Sick Boys

Jenny Turner

  • Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh
    Secker, 344 pp, £8.99, July 1993, ISBN 0 436 56567 6

I first heard of Irvine Welsh about a year ago, on a visit to the house of a friend of mine in Glasgow. This friend and I were talking, as we often do, about whether or not it is possible objectively to explain the special relationship that many Scottish men seem to have with their drink. Is it a nation thing, a class thing or a masculinity thing, or is it only a masochistic figment of the female imagination? Who are you trying to tell that it’s only Scottish men who drink themselves into oblivion, and why shouldn’t a guy enjoy a pint with his mates in peace? This friend went on to show me ‘It Goes Without Saying’, a short story recently published by Irvine Welsh in Glasgow’s excellent West Coast magazine. In it, a group of Edinburgh junkies sit around mumbling self-servingly, doing absolutely nothing while the baby of one of them lies suffocated in its cot. The usual drunken Scottish male self-destructiveness thing suddenly looked a bit soft-focus by comparison.

For what it’s worth, the two of us came to the conclusion that it’s probably impossible objectively to explain the special relationship between a Scottish man and his drink, except in one interesting respect. In the imagined community that is the Scottish nation, alcohol is everywhere fêted as a thing of life and joy, social warmth and spiritual insight. It is fêted cynically, by Tennents, McEwens and Famous Grouse, in alcohol advertisements which always, but always, tap a patriotic theme. And it is fêted, quite honestly and sincerely, as an agent of spiritual transformation and communion, in Scottish literature from Burns’s ‘Tam O’Shanter’ to MacDiarmid’s Drunk Man.

Given the power and all-pervasiveness of discourse like this – given also the fact that drinking is generally so much fun – it comes to seem a bit counter-intuitive, a touch dog-in-the-mangerish, positively unpatriotic, to make a meal out of the selfishness, the irresponsibility, the cruelty and disease that alcohol often brings along in its wake. The links between alcohol as communion and alcohol as addiction are fogged and fuddled by the delusory warmth of the amber liquid, whose most pleasant characteristic is the way it cheerily shuts off self-consciousness before moving on to do its harm. Heroin, on the other hand, is not a substance that gets much public vaunting, in the literature of Scotland or of any other country. Further, heroin use does not seem to give rise to cosy intimations of brotherly love, in Irvine Welsh’s telling of the tale at least. Like all Scots, the hero of Welsh’s book feels passionately connected to Scots in general. Like any bar-room bore, he has loads of opinions on what Scots are and what their problem is. But unlike your average drunk, he has no way of warming up his basic view of himself as a useless, substance-addicted, self-destructive waster. ‘Ah hate the Scots,’ he comments at one point. ‘Fuckin failures in a country ay failures. It’s nae good blaming it oan the English fir colonising us. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers ... What does that make us? The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation.’ At another point in his story, Welsh puts the matter more gnomically: ‘SCOTLAND TAKES DRUGS IN PSYCHIC SELF-DEFENCE.’

The focus of Trainspotting is a young man called Mark Renton or Rents, a heroin addict who was born and brought up in Leith, the old port neighbourhood on the north-eastern side of Edinburgh. Renton has had it with steady work, having been an apprentice joiner for a while and given it up. He has tried, and also given up on, being a university student in Aberdeen, where he blew all his grant money on alcohol and prostitutes in the space of a term. Sometimes he lives in London, where he is part of a syndicate which makes its money by claiming welfare benefits under false pretences. Sometimes he is back in Leith, hanging about with family and old friends, several of whom are heroin addicts like himself, and most of whom are criminal to a greater or lesser degree. In ‘It Goes Without Saying’, it is Renton who solves the problem of the dead baby, by cooking up some drugs in response to a desperate request from the dead baby’s mother. ‘Naebody,’ he comments, ‘could ivir be in this position and then deny that absolute power corrupts. The gadges move a few steps back and watch in silence as ah cook. The fuckers will huv tae wait. Lesley comes first, eftir me. That goes without saying.’

