Seconds from a Punch-Up

Andy Beckett

  • Skagboys by Irvine Welsh
    Cape, 548 pp, £12.99, April 2012, ISBN 978 0 224 08790 2

Eighteen years ago, in a pub in Darlington, someone I associated with fashion and clubbing but not anything as sedentary as reading told me she had just read the best book ever written. I had never heard of Trainspotting. It had been published the previous summer, and was still in the early stages of its journey from cult status to ubiquity. Soon afterwards I too found myself improbably mesmerised by Irvine Welsh’s often squalid tales of young heroin addicts from Leith, Edinburgh’s blustery, downtrodden port, in the late 1980s. With its needles and cravings, its bare junkie flats and shivery withdrawal scenes, its hovering premonitions of HIV and death, Trainspotting in some ways resembled a government anti-drug ad campaign. Yet the book had energy and black humour and a teeming, three-dimensional quality that drew you quickly through its long, bloody chapters and made them linger in the memory.

And it was well timed. By the early 1990s, the druggy rave subculture was spreading into the mainstream. Ravers usually took less perilous drugs, like ecstasy, but the narcotic adventures of Welsh’s gang of characters – scheming Renton; unthinking, pleasure-seeking Spud; charming, controlling Sick Boy – could now be consumed, vicariously or not, as entertaining examples of extreme hedonism rather than cautionary tales. Fiction is often slow to reflect changing pop culture, and when Trainspotting came out few other novelists were writing about the new ways of getting high.

Welsh busily took advantage. A year after Trainspotting, he published The Acid House, a sketchier, more cartoonish but still compulsively readable short story collection. Some of the protagonists were heroin addicts, but there were also drug-free stories with ingenious, hallucinatory plots and premises, like a psychedelic remix of Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected. In one typical story, Madonna, Kylie Minogue, Kim Basinger and Victoria Principal lounge around, bored, in a mansion in Santa Monica, chatting in Leith vernacular about their unrequited lust for Leith removal men, who have become international sex symbols:

A pile of glossy magazines lay on a large black coffee table. They bore such titles as Wide-o, Scheme Scene and Bevvy Merchants. Madonna flicked idly through the magazine called Radge, coming to an abrupt halt as her eyes feasted on the pallid figure of Deek Prentice, resplendent in a purple, aqua and black shellsuit.

‘Phoah! Ah’d shag the erse oafay that anywey,’ she lustily exclaimed.

The Acid House set out explicitly to attract ravers: its title was a reference to early rave music, and its original paperback jacket was a green and red concoction as garish as the sleeve of a trippy dance 12-inch. His next story collection, rushed out in 1996, was bluntly called Ecstasy. Parts of it were set at raves, but Welsh didn’t write as compellingly about taking ecstasy as he had about taking heroin. The intensity and economy of Trainspotting were gone, replaced by a baggy, repetitive good-times style: ‘The weekends, it was great, we were E’d up … It was a big party.’ The Face, itself past its heyday, hyped Welsh as ‘the poet laureate of the chemical generation’, and Ecstasy suggested he would settle comfortably and profitably into that role.

One character in Ecstasy confesses: ‘It often gave me a strange, queasy feeling of exhilaration to talk bland shite with people and not worry about being a smart cunt.’ Welsh’s protagonists are often cleverer and more ambitious than they let on to their peers – or to themselves. In Skagboys, a prequel to Trainspotting, set in the mid-1980s, Renton is ‘a young, smart, working-class boy’ who reads philosophy for fun and leaves Leith for ‘the escape hatch’ of Aberdeen University, then sabotages his prospects with heroin. Welsh’s own life has something of this snakes-and-ladders quality. The facts are a little slippery, thanks to his often evasive or mischievous performances in interview, but it seems pretty certain that he was born in Leith in 1958. His father was a docker, his mother a waitress, and he grew up on a decaying council estate. It was a Trainspotting sort of beginning, but contrary to his image he spent much of his teens, twenties and early thirties on a determinedly self-improving trajectory: an apprenticeship in TV repair in Leith, then an electrical engineering course in London; clerical work for Hackney council, then a computing MSc; a successful spell as a North London property developer; then better council work back in Edinburgh; and an MBA at the city’s Heriot-Watt University.

