Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

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Startling, brutal, ambitious, vulgar, intriguing, provocative, odious and emotional. The parade of adjectives you could throw at Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting and would stick reveals the great range and breadth of life that this 20th century classic contains. Often described as a ‘series of short stories’, Trainspotting covers a sequence of narratives depicting the life of Mark Renton and his pals, referred to as the Skag Boys due to their notorious heroin love-affair, as they go about their drink and drugs fuelled existence in Leith, on the outskirts of Edinburgh. More often than not, the narrative is delivered in the first-person through the distinct voices of the characters, usually Renton who might be deemed the book’s protagonist. Along with works such as Burgess’ A Clockwork Orange, Trainspotting is completely original in its textual experimentation to reproduce the voices of urban Scotland and of the Scottish working classes. The narrative voices of Renton and co are defined by their vibrant Scots dialect, loaded with all its profanities, musicality and character, and the book would have been a drastically different, and inferior, one if written within the confines of what we call “Standard English”. The narrative’s twists and shifts in perspective, being told in the first-person by several characters but then also in the third-person at times, gives the book as a whole a very rounded feel and provides almost an encircling, panoramic shot of the lives of its characters in Leith. To call Trainspotting ‘a series of short stories’, I feel, is unjust. A short story is more often than not a complete, ‘boxed-off’ (in the sense of not relying on other pieces for finality), final piece, and although you might find a collection of short stories which relay a common theme, or a common location, or perhaps a recurrent character, I cannot think of another book which treats character and narrative as Welsh does here and for this he must be given credit. To me, it felt more like a novel, but a novel of ambitious experimentation. Welsh seems to have looked at all the tools available to an author to tell a story and wondered “why restrict myself to one, when I can use the whole bloody lot?!”

 

With so much experimentation going on it can be difficult to slip comfortably into the ‘novel’, but after a couple of pages have elapsed and the little Scots voice in your head has found its rhythm, it is a gripping and intriguing book. Intriguing in its ability to shock from the very beginning as we find Rents rummaging through a blocked public toilet full of his own, and others’, defecation in search of a pack of recently acquired pills. Such narratives, replete with nothing less than a rich variety of profanities, are the bread and butter of Trainspotting. This may lead critics to label Welsh’s work as insolent, vulgar, disreputable and perhaps even unrealistic. But I felt instead that Welsh’s Leith and its characters are realistic to the point of almost being tangible; you can smell their stench, hear their aggressive voices and relate to their moral dilemmas. Which is one of Trainspotting’s greatest achievements; despite their doubtlessly contemptible, sordid behaviour, the reader still empathises with these characters and you even grow to like them. Why? Although from the outset such characters, fictional or non-fictional I might add, appear to occupy a completely different galaxy to ourselves, Trainspotting offers a window into the emotional complexities of characters like Renton and Sick Boy, and it allows us to think on their terms and put ourselves in their shoes, where strangely and perhaps scarily we find that we have more things in common with these people than we like to imagine. Emotions, friendships, relationships with other human beings. At the end of the day we are all human beings.

 “We have found an intimacy which may have otherwise eluded us. I wish I hadn’t waited so long to become a human being. Better late than never though, believe you me.”

When giving reasons for why we like to read literature, you might often get the idealistic, romantic response that reading allows us to transport ourselves to an unfamiliar place, to nigh-experience an exotic culture, to empathise with characters far from ourselves which give us a fuller vision of the world we inhabit. We might think of Wordsworth describing the beauties of the Lakes and the plights of the Cumbrian man on his rural farm, revealing the stories of the ‘common man’ to the poetic world. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road allows us to swing into the zipping, jazz and alcohol-imbued lifestyles of 1940s America and run along Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady in his wild, exuberant adventures. Trainspotting does the same, giving readers an honest insight into the lifestyles of a generation growing up in the looming shadow of Maggie Thatcher whose government rid Britain of thousands of jobs belonging to working class lads like Renton and Sick Boy. There doesn’t seem to be much left for them, except for shooting up and attending each other’s funerals, but this, so it seems, is simply how things were. But Trainspotting is also a celebration of life and a call for solidarity. The vibrancy and unpredictability of Renton and co shows the liveliness of youth and friendship despite the squalid lifestyles they have been dealt, and Welsh’s desire for us to empathise with such characters allows us to regard equivalent characters in our own society as worthy of attention, and indeed to persuade us to stop demonizing particular sections of society and instead to remain together in hope of positive social change.