In form, Trainspotting is made up of connected story-cycles, some told in Renton’s voice, others by his friends. The effect, weirdly, is not of remoteness but of a shockingly close emotional engagement, as the particles of your mind start sinking, not into a single-person-shaped discourse, but over every single member of a complicated group of long-time friends. Welsh’s gang of Leithers have known each other since they were children. They are linked by house-sharing, needle-sharing, gossip, reputation and hearsay, babies, borrowed money and gang activities, and very much by loyalty and love. ‘Intense’ is hardly the word for the noise made by the clamouring of these various souls. One time, a character will be telling us some anecdote about bad drugs or London or the Iggy Pop concert, or what happened when he popped in on his Nana in the sheltered housing scheme at the foot of Leith Walk. Next thing, we will be hearing from somebody else that that person has started a university access course, gone away and come back again, or – as happens more than once – become infected with HIV.

Much of the writing is completely hilarious. It can be hilarious by linguistic rhythm and turn of phrase, as in the stories of poor Spud, a man with a fatal weakness for calling everybody ‘cat’, and for saying ‘likesay’ every second word. It can be hilarious by incident, as in the story of how Renton and Spud both get sent by the Jobcentre to the same set of interviews, scheming between themselves as to how best not to get the job while giving the impression that the job is the thing above all others each of them wants to get. And even when there is nothing funny about a story at all, when the matter of the tale, as in ‘It Goes Without Saying’, is chilling, appalling and utterly bleak, Welsh has a strange way of crafting events so that the point is made with an uncanny sharpness, a dread and mirthless sort of wit beyond wit.

In the most completely hilarious episodes, Welsh is working, to devastating effect, on all these fronts at once. I am particularly fond of ‘Deid Dugs’, a tale told by Simon, a chancer of such doe-eyed irresistibility and ruthless rapacity that he goes among his disgusted yet envious friends by the name of Sick Boy. At the beginning of this story, Simon is sitting at his window with an airgun at the ready, when along comes a skinhead with his devil dog. Simon (or rather ‘Shimon’: the Sick Boy’s head is full of a private fantasy in which he is best friend and shidekick to the Sean Connery version of Jamesh Bond) shoots at the dog, which goes mad with pain and turns upon its owner as intended. Our hero leaps down his stair to beat the dog to death and save the skin, who cannot understand why his beloved Shane should have turned against him. A policeman arrives and praises Shimon for bravery and preshence of mind. ‘The Sick Boy is going round tae Marianne’s the night for some sick fun. Doggy style must certainly be on the menu, if only as a tribute to Shane. I am high as a kite and horny as a field of stags. It’s been a fucking beautiful day.’

Basically, Trainspotting sets out to investigate the mechanisms by which the Scottish male drive to self-destruction works. Logically, aesthetically and morally, this is a difficult trick to pull off. On the one hand, here are Renton and his mates plumbing what is often the absolute pits of non-governmental human behaviour. To write honestly and rigorously, Welsh has to stay with Rents and affirm everything about him, right down to the point at which he fucks his brother’s pregnant girlfriend at that brother’s funeral, commenting of the experience that it was ‘a wee bit like throwin the proverbial sausage up a close’. At the same time, it would obviously be pointless to go on admiringly about the dreadful self-loathing mess into which Renton has got himself. Welsh’s task, then, is to affirm without being affirmative, to recognise without giving the stabilising stamp of approval that the act of recognition generally, if fallaciously, entails. Renton accordingly is kept moving, kept shifting, relapsing on himself, contradicting himself and hating himself, right up to the novel’s very end. His voice is endlessly intelligent, endlessly engaging, endlessly empathetic. Life would be easy if the doing of bad things was all it took to make a messed-up man clearly a worthless person. But often it seems more like the opposite that is closer to the case.

