J’ACCUSE IRVINE WELSH
The next post will be on or before Monday, March 6th
With regard to recent contentious matters on these pages, some things, meaning memories, and especially those concerning the bracingly surreal business of teaching, have this habit of staying with you and never going away. In the mid-1990s, some 20 odd years ago, I was teaching Creative Writing in an art college in the north of England. Mine was classed as a subsidiary option, and could be chosen alongside the students’ main subject of say Fine Art or Graphic Design or Media Studies. They were lively and friendly young people in the main, and a long way ahead of the rump (such an apposite word) of those Technical College students who I had instructed in General Studies a decade and a half earlier. Apropos the ‘general’ nature of the studies, those Tech kids of the late 1970s were only interested in slaveringly discussing Pornography(definitions of, and to be copiously illustrated, boss, or we’re not bloody interested!) or the Supernatural (clairvoyance, telepathy, ghosts, witchcraft) and thought that the syllabus staples of Life Skills, Current Affairs, Politics and all things regarded as Artistic were a heap of decadent rubbish, or as they put it even more cogently and succinctly, absolute shite.
At one point in the summer term I set the art students an assignment where they had to compare and contrast 2 vastly different works of fiction of their choice. I suggested say a novel by Jane Austen set beside a Henry Miller, or by Kathy Acker alongside Iris Murdoch, or by Franz Kafka fighting it out with John Buchan or H Rider Haggard. They would need to outline what these works had in common and in conflict, when it came it the universal matters of love and work and personal ideals…and then to concisely compare the authors’ writerly styles, or to put it in intelligible fashion terms, how precisely they dressed and disported themselves in these works of literary fiction. I had high hopes of this imaginative project, and expected quite a few uproarious laughs from those brave spirits who might tackle e.g. William Burroughs’s incendiary free flowing book of drug addict’s vignettes (to be read in any order, the author declared) Naked Lunch (1959) when set beside say the chaste yet steamy 1977 novel The Taming of Lady Lorinda by that incomparable doyen of romance writers, the wondrously prolific Barbara Cartland (1901-2000).
Fat chance. There were 20 students in that class, and I am not lying when I say that no less than 18 of them chose Irvin Welsh’s heroin addiction novel Trainspotting, to contrast with some other work, which latter I can assure you got a hell of a lot less enthusiastic forensic analysis than did the notorious bestseller. Weirdly, I cannot remember what even one of the 18 chose as foils to Mr Welsh (born 1957) though I suspect it was the ubiquitous school set texts of the time To Kill a Mocking Bird (1960) by Harper Lee or My Family and Other Animals (1956) by Gerald Durrell. Even weirder, I have no recall of what those 2 startlingly independent minds who were the abstemious non-Welsh fans, chose as their two contrasts. After taking a deep breath, I waded my way through those 20 essays, and digested 18 plot summaries of Trainspotting, which sadly did not fire me to drop everything and race out to buy something I hadn’t yet read myself. I have to confess it was to be another 7 years, as late as 2002, before I finally sat down to get to grips with the self-styled punk and provocative Scots author.
I am not going to relate the detailed plot of the 1993 novel, seeing that probably at least 18 out of 20 of you out there have read it, and/ or also watched the phenomenally popular 1996 film adaptation starring Ewan McGregor and 2 other fine actors, Ewen Bremner and Robert Carlyle. Suffice to say it is about the frantically comic if frequently desolate adventures of a group of impoverished Edinburgh friends, all of them heroin consumers, aside that is from near psychotic, heavy boozer Begbie (played by Carlyle) who openly loathes all junkies. The hero Renton played by McGregor hearteningly breaks free of his addiction, then moves to London to start a new life, but just as we are hoping for a happy and cathartic resolution, he is pursued by his pals and ends up back in the dust and the dirt so to speak.
I ploughed my way with scant relish through this novel in 2002, much less impressed or entertained by the Scots English demotic, than everyone else claimed to be. I detected more than anything a kind of vaunting if carefully disguised complacence from an author, who had penned his novel as if he uniquely were telling life as it really was, at this dog end of the moribund Tory sovereignty over the UK (1979-1997) and, take note, most impressively, not in London nor Manchester, but in the doggest rough parts of Leith, Edinburgh. Only a week or so later, I tuned in as Welsh was being interviewed on Radio 4 ,and it was the first time I had ever heard him speak, and yes my hunch was confirmed, as he sounded chirpily arrogant and insinuatingly prescriptive and faux naif and cocksure and pisswise, and a lot of other things that did not endear him to me. What’s more as I hearkened to his remarkably pious and virtuous opinions, I was immediately transported (not trainspotted) back to 1988 when his fellow Scots author James Kelman was also being interviewed by the BBC, though this time on upmarket Radio 3. Kelman (born 1946), author of Greyhound for Breakfast (1987) and Dirt Road (2016) likewise specialises in depicting the bottom of the heap Edinburgh sub-culture, in the form of tramps, alkies, word salad derelicts and junkies, much of it told in dogged and in my view far from radical or original demotic. In remarkably similar tones to Welch, James Kelman reveals himself to be a safe distance from personal modesty, and has a kind of breathy, insinuating righteousness when he comes to declaring his credo and his views on literature, art, sociology, class and culture. Ironically, in Irvine Welsh’s case (and note that James Kelman won the Booker in 1994 with How Late It Was, How Late, and presumably can still command a bob or two), the Trainspotting man has made such a lucrative income from his novels and their film adaptations, that he must be a very rich man indeed.
