From Socialist Review, No. 169, November 1993.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied with thanks from the Socialist Review Archive.
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There is a current within Scottish writing, theatre and art which portrays the Scottish working class (especially in Glasgow) as dignified and morally upstanding, firmly rooted in the tradition of John Maclean and Red Clydeside. In his debut novel, Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh blows this image apart.
Set in the late 1980s in Edinburgh, its characters are trying to make it through another recession. On the dole, with few prospects, they survive (just) on drink, drugs and stealing. The social problems portrayed here can be found on any rundown housing estate, but they are in sharp contrast to the Edinburgh the visitor sees: Edinburgh, the beautiful festival city or Edinburgh, the one time financial capital.
By the late 1980s, however, Edinburgh had acquired the rather more dubious honour of being the ‘Aids capital of Europe’. At one time it had the highest rate of HIV infection in Britain, with over 60 percent of new cases in Scotland coming from the Edinburgh area. In its decaying housing schemes the use of drugs, particularly heroin, was widespread. In the ‘shooting galleries’ that appeared young people shared their smack and their needles. Edinburgh still has an above average percentage of intravenous drug users who are HIV positive.
This is the background to the book’s setting. It shows the darker, disturbing side of life that can grow out poverty. No solidarity of dignified workers here. There are precious few jobs, people are simply doing what they have to do to get by.
Sounds depressing? To some extent, yes. The characters’ lives are often harrowing, but once you get to grips with the Edinburgh accent (which most of the book is written in) it can be really funny. It’s not the ‘laughing in the face of adversity’ image of the working class, but realistic episodes described in hilarious detail, such as a parents’ attempt to get their son off drugs by locking him up, feeding him mince (he’s a vegetarian) and taking him to the social club for a night of bingo.
Welsh makes no attempt to judge, pity or denounce the characters. He describes an existence, often with venom and in the hard, uncompromising language of the streets and pubs.
Trainspotting will make you laugh, it will make you sad, but above all it will make you angry. ‘Rents’, ‘Sickboy’ and ‘Spud’ are ‘Thatcher’s children’, the generation who left school in the 1980s who didn’t get jobs and were left to rot before they reached 20.
Just a few weeks ago numerous Tories stood up at conference and pinned the blame for Britain’s decline on single mothers, benefits fiddlers and young offenders. All appear in this novel. The only crime is poverty. Although Welsh may not offer any solution the conclusion is there: the blame lies with those same Tories who have created the poverty, unemployment and urban decay.
Last updated: 28 February 2017