fir-3: "as. at was once a potent symbol for the disenfranchised. As Glue seeps into the nation’s psyche, is he now just a tool of the mainstream conservatism his early books fought against? Words: Bldlsha Photograph: Rankin
lthough he’d deny it, Irvine Welsh changed the face of literary politics. When his debut Trainspotting appeared in 1994 it became an international best-seller, not only for its youth culture signiﬁers and hammer horror episodes but because of its market-creating invention of a proletarian ﬁction genre: stories about the people, by one of the people.
It’s a surprise, then, to meet him amidst the bourgeois Georgian splendour of Islington, home to most of New Labour and Britain’s entire population of web designers, style journalists and higher—tax-bracket novelists. The other surprise is that he’s pretty old, a weather-beaten 43. It throws the thematic run of post-debut hits — The Acid House in 1994, Ecstasy in 1996 and Filth in 1999, excluding his best work, 1995’s Marabou Stork Nightmares — into a new light. The emotionally-hardened yet camp milieu of the characters in those works seem as far away from the truth of Welsh’s current life as prosciutto (an Islington café staple) is from Spam.
Even in his own telling, Welsh’s experience of the halcyon days of pill-popping was experienced through his own entrepreneurialism. ‘I’d had trouble with heroin and alcohol in the early 805 so I was quite-anti drugs and so when ecstasy came along I was stand-ofﬁsh for a while,’ he recalls. ‘Writing was a way of deconstructing what I was doing. You know that time when you’ve been clubbin’ all night and your head’s still buzzing? That’s when I started really bangin’ it out. I didn’t know there was an underground scene until I started showing bits of Trainspotting around, and doing readings in clubs.’ He looks nostalgic: ‘Ten years ago, you felt you were doing something different, new and subversive. Now, going to a club is like going to the bingo.’
However, he will be the ﬁrst to admit that his schemie upbringing did not necessarily equip him for life as a literary player. ‘I didn’t come from a bookish family or a background where people did that kind of thing. It was gradual. I realised that we had punk fanzines and football fanzines made by people who had the same background so it became more accessible. I found English writers cold. If you look at the major English writers, they come from very different backgrounds from the major Scottish writers. Why that should be, I don’t know.’
This is the next surprise about Welsh: he is political, and not just in the knee-jerk manner of an armchair renegade. Although he eschews party politics, nearly every answer betrays his disgust at English cultural imperialism and Western global capitalism. ‘I haven’t voted in elections for ages because there’s nothing to vote for. There’s nothing that
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can nourish or engage rebellion. It’s just a matter of aesthetics now.’
Welsh himself comes out on the wrong side of conservative literary values, with his use of so-called ‘regional’ dialect and his media elevation to the status of Scotland’s — but not Britain’s — leading writer, the assumption being that his narky, extreme scenes are the fitting form for what England sees as a narky, extreme country. ‘Literature in England is one of the remaining bastions of imperialism.’
Paradoxically, the morality in Welsh’s recent work can be just as conservative as the people he denigrates. The 1998 play You ’11 Have Had Your Hole and the last novel, Filth, presented such obvious images of sexual, racial and civic malice — uncomplicated by ambiguity - that they functioned as unsophisticated and morally undemanding one-trick set- pieces for an already-converted audience.
The new novel, Glue, is easier on itself. Charting the lives of four childhood friends brought up in the Edinburgh schemes, it is wide in scale and ambition. Plotting the protagonists’ experiences in tandem with the cultural changes of the 70s, 80s and 905, Welsh has attempted to construct a deﬁnitive saga for his own generation. If you disregard the gratuitous made-for—
" " v‘ 1w. ._- film dog-torturing and street ﬁghting
scenes, Welsh’s real power lies in his dialogue. It is here that true pathos rises to the surface, bringing a subtler political edge to the work in the same way that Thomas Hardy’s bemused Sussex yokels and Dickens’ poorhouse gossips did. Sadly, Glue is wide but not deep; it is an inflated short story. The message — that childhood friendship can create ties of hatred as well as love, that last well into adulthood - is not psychologically profound enough to sustain 500 pages of action. These quibbles will not stop Glue from selling the requisite half-million copies that Welsh is accustomed to. Its publication accompanies Welsh’s own realisation that he has probably found his vocation.
‘This is the longest I’ve ever stuck anything out for, otherwise I’d probably be a cynical, bitter old drunk working for the council. I mean, I’ve accepted that I’m never going to play for Hibs.’ Yet as Welsh’s career expands into screenwriting (for The Acid House and a mysterious new screenplay) and the theatre, surely he must be feeling the appeal of his clubbing cronies waning slightly? ‘I think this book is finally getting away from the shadow of Trainspotting. It felt like I was ﬁnally drawing a line under things.’ Let’s hope so.
Glue is published on Thu 3 May by Jonathan Cape priced £12; see review, next issue. lrvine Welsh will be reading at Borders, Glasgow, Wed 16 May; Waterstone’s, Edinburgh, Thu 17 May.