In one particularly gross episode in his book, Welsh has Renton insert some opium suppositories up his backside, supposedly as a prelude to kicking his habit for good. Unfortunately, as Renton has previously noted, his body has already been so deprived of drugs as to allow his jam-packed intestines, constipated in the way the junky intestine usually is, to loosen off and start to move. You may imagine what happens next. This episode is very funny in its grossness, a sort of realist version of William Burroughs’s talking arsehole routine. But it is also, like the talking arsehole routine, much more than merely funny. As I have said already, one of the most exciting things about Welsh’s book is the way it draws you right inside a community of people living in a close and tangled proximity to one another. Because these folk are often as not drunk or stoned or worse, things like excrement, urine, vomit, semen, smegma, menses and vaginal discharge are forever getting spilled out and displayed. Welsh, like Burroughs, is completely in-your-face about his attitude to these dirty, shameful things: just don’t bother even pretending to be shocked, is how the attitude goes. There is not a person alive who is not busily consuming and producing, consuming and producing, even as they read.

Now I personally have never had any interest at all in doing drugs, apart from coffee and cigarettes and the odd burst of sugar for the blood. Yet I always find myself pouncing, with a feeling like I’m really hungry for it, on any sort of writing I can find that talks not exactly about bodily functions, but about the way a person’s whole mind and identity is completely tied up and absorbed in their experience of their bodily functions, every waking second of every single day. And for some reason – for several reasons which are in fact fairly obvious when you think about it – it is often drugs writing which does this best. Substance abusers in general, and injecting heroin users in particular, experience their experience right at the ragged edge of the body-mind interface, at a place where the conventional distinction between inside and outside gets shaken and disturbed. The little rituals by which they try to heighten, control or deny the circulatory system moving round and about their bodies are different only in degree to what people are doing when they decide to have a cup of coffee or give coffee up, eat a Mars Bar or eat a beansprout sandwich, indulge in colonic irrigation or go on an F-Plan Diet. Now literature acknowledges these rituals most usually only in an airbrushy, fetishised way, with long descriptions of food eaten and sex had and marvellous epiphanies experienced while in the blessed state of being drunk or stoned. But writing like Welsh’s also accounts for why readers find such things so gratifying, by following them back to their sources, in solids and liquids, ingested and expelled, along all the miles of tangled tubes and ducts and pulsating valves that go to make up a single human body. If you’re going to try to feed yourself by reading, you might as well read something which is anatomically correct.

Given that Renton’s mind is so very much a mind sunk into its experience of its body, it is hardly surprising that we can follow this tubes-and-valves metaphor right through to the way Welsh writes about the constant flow of stuff that throughout Trainspotting is seen to explode, pour out and otherwise exude from Mark Renton’s brain. Renton would not be interesting were he not relentlessly intelligent and sensitive, well-meaning, bien pensant and capable of astonishing feats of logical stamina. But Renton would not be interesting either were he not also full of holes and gaps and aporia, owner of a mind so speedy and active that it can never get going on an argument without slipping right off all the most important cogs. In the part of his book that puts Renton face to face with a series of well-meaning drug-abuse psychotherapists, Welsh seems to be suggesting that Renton needs his drugs exactly because he has to suffer the consequences of living with a mind that habitually moves too fast; ‘Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sittin oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing games shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.’ Renton has, as it were, thought everything through and found it wanting, with the result that he has life all sewn up, leaving himself none of it left actually to live.

