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.’

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