August 12, 2012


by Irvine Welsh
288 pages, Vintage

Review by Pat Black

You all know Trainspotting, the novel that launched a thousand careers. This is Irvine Welsh's follow-up, once again set in a Leith without sunshine… and somewhere else.

Marabou Stork Nightmares is Welsh’s first proper novel – Trainspotting and The Acid House being short story collections. It tells the story of Roy Strang, who shares many of the same interests as Trainspotting’s Renton - a resident of Edinburgh's housing schemes, a fan of Hibernian FC, and a highly intelligent working class man.

Roy spends most of this novel in a coma, having come to some unspecified grief. His confused and sometimes unreliable thoughts take us from recollections of his childhood, an examination of his life and where it went wrong, and then the weird element… his hallucinations, where he is hunting the feared giant Marabou Stork in South Africa, helped by the enigmatic Sandy Jamieson.

It is a caustic view of working class life in modern Scotland. Although Welsh's trademark black humour is present throughout, his treatment of family relationships and social groups is near-psychotic. Roy Strang's mother is well-meaning but thick, while his father is ignorant, uneducated and bombastic; one brother is a womaniser, the other gay and flamboyant with it, while the younger sister has a vast sexual appetite. Roy's chief reaction to them all is disgust. Even the family dog is a despised creature.

He's not without prospects, and indeed his father refers to him as "university material". But that description grates. There's something of a betrayal of his roots in going to university, you feel, an idea that he's going somewhere he doesn't quite belong. Perhaps there's an element of "choosing life" to that.

Instead, Roy chooses violence, dominance, to plunge headlong into the jungle of macho pecking orders.

Stylistically the book is interesting. Welsh, a big fan of messing around with typefaces in his early days, really indulges himself with the hallucination scenes. Sometimes it approaches concrete poetry, at others it’s wanky guff. As standard, the Edinburgh demotic is employed throughout. Neither should be seen as a hindrance to the reading experience, as Welsh at least takes the trouble to be original, and the speech patterns fall into a rhythm if you take the time to engage with them.

The tensions of life in a housing scheme were adroitly handled. There are stresses and anxieties even to simple matters like going to the shops, which some people will simply have no concept of. One section, where Strang is sent by his father to the chippie for a late-night snack, to run the gauntlet of every drunk in the vicinity who feels similarly peckish, sparked chilling memories for me.

After drifting into a job with the insurance company Scottish Spinsters - one of several clunking references in the book - Roy becomes a football hooligan, a "top boy" with the feared Capital City Service.

This is where I ran into some problems I have with Welsh's writing. Welsh seems to assume that being a football casual was a "way of life" for young men in the 1980s, cut out of the reckoning by Thatcherism. Looking for identity, without work or social structures to hold them in place. Later, Strang drifts into rave culture, finding happiness and belonging in the clubs thanks to ecstasy.

This notion has become quasi-mythological; the football violence-as-escape notion has been endlessly parroted, repeated almost verbatim on the internet and elsewhere. To read this, you would think every young white male in Scotland was getting himself into organised violence over football matches. While I don’t deny that there was – and is – hooliganism, I simply don’t believe it was anything like as widespread as it is portrayed to have been. It’s sub-cultural, much like dropping out and injecting heroin. It wasn’t so much a political reaction to Thatcherism as much as nihilism, drink, dominance.

This cultural bleed seems childishly egocentric. Certainly these things were part of the social fabric, but not in the way Welsh seems to think they were. A bit like a fondness for Iggy Pop, Welsh’s conceits have been propagated as mainstream concepts, but they’re not really reflective of Scottish society as a whole. They’re just reflective of the interests of Irvine Welsh.

Iggy Pop, in particular, has lots to thank Irvine Welsh for. The guy was reduced to molesting stuffed toys on Saturday morning kids’ TV in the UK in the mid-80s for a bit of attention; now you can see him doing his stuff at festivals (not to mention selling car insurance).

Welsh took heroin as a young man, but so far as I'm aware he's never been a football casual. There's one section where Roy goes into the home crowd at Celtic Park with a knuckle-duster and breaks one fan's jaw, which seems like pure wish fulfilment to me. Welsh is never slow to have a go at the “soapdodgers” on the west coast; I presume punching Glaswegian football fans is acceptable recompense for watching your team getting taken apart on a regular basis. What can I tell you? It must be frustrating being a Hibbee.

