Trainspotting was always going to be a tough act to follow for Irvine Welsh.
The Scottish author’s 1993 novel seared itself into the psyche of a generation – the hit film that followed, with its roll call of then-rising stars of British film and TV, sealed the book’s position as one of the most influential of its decade.
So it was inevitable that the newly published prequel, Skagboys, was going to get a mixed reception. One or two critics have given it the sort of kicking that Welsh’s psychopath-in-chief Franco Begbie would have been proud of, claiming the writer is a one-trick pony and that this is ‘merely more of the same’.
But they’re missing the point. Of course it has a similar feel to Trainspotting. It’s got the same characters. It’s set in the same city. It’s got the same DNA. That’s kind of the point of a prequel. And Welsh was never going to write a Home Counties rom com, was he.
Truth is, this 548-page sledgehammer of a hardback is every bit as blackly funny and grimly touching as the work that first propelled Welsh to fame.
Set in the 1980s, Skagboys gives us the earlier incarnations of the drug-fuelled characters we came to know and love (and fear and hate) in Trainspotting.
There’s Sick Boy, fast developing into a fully-fledged sex addict; Begbie, already always on lookout for someone to chib; and Spud, already a hapless, helpless, too-thin-skinned-for-his-own-good victim of life.
Welsh was never going to write a Home Counties rom com, was he?
And at its heart is Mark Renton (played by Ewan McGregor in the movie). We follow this variously likeable and loathsome protagonist from a young man with his father on a picket line during the Miners’ Strike, to a brief stint at Uni and then back to Edinburgh for a life of crime, an escalating drug habit and a spell in rehab.
Fans of Welsh’s trademark grimness and weirdness won’t be disappointed. An aborted foetus gets chewed by a dog; Renton helps his disabled younger brother (who later dies) to find sexual pleasure; there’s violence so graphic it’ll make you nervous next time you go in a pub.
Such scenes are, however, interspaced with moments of tenderness. Begbie’s beautiful singing voice. The melancholy heartbreak an old photo can engender. Two junkies vowing to always stand by each other.
Throughout, Renton remains an enigma, fluctuating between self-serving and self-loathing as he relentlessly pursues his next fix. His problem is that he’s caught in no-man’s land. As he puts it: “Too fuckin poncy tae be a proper Leith gadgie n too fuckin schemie tae be an arty student type. My whole life is betwixt and between.”
Renton’s self-centred and selfish, yet capable of moments of sensitivity and self-regret. He’s quick to quote philosophers, but struggles with his own motivations, so anyone looking for a simple, ‘logical’ explanation as to why people use heroin will be disappointed. In his case, it seems largely a result of his anti-bourgeois stance and his fatalistic sense of destiny; in others, the suggestion is that it’s the product of unemployment in Thatcher’s Britain.
“If being Scottish is about one thing, it’s aboot gittin fucked up...” he muses. “If it wisnae skag it would’ve been something else.”
A generation of users in Scotland’s capital city were, he decides, “ordinary boys who’ve drugged themselves intae nothingness tae avoid the shame ay daein nothing. Boredom has driven them crazy, drug crazy...”
But that there are no simple explanations is precisely the point that Welsh is making. People aren’t always logical and understandable. They’re certainly not always articulate. Often they do things – as Renton does when he sleeps with his girlfriend’s friend – just because they can.
It’s easy to conclude that there’s some autobiography in here, too. Hard to imagine, for example, that the scenes about writing don’t echo Welsh own experiences as a fledgling author as he attempted to make sense of the world.
“But with this pen and blank notepad, just looking outside, I’ve never felt so focused or alive,” Renton says at one point. “Writing freestyle subjective stuff in ma journal makes me feel I’m getting closer tae some sort of veracity. By writing, you can use your own experience but detach it from yourself. You nail certain truths. You make up others. The incidents you invents clarify and explain as much as, sometimes more than, the ones that actually occurred."
Perhaps Welsh’s own frustrations at the limitations of art also bubble to the surface. “Real life wasn’t reducible to the written word,” Renton observes elsewhere.
One thing Welsh’s latest set of words inevitably will do is reignite the debate about whether books like this glamourise drug use. But there’s not much glamour here. Just a lot of broken, sordid lives – portrayed in a way that hints at how things might have been.
Welsh’s particular skill is to create characters that are so damn believable that, regardless of what you think of them, you can’t help but be interested in them. Characters so real, frankly, that reading about them is addictive.
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