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.

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