There were also long spells of living in squats and playing in punk bands, of alcohol, amphetamines and heroin. In one of half a dozen short, stern polemical sections that interrupt the otherwise boisterous plot of Skagboys, each called ‘Notes on an Epidemic’, Welsh writes:

The heroin that flooded the streets of Edinburgh in the early 1980s was widely believed to have been sourced from [legal] opiate-based products manufactured [locally] … through breaches of security. When these security issues were resolved, the huge local demand for heroin was satiated by cheap Pakistani product … Conspiracy theorists point out that this glut of heroin importation occurred shortly after the widespread rioting of 1981, in many poorer areas of Britain.

This heroin-as-social-tranquilliser theory is questionable: riots and violent political confrontations continued across the country until well into the mid-1980s. Skagboys itself opens with a lengthy, thinly fictionalised account of the 1984 battle between miners and police at Orgreave in South Yorkshire, in which Renton participates with his trade-unionist father. But Welsh’s personal connection to heroin seems solid. When I interviewed him in 1998, he told me he had spent much of the 1980s watching friends in Edinburgh succumb to it. ‘I’ve got this friend who’s been a junkie for 25 years,’ he went on. ‘He said to me when Trainspotting came out: “Why have you written this book? You’ve only been a junkie for five minutes.” Well actually, it was 18 months. It was a stupidity and a weakness. I’ve not touched it for years, but it’s in your vocabulary … It’s always there in the background, waiting for you to trip up.’

Autobiographical or not, since the late 1990s Welsh’s fiction has mostly continued in the lurid, broad-brush style that began with Ecstasy. His still prodigious output has included Filth (1998), about an initially intriguing but finally tiresome misanthropic Edinburgh policeman, and Porno (2002), a crude sequel to Trainspotting, with Sick Boy et al laddishly running amok in the 1990s porn industry. In 1998, with disarming self-deprecation, Welsh described Ecstasy to me as ‘like somebody writing an Irvine Welsh exploitation book’, and that description could apply to many of its successors. Like the British rave culture that adopted his early books, Welsh has long gone lowest common denominator and international, giving thanks in the acknowledgments of Skagboys, like a middle-aged superstar DJ, to people ‘in the great cities of Edinburgh, London, Dublin, Chicago, Miami, Sydney and Los Angeles’.

He also thanks his longstanding editor, Robin Robertson, for support through ‘a more convoluted journey than we’ve both grown accustomed to over the years’, and from the first pages of Skagboys, it’s clear that Welsh is taking fiction more seriously than he has for a while. Renton’s relationship with his working-class parents – a relationship that is claustrophobia-inducing and intolerable to him, a source of sadness and bewilderment to them – is established in earnest detail. ‘Ma dad’s a big, broad-shoodird sort ay gadge, whereas ah … [am] sticklike and rangy,’ Renton says, en route with his father from Edinburgh to Orgreave. ‘His hair [is] now greying … He’s wearin a broon cord jaykit … ruined by the Glasgow Rangers FC lapel badge, pinned next tae his Amalgamated Union of Engineering Workers yin, and he fairly reeks ay Blue Stratos.’

The mockery and rejection of a pre-1980s Scottish masculinity based on manual work, drinking and hometown loyalty are central themes of both Skagboys and Trainspotting. Renton and his mates prefer restless pleasure-seeking and stronger intoxicants, along with petty criminal forays across Britain and Europe. Of the constantly bickering gang, only Begbie, the caricature hard man, always seconds away from a punch-up (or worse) remains faithful to Leith and its pubs full of angry old men. The declining port, along with the wealthier parts of Edinburgh, and by implication the whole of Scotland, are almost always presented in Skagboys as cold, grimy and provincial.

Yet intermittently Renton and the others also register, with a vague sense of melancholy, that in their way of life, and in mid-1980s Scotland generally, some valuable things are being lost. Spud, newly unemployed, misses the ‘excitement that ah used tae feel when ah goat up fir work oan a good mornin at the furniture deliveries, where ye wondered if ye were gaunny dae a big run … aw the laughs ye’d huv wi the boys. Now thaire’s nowt like that, nae work fir the unskilled man like me … [no] bein part ay a team … Wi aw need that.’ The argument between the disappearing collective Scotland and the emerging individualistic one runs through Skagboys, never entirely resolved in favour of the latter. Sometimes Welsh addresses the shift in directly political terms. These moments are clunky: ‘Postwar optimism … the welfare state, full employment … all gone or compromised,’ Renton reflects, improbably, midway through heating up a spoonful of heroin. ‘It now really was everyone for themselves.’ The description of the battle of Orgreave is much better, muscular and panoramic, but it lacks the surprise details and sense of outrage of David Peace’s treatment in his great miner’s strike novel, GB84.[*]