All of which raises a few basic theoretical problems apropos what one says versus what one is and what one does. Welch’s earnest and pious maxims about those pampered bourgeois souls who see the world in the myopically wrong way, may be contrasted with how he sees himself: namely someone who spends his time artistically depicting the ferocious and unhygienised underworld. This adamant and unflinching worm’s eye view, has in effect and in his terms made him effectively unfoolable and hence prophetic, meaning that perhaps and pace my naive Tech college kids of the late 70s, he unwittingly succeeds in being both pornographic and supernatural. Moreover, it’s hardly being gratuitously cynical to ask, can one be a burning radical and a ferocious and steely prophet, while also thanks to one’s canny and unhampered artistic vision hitting a highly saleable and profitable commercial vein? Note that both the fledgling Kelman and the novice Welsh along with other Scots writers Alan Warner, Janice Galloway etc were spotted by an Aberdonian editor Robin Robertson (born 1955) working variously at big shot publishers like Secker and Jonathan Cape in London, and before long the pair of them, thanks to assiduous mega-marketing, had defined not just Scottish regional fiction but regional fiction per se for the whole of the UK. Soon in their wake came the in-your-face Welsh version, the 2001 Sheepshagger (the author Niall Griffiths, born 1966, was actually an Englishman from Liverpool) and the subliminal and highly marketable message soon read that Scotland = Junkies, Wales = Bestiality, so how and in what equivalent in-your-visage manner, do we decide to market Ireland and England, we are possibly now obliged to ask ourselves?
And now at last to the significance of the title of this piece. Towards the end of Trainspotting, buried away and so perfunctorily described that you might almost miss it, is something I found extremely repugnant. Believe me I am not easily offended or upset by anything in literature, and certainly not when it comes to sex (indeed the very start of my own 2006 novel A Gentleman’s Relish about a young couple in the 1950s having rumbustious if blameless sex together and talking rude and ludicrous baby talk, was once mysteriously adverted to by a female Lancaster University academic as ‘pornographic’). In this very perfunctory scene in Trainspotting one of the male characters is engaged in hectic and not outstandingly tender sex with a pregnant woman. We are allowed to follow his thoughts as this happens, and his inner world far from being richly or comically evoked reads like an amoral adolescent’s and a rather nasty, vaunting, emotionally disturbed adolescent at that. The thought that is running through his callow, drug-addled mid 20s brain is that because he is having sex with a pregnant woman, hence the foetus is experiencing a kind of oral sex, the whole fantasy being expressed as something rather cute and offbeat and quirky and jokeworthy. And needless to say, the character does not use the words ‘oral sex’ but ‘blow-job’ as if to make it even more a throw away inconsequential little gag.
Let’s start with some obvious first principles. Any writer is allowed to think absolutely anything as they compose, but no-one is forcing them to put it on the page, and the writer in the last event is the final editor of their own work, regardless of whatever the publishers might supply in the way of supplementary help. It was fair enough for Irvine Welsh to have this unutterably tasteless pre-adolescent gag whizzing through his fevered authorial head, but as final arbiter of what is supposed to be his art, he should have ditched it either at the thought stage or at the first draft stage on the grounds that like many pre-adolescent gags it is objectively disgusting and disgraceful. And do I really need to explain why this is so? If there had been some Trainspotting gag about a man forcing oral sex on a grown child as opposed to a foetus, everyone would have been up in arms saying this is definitely not the stuff of comedy, Irvine, and Welsh’s London editor would surely have commanded him to remove it at once. But because the foetus, in some men’s minds especially, is assimilated to the equivalent of a biological nothing or an existential abstraction or just as often an unwanted impedance, it is therefore an inconsequential nullity and all things concerning it can be turned into a nihilistic chuckaway comedy. 12-year-old kids, as you all know, make heartless jokes about abortions and funny tasting sago (as well as about magnets and ‘spastics’, and about avaricious Jews and phone boxes and lethal gas), but Welsh was in his mid-30s when this was published, and he should have damn well thought better. So, for that matter should his Secker editor, Robin Robertson, and one wonders with how much professional and attentive stringence, the text was actually read from cover to cover.
In case you think this is an overblown and exaggerated argument, I invite you to look on Welsh’s author website (www.irvinewelsh.net). There under Biography you get a racy and chirpy CV that among other things sardonically discloses how 2 women judges on the Booker panel of 1993 threatened to walk out if Trainspotting were to be shortlisted that year. Yet far more telling than that is the fizzy and adolescent tone of the author profile, which reads exactly like a rather precocious 16-year-old trying to show off to his equally callow and know-all schoolmates. This I would submit is where Welsh and his ilk are precisely to be located in artistic and also in human terms, and if we choose to make him and his kind a fiction superstar, then it means that we are condoning his and their limitless and unashamed not to say money-raking infantilism.