At home in a strange town
As IRVINE WELSH says, you don’t need to go to Amsterdam for drugs and prostitution — you can ﬁnd that in Leith any day of the week. So with his third book published this month, Eddie Gibb asks. why is Welsh hiding out in Holland?
rvine Welsh is at the bar ordering. in Dutch
mind you. one of those frisky Continental
beers that we call lager. with a head that
occupies half the glass. He’s dressed
sporty/casual (though that’s a dicey word to bandy around. as we’ll discover later): Nike cap. Sprayway fleece. jeans. Docs (ox-blood. well polished). Welsh looks much like any other urban thirtysomething punter who's stopped off for a swift half on the way to fetch the Sunday papers.
We’re in Amsterdam‘s Brouwersgracht. the former brewery district. which is rapidly being gentrified with chi—chi warehouse conversions. ‘I live in that block over there.’ he says. pointing across the canal. ‘It’s all graphic designers and lecturers.’ And successful writers.
So it‘s come to this. The chronicler of Edinburgh’s schemie underclass has trousered the cash from another two-book deal with his publisher and started mingling with Dutch yuppies. Er. not quite. It’s Sunday lunchtime in his local cafe-bar right enough. but Welsh hasn’t actually been to bed yet. He knows a guy from London who runs a rave bus to Amsterdam every fortnight. and Welsh has been out for an all—nighter of house and hedonism. Phew. thought we‘d lost you there for a minute. It would have been too horrible to find Welsh smiling beatifically through a cloud of
marijuana smoke. Thankfully he’s still the same amphetamine-head who fought in the punk wars of the late 70s.
10 The List 7-20 Apr 1995
It‘s barely two years since the publication of 'I’minspotting. a loosely structured novel that will surely come to be regarded as a landmark of Lwtark proportions in Scottish literature. After writing a book he thought would never be published. Welsh suddenly found himselfcast as a spokesman fora generation; a voice for young clubbers whose devotion to recreational drugs left their parents as baffled as they were alarmed. Welsh was the first writer in Britain to articulate the idea that raving was a cultural activity. not an act of self-abuse.
Since then. Welsh has published a mixed bag of short stories. The /\(.'f(//’l()ll.8‘(’ which found the author trying out a series of new voices with varying degrees of success. The best hits were set in Edinburgh’s bars. clubs and housing estates. but it was an decisive step away from the documentary style of Trains/wrung. In the story The Acid House. Coco Bryce cuts loose on a two-tab bender and wakes up to find himself hurtling down a birthing canal after trading places with a full-term foetus. This bizarre image was an early sign that Welsh had a far more vivid imagination than the ‘social realist’ tag gave him credit for.
‘If you’re writing a book about working class experiences. you're playing away from home.’ he says. ‘lt’s a middle class medium and you have to recognise that. They never give us the ability to create plots and drama as they do. which is nonsense. What I write isn't reportage — it’s fiction. but it’s fiction from another culture.
‘lt’s horrendous. but I think it took something like HIV and AIDS in the schemes to give writers like me any kind of legitimacy at all. In a sense it maybe gave me a way in to write about Edinburgh.‘
With his third book Mara/mu Stork Nightmares. published this month. Welsh has written his first proper novel (if you’ll pardon the imposition of such middle class literary terminology). It‘s an ambitious book. which exploits multiple narratives and flashback. uses a variety of typefaces to denote different characters. and generally mucks about with story-telling conventions. There is a proper story. however. with a beginning. middle and end. though not necessarily in that order. But to get all lit-crit about it. this book also has major themes: revenge. morality. mental anguish and. wait for it. redemption.
The set-up is this: Roy Strang is lying in hospital in a deep coma for reasons which cannot be revealed without giving the story away. As he drifts through different levels of consciousness. he looks back on his life as a wee boy in South Africa. as an awkward adolescent after his family returns to Muirhouse. and finally as a hardened Hibs casual — a self-styled ‘top boy’. Despite his six ‘0’ Grades. Roy Strang turns into a very screwed-up young man and he owes it all to his crazy family. The South African connection enables Welsh to liken Edinburgh’s social separation between the Festival City and the housing schemes to apartheid.