by Irvine Welsh
546 pages, Jonathan Cape
Review by Pat Black
Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Pythagoras. Leonardo, Donatello, Michelangelo, Raffaele. Xavi, Iniesta, Busquets, Messi. Renton, Sick Boy, Begbie, Spud.
Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting boys are part of the furniture now - like a fag burn on the couch, or a toenail you find embedded Excalibur-style down the back when you’re trawling for change. The Edinburgh quartet returned – with mixed results – in Porno, back in 2006. Skagboys looks at the earlier years of Leith’s finest in a prequel, set in 1984/85.
We start with Mark Renton’s handwritten diaries, a record of when he stood alongside his father and striking miners during their pitched battle with the police at Orgreave. We’re still unknotting the state’s tentacles from around the throat of that industrial dispute today. The clash, representing Margaret Thatcher’s ultimate victory over the unions, serves to lay out the slippery slope down which Welsh’s assortment of misfits, wasters and scumbags must travel.
Aside from a policeman’s attempts to wedge a baton between Renton’s shoulder blades, he’s none the worse for his class war efforts as he returns to his summer job with a builder, before resuming his studies at Aberdeen University. There’s a girl up there that he likes, a fellow student from Newcastle. After an inter-railing holiday, they fall in love. Renton is a straight-A student, a driven young man with lots to prove. Things are looking up for our hero.
We know already that Renton throws it all away. This predestination lends Skagboys a sense of dread. You read these touchstone moments of a young man embarking on his first serious adult relationship almost through your fingers, knowing what lies ahead. Specifically, heroin.
Land of opportunity
The catalyst for Renton’s plunge into addiction is his disabled wee brother Davie’s death. But there’s already a sense of self-destruction about these working class boys, born out of a lack of choices and employment prospects as Mrs Thatcher’s free market war on the state and the heavy industries cranks up.
Renton’s the only one of the main characters with an arc, defined by heroin. We see his first contact with it, his growing addiction, and the way it squeezes everything of value out of his existence.
Spud, the one everyone likes, doesn’t get long in the spotlight, although his bleak experiences on the gear are more heart-rending than Renton’s. Begbie is already a well-established thug, and gets incrementally worse. Similarly, Sick Boy is just as cocksure and oversexed as his later incarnation. We see him embark on his charming entrepreneurial strategy of seducing young girls, getting them hooked on smack and then pimping them out. This leads to an almost unspeakably malicious encounter between a teenager and the man who killed her father.
In many ways, Sick Boy’s sociopathy is worse than Begbie’s psychosis. At least Begbie has animal instinct as an excuse. Sick Boy, the arch-schemer and manipulator, has everything planned out. Our Simon is definitely a thinker, if not quite a philosopher.
Renton’s journey from lad o’ pairts to junkie aside, we follow a pungent saga where Begbie impregnates a local girl, only to be threatened with vengeance by her brothers. They are made to regret this. In any aggregate of toxic masculinity, dear Franco is always going to come out on top.
I wouldn’t say Begbie inhabits a cycle of violence; that implies some sort of change in how he behaves, plotted points where he makes a turn, deviations. Begbie doesn’t have that subtlety. He’s a hurricane which can never be downgraded, destroying everything wherever he goes. Even a stretch in prison comes across as a slightly irritating but not insurmountable obstacle – another environment for Begbie to thrive in.
Away from the principals, Tommy’s story was the most troubling, because we know how it ends. This gives the handsome, morally upright athlete a tragic air, as he’s the only person in the book whom you would call heroic. He helps out his mates in a tight spot, and is more than capable of meeting violence with violence. We find out that he bested the seemingly unstoppable Begbie in the boxing ring - “a lesson in sweet science” for the street-fighting sluggard. Begbie even respects this; we suspect that in a square go, Tommy might be too strong and too brave for even that monster. He has a conscience, knowing that Begbie’s lust for urban warfare is fundamentally wrong. Tommy helps the weak, and provides comfort to those who need it. You can see he was raised well.
When Renton’s love life dies horribly, Tommy embarks on one of his own with Liz, an art student. He falls in love for the first time, a 22-year-old with a chance to get out of a bad situation. Salvation, Tommy realises, doesn’t mean moving anywhere. He just has to “step into a parallel dimension” and meet someone nice.
His heroism is underlined when other characters mention his likeness to Harrison Ford, as Tommy and Liz go to see Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Tommy’s fate in Trainspotting is a bitter finale to all this promise.
Violence, nihilism, cruelty and disgust come fitted as standard in Skagboys. Some episodes could happily slither into Trainspotting’s septic tank of horrors and barely cause a ripple. Wee Davie’s infatuation with the raven-haired, dark-eyed BBC newsreader Mary Marquis messed with my own childhood memories of TV news bulletins, just for a start… and then we find out how the poor lad gained release from his sexual torment.
One character’s rescue of a puppy in a filthy tower block basement after it is shoved down a rubbish chute, only to discover the foetus of his aborted child in its jaws, was literally a new level of depravity. There’s also a workplace “competition” among Renton’s happy band of labourers which I can’t see being copied any time soon by giggling office workers in social media videos.
You know this type of thing will happen in an Irvine Welsh book, though. For me, the erosion or perversion of a sense of family and the literal destruction of children – both recurring themes in Welsh’s work – were more disturbing than the urban myth-toned set pieces. His fathers are treacherous, unreliable, feckless or simply brutal; mothers are stupid, out-of-touch and befuddled, for all their warmth. Siblings spin off in their own directions, often in sharp opposition to the main characters, causing nasty collisions when they revolve back towards each other.
In a wider sense of fraternity, circles of friends become toxic. Tommy realises the only answer is to escape from it all, and build something else. This parallels Renton’s final treachery in Trainspotting. What a pity he can’t quite go through with it.
One thing has remained consistent in Welsh’s writing, and that’s the contempt he has for “straight pegs”. The ones holding down jobs, and not addicted to drink, drugs or violence. This attitude towards - let’s be honest - most of Welsh’s readership is most apparent in the “high seas” section. Here, Renton, Sick Boy and their London connection Nicksy get jobs with Sealink as a means