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Irvine Welsh at Oh Me Oh My, Liverpool

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Sat in the impressive West Africa Room of Liverpool’s Oh Me Oh My and taking in the décor—‘vintage’, paint-splashed doors draped with fairy lights leaning against white walls, white wicker chairs, stately wooden tables decked with vases of flowers and simple candles—I was intrigued to imagine Welsh’s first impressions of the place. Known for his gritty, visceral, brutally honest novels, notably Trainspotting, Filth and Marabou Stork Nightmares, perhaps I was expecting a rock-god-esque, taciturn but exuberant sort of character to burst through the door gushing with the virile masculinity of many of his characters. Yet when he did arrive, strangely on-time, weirdly genuine, warm and humane, he was instead a man at ease, very laid back and approachable. Welsh seemed genuinely pleased to be in Liverpool and greeted all with a large smile. A smile only interrupted by a mildly excited rounding of the lips at the proposal of a sandwich and snacks-accompanied rest. As he headed off for some good scran and a moment’s pause, I was left to rue my misled preconceptions, but I could only be taken in by the man’s genuine and friendly demeanour.

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And the venue too surprised, providing a peculiarly fitting background to what was a relaxed yet intriguing affair. Kevin Sampson (Awaydays, Stars are Stars, Powder) led the event and was instrumental to the fluidity and engaging nature of Welsh’s performance. Both men were slung back in armchairs below dimmed lights, legs stretched out intertwined, completely at home sipping their drinks. You would have thought they were just two guys having a chat down the boozer if it wasn’t for Sampson’s incisive questions which allowed Welsh to meander freely and openly through the evening’s many subjects. The chat ranged from his early influences to writerly routine (or lack of), Saturday Night Fever to the politicization of the word ‘c**t’ in the English Language and the power language has over individuals who fear such words. Sampson and Welsh’s openness was engrossing and loaded the gig with a personal, intimate feel. As too did Welsh’s humour, with the spurts of comedy filling in the gaps of the discussion as they do his novels, and laughter was the only sound uttered by a fixated audience during Welsh’s performance. Talking of Saturday Night Fever, Welsh declared that ‘if you don’t like that opening scene, then you haven’t got a pulse’, and when discussing books that had influenced him, he spoke frankly of being influenced by ‘bad books’; ‘If I read a good book, I’d think “Bastard!”, but when I found a bad book’, his face lit up, a beaming smile forming, ‘I’d think, “here we go! What a load of crap! I’m gonna take yer down!”’ The crowd loved this honesty and so did I. There were many moments like this that made me think “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel! That’s exactly how it is!”, a feeling Sampson claimed Trainspotting gave him the first time it was thrust into his hands by a friend in the early 90s and influenced the way he thought about literature. Often when an author is questioned about his or her influences, you get a standardised list of ‘classic’, ‘acceptable’ authors reeled off—Joyce, Dickens, Wodehouse, Woolf, Eliot, etc. But Welsh’s claim that it is also the badly-written novels that inspire, that make you think ‘d’ya know what? I could do better than this crap!’ is spot on and it’s refreshing to hear an author speak with such genuine openness. And it is this openness which is on-show in his works. Many critics claim that Welsh has an ‘impulse to shock’ and be, as Anthony Cummings recently called him, ‘full-throatedly yucky’ (I think what he means here is more gritty, gory and in-your-face explicit) but Welsh didn’t seem to be some sort of sadist who took a gruesome pleasure from creating brutal characters, but instead he struck me as a man who simply saw and accepted the world for what it was, in all its colours and glory. He suggested this himself when discussing his characters, explaining what he enjoyed about creating them was their absolute unpredictability. So demonstrating the benevolent qualities of his most grotesque characters by having them do something positive, or inversely having an inherently good character lower himself to get mixed up in some nasty business. Why? He didn’t explicitly say. But again, Welsh seems to have a desire to take in the whole spectrum of the human condition in his characters, to portray the complex nature of mankind and the real experiences of the working class man.

 

A Q&A followed, and continued in the relaxed tone set by Sampson. Lots of interesting questions were posed from the floor and the session was wrapped up by a former docker who thanked Welsh for giving coverage to and supporting the docker’s strikes in the late 1990s. A respectful round of applause sounded and Welsh went on to sign books for fans, with copies of his latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (released last Thursday 1st May) on sale from Liverpool booksellers News From Nowhere and Peter Hooton of The Farm took to the decks to fill the air with British nostalgia of the 80s and 90s. Welsh’s amicable personality never wavered and he appeared tireless in greeting fans with hearty handshakes, personalised signatures and posing for photographs. After fulfilling his duties, he unwound chatting to Hooton and co and enjoying the feel-good music which gave an apt ending to a great evening enjoyed by all. Including Mr Welsh himself, it seems…

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Thanks to all at Liverpool Writing on the Wall Festival for organising the event, to the staff at Oh Me Oh My, to Kevin Sampson and to Irvine Welsh for a superb evening!

The WoW festival continues throughout May, for more details click here. For a full brochure, click here.

Kevin Sampson’s latest novel, The Killing Pool, is on sale here.

Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is on sale here.

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Thanks for reading!