Welsh makes his political points more effectively through his storytelling. Renton and Sick Boy move to London and live in a filthy towerblock in pre-gentrification Hackney – ‘the London Borough of South Leith’ – where they run benefit scams and are drawn into a flimsy scheme to smuggle drugs on Channel ferries. The always upwardly mobile, lecherous Sick Boy acquires a rich, slumming girlfriend from Notting Hill and introduces her to heroin. Spud and Begbie, ‘totally skint’, help burgle a barrister’s mansion in Edinburgh. Ransacking the bedrooms, they are startled to find an unconscious young Spanish nanny, who has just taken an overdose. For half a dozen pages, they argue about whether to try to revive her, and then, once they do, about what to do with her: greed, panic and a residue of compassion jostle for supremacy. You can see the episode as mid-1980s Britain in microcosm, or just relish it as one of the comically nightmarish set pieces Welsh still does very well.

Although the book is marketed as a 1980s chronicle, its period detail is perfunctory: there are wine bars and yuppies, government cuts and ‘defunct docks’. One of the puzzles of Welsh’s fiction has always been the way wodges of stiff, amateurish-seeming writing keep turning up in between taut escapades and fizzing dialogue. Midway through Skagboys, Renton’s parents ponder their relationship with their son:

At the kitchen table, Cathy Renton silently gaped into space, smoking her cigarette … Her husband Davie could hear his own breath, heavy with fatigue and stress, over the bubbling pot of stovies on the hob. Time seemed to hesitate, as frail and weary as either of them; Davie found the burden of his wife’s silence even more heartbreaking in its insidious, levelling way than her sobs and tortured soliloquies.

Not all the literary turns are bad. Near the end, with Renton and Sick Boy having retreated back to Edinburgh, almost lost to their addictions, Sick Boy sleeps in their foul shared room, ‘angled across [a] ripped beanbag … its polystyrene beans … like maggots spilling from him’. Perhaps the more wooden passages are parodies of fine writing rather than failed attempts at it. Either way, there are too many of them in the middle section of the book. Here, the plot slackens and subdivides. There is a soap opera strand about whether Renton will choose heroin or the love of a good woman (guess which he goes for). There is heavy-handed satire, of a sort Welsh has tried before, this time about council do-gooders in Edinburgh. And there are long chapters of junkie lassitude, interrupted only by the gang’s forced confinement in a rehab clinic. Renton is kept there for 45 days, and we get his diary entries for almost all of them.

Skagboys is almost two-thirds longer than Trainspotting. If the earlier book was Welsh’s Star Wars – a complete fictional world, full of strange corners that fans would explore for decades – then the new one resembles that film’s own long-awaited prequel, The Phantom Menace: dazzling in places, but with self-indulgent stretches that will appeal only to hardcore enthusiasts. After Trainspotting, how much more do you need to read about Sick Boy’s sex life, or Begbie’s batterings, or Renton’s hapless drug benders? Some chapters here are little more than morning-after anecdotes. For all Welsh’s taunting of the old Scots maleness, there is still a machismo to these pages.

The last truly iconoclastic book Welsh published was Marabou Stork Nightmares in 1995, an odd, fragmented novel about football hooliganism, British colonialism, apartheid South Africa and Scotland’s complicity in all of them. It sold modestly by the standards of his other books, and unlike them has yielded no film or television or theatre spin-offs (a film version of Ecstasy is just out and one of Filth is due later in the year); yet it suggested, excitingly, that he could probably write about anything. His career hasn’t turned out like that. But there is an extended scene at the end of Skagboys that hints at something new. Unable to get hold of heroin in Edinburgh, Renton and friends decide to break into a pharmaceutical factory, which they have convinced themselves contains a vast stockpile. As they stumble along a railway track towards the plant, desperate as the living dead in a zombie film, ‘the sun sinks behind the broken tenements and the ancient castle,’ and Renton, always the brainy one, thinks about Edinburgh’s appetite for heroin:

Why in this city? The Scottish Enlightenment. You could trace the line from that period of the city’s global greatness, to the Aids capital of Europe … going straight through … medicine, invention and economics … From the deliberations and actions of Edinburgh’s finest sons in the 18th century, to its poorest ones poisoning themselves with heroin at the close of this one.

They get to the plant, the break-in goes wrong, and Renton and Sick Boy trudge back to their flat in Leith, where the telephone rings. Welsh doesn’t say who’s calling, but their dealer seems a likely answer. Welsh may yet write the great Edinburgh novel, or we may just get more prequels to Trainspotting.

[*] Andy Beckett reviewed GB84 in the LRB of 23 September 2004.