But that’s the Celtic fan in me talking. Appropriately, then, what I found to be more on-the-money is the reflection of a dark part of Scottish culture based on violence, male dominance, pride, bullying and control. This reaches its apotheosis in The Marabou Stork Nightmares with the ultimate expression of men taking what they want.

The book is laced with sexual violence, perversion and guilt. First of all, Roy is molested by an uncle during a disastrous move by the Strangs to start a new life in South Africa; then, there is a gang rape.

When it comes to sex, death and perversion, Welsh must be viewed as a descendant of William Burroughs - anything goes, here. But in the rape scene, I have to say that I wondered about Welsh's motivation.

Even when they're portrayed as strong and confident, women are viewed through a prism of disgust in some of Welsh's books. In Trainspotting, when Diane deals with the braying idiots in the restaurant, she uses her menses as a way of taking revenge – no doubt satisfying, but something the fools won’t be aware of as they slurp their soup. No lesson is learned.

Surely it would have been more cathartic if she had confronted the men in the restaurant, told them to stop behaving badly, or ordered them to leave? Instead we get a sideshow involving her blood and faecal matter. All of a sudden, Diane's effluent has become the focus of the story, and not a confrontation in a restaurant. Then there's Renton's encounter with his pregnant sister-in-law in the toilet at his brother's funeral, with her memorable "powerful ivy smell".

The men in Welsh's books disgust us, sure, but only the women can be disgusting.

The rape just goes on and on, depravity piling on depravity, as a good looking, confident woman who spurns the advances of the hooligans is trussed up and repeatedly violated. Arguably there's no subtle way to write about sexual violence, but this is where Marabou Stork Nightmares nearly came off the rails. The gang ends up in court for it, but the outcome is a surprise - something that simply would not have happened in real life. And then Welsh decides to hammer us with images from an advertising campaign which I remember from the early 90s, using a massive "Z" as a symbol - for Zero Tolerance of rape and domestic violence.

I can understand Roy Strang's guilt, but why does Welsh feel the need to clobber us with this image? Isn't the horror of what's happened to their victim enough?

As one interesting side note, Welsh has said that he receives less complaints about the rape scenes than he does for another episode where a dog gets killed.

The "Zero Tolerance" poster was one nod to the times in which Welsh was writing. The other comes from the mythical quest to hunt down the Stork, in the dream reality, with Sandy Jamieson.

If you thought Scottish Spinsters was a clumsy reference, Sandy Jamieson isn't much better. Sandy is a thinly-veiled fictionalisation of Jimmy Sandison, a former football player with Airdrieonians FC. In 1991 – when this book is set - Airdrie reached the Scottish League Cup semi-final, the same year that Hibs won the tournament.

Airdrie were a goal ahead of Dunfermline, with the match going into injury time. The ball came to Jimmy Sandison in the box, and he quite clearly chested it away. But the referee blew the whistle to award a penalty kick, thinking that Sandison handled. Dunfermline scored the penalty, going on to win the match. It was a big deal at the time, seen as a massive sporting injustice. It was curious to me that Welsh chose this player, and indeed that injustice, for one of the defining moments in this book.

Welsh tells us that - like Strang - some people simply have no chance in life. You can look forward to bad luck at any time, and in any circumstances. But without the right start, some people do not have a prayer. And even when they're close to a reward for their efforts – like Sandison - there's the referee, whistle poised, ready to take it all away.

This view was curiously at odds with another of the book's big conclusions, as the hunt for the stork reaches its weird climax in the dream world: sometimes, the enemy is within. You cannot blame anyone but yourself.

The converse of this is that the key to success, achievement and dragging yourself out of a bad situation lies solely with you, too.

That's Thatcherism. Which is odd. Because one thing Irvine Welsh is not is a Tory.


  1. Marabou Stork Nightmares sounds like a difficult but valuable read. It's hard to write a great dream/hallucination sequence and it's sometimes a challenge to read one. That said, free-floating prose can be inspiring. This review certainly makes me curious about the novel.
    Catherine Stine’s Idea City

  2. Hi Catherine - it's certainly tough going, particularly in terms of the content and some of the sex and violence, but a worthwhile read. The dream sequence is well handled; it comes off as a sort of Boy's Own adventure story, then it gets very grim. A lot of people say it's Welsh's best book, and I would recommend it to anyone, but it's harsh. If you're not familiar with Welsh's work, The Acid House collection is a good place to start.