Renton of course spends much of his time watching TV, eating junk food and pishing and shiteing himself anyway. As William Burroughs has noted often, the relationship of drug user to the used is the paradigmatic example of everyday capitalist relations in just about every respect. Value starts accruing on a useless product with the poverty-stricken folk who grow it in the first place, and goes right on accruing down the chain of mules and dealers, to the hapless user who would sell his granny for a toke. Oh well. Not even in his stonedest moments does Renton ever claim that there is anything particularly noble about what he is trying to do: ‘You just want tae fuck up on drugs so that everyone’ll think how deep and fucking complex you are. It’s pathetic, and fucking boring.’ Like many a poet and philosopher before him, Renton goes on to argue himself into pure solipsism, the only position from which a man can hope to keep his consistency clean. ‘Why should ah reject the world, see masel as better than it? Because ah do, that’s why. Because ah fucking am, and that’s that.’

Unfortunately for Renton, even the purest heroin he can find does not seem to be strong enough ever to free him for more than a second from knowing perfectly well that his logic on this, as on most other matters, is completely shot. For Renton, though he tries to hide and deny it, is seen throughout this book as a man in the process of giving heroin up. He is growing out of his need for this particular sort of dependent relationship. Like most junkies usually do if left to their own devices, he is starting to find the effort of taking heroin more bother than it is worth. Renton attempts to conceal what he is thinking with all sorts of bluster, including a very sharp comparison of this ageing out process to the more socially acceptable psychotherapeutic ‘cure’.

For all his avowed commitment to the magisterial and monumental wasting of his own life in exactly the way he chooses, you can tell that Renton is about to be exposed yet again as inconsistent in every way. For Renton secretly knows that we know that he will in spite of himself end up having the choice of life thrust on him. In spite of his junky pride, Renton cannot help but expose himself to being secretly a fighter who is going to end up Choosing Life. The evidence is inescapably there in front of us, in the shape of this wonderful book.

It will be apparent that a lot of the strength of Welsh’s way with language comes from its rendition, which is in a close phonetic approximation to spoken schemie Edinburgh Scots. When you begin the book, this looks off-putting. I lived in Edinburgh for many years, I read a lot of things rendered in various sorts of literary Scots, and I still found the oafays, thums and goats (off of, them and got) all over the first page of Trainspotting offputting as hell. Edinburgh speech is very different from Glasgow or Doric or Lallans, the dialects of Scots we are accustomed to seeing in print. Some of this peculiarity is lexical, words like radge and gadge and chorrie (mental, bloke and stealing) which seem to have entered Edinburgh from the travellers’ cant. Some of it is of more recent origin, the creative punning of idle minds at work in the city’s clubs and bars. But an awful lot of what makes Edinburgh Edinburgh very much lies in the way you say your vowel sounds. We remember that Miss Jean Brodie was very particular about vowel sounds when engaged in distinguishing her brood of Edinburghians from the common herd. It is, then, completely necessary that Irvine Welsh should be just as particular about his vowel sounds.

Certainly, Trainspotting will be most immediately accessible to readers placed to understand what Port Sunshine is and what the Meadows, and why, while enjoying his ‘First Shag in Ages’, Renton chooses the thought of Wallace Mercer as an aid to preventing premature ejaculation. It will also be particularly enjoyable for readers who belong to the sort of imagined community that teaches you to understand why being tormented by the Sutherland Brothers should make Renton’s brother quiver. This is just as it should be. All writing addresses its readers hierarchically, depending on how close the reader’s world is to the world given shape inside the text. For many readers, Welsh’s book will probably be the first book ever to invite their communion directly, instead of leaving them to steal what insight they can after all the layers of invited guests have imbibed their fill and gone home. But even for those who have never visited Scotland, Trainspotting will succeed as a mind-opener.

When James Kelman’s first novel The Busconductor Hines came out, many readers felt turned off by the locality of it, by its use of Glasgow language, by the attention it gave to all sorts of specificities, like the construction of a roll-up and the making of a pot of mince. It took a while, but slowly and surely readers accustomed themselves to Kelman’s particularities of thought and language, and have been engaging with Kelman’s energy, Kelman’s analysis, Kelman’s rigorous and vivid sadness ever since. In a similar way, readers will inevitably start getting to grips with the world according to Mark Renton and his mates.