectualism, domestic violence, misogyny and a crab-bucket culture of low expectations. This is not to say he doesn’t love his roots. He clearly does. But it’s a love without illusions.
It’s a contradiction of Thatcherism that the woman who went on endlessly about Victorian family values actually did more than anyone to break up the traditional family and community. Similarly, rhetoric about choice and meritocracy jarred with a reality of lost ambitions and slamming doors. Renton’s problem is that he knows what he doesn’t want but has nothing positive to aim for; traditional working class life doesn’t appeal, and he’s too smart to be dragged in completely by the criminal underworld, but the bourgeois married breeder rewards represent no reward for him either. There’s a key moment when one of Renton’s London contacts tries to kill himself by jumping from a Hackney tower block. The man is talked down from the ledge at the last moment, and Renton asks the cop: ‘But what did ye say tae get him tae come back inside?’ The officer replies: ‘I just told him that no matter how bad it all seemed right now, it’s just part and parcel of being young. That it gets easier.’ ‘Does it?’ Renton asks, and the policeman shakes his head: ‘Does it fuck; it gets bleeding worse. All that happens is that the expectations you have of life fall. You just get used to all the shit.’ But what if you can’t get used to it? The officer shrugs: ‘Well, that window’s still gonna be there.’
In many ways early twenties are the most interesting part of the gig – you’re a fully grown adult, but not yet fixed, there are still possibilities, the multiplicity of other lives. There must be so many campus novels about the delicate death of youth. The protagonists of Skagboys are faced with a dual process of change and disillusionment, that unravelling of society and communal ties, and the deeper tragedy of their own mortality. How do people cope with a changing world? Welsh tells how. There’s a subplot involving corrupt council workers (Welsh is ex local government) trying to contain a spread of Dutch Elm disease that cuts a swathe through the city’s trees. The parallel is obvious – this is an epidemic – and I think there’s a more subtle and effective analogy in the long para I quoted above: a terrible stillness in the air. Throughout the novel there is the sense of trembling on the lip of a new world.
In his essay ‘Inside the Whale,’ George Orwell remembers the Housman verse that entranced him as a young man:
With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.
By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.
Orwell sees this as the kind of thing you can only appreciate when you’re young. ‘It just tinkles,’ he says. Then: ‘But it did not seem to tinkle in 1920.’ It seems ridiculous to quote these lines in this context… but it is not just gilded youth that should be remembered and celebrated, and not only the ghosts of Balliol and Cambridge youth that haunt the riversides and the fields where roses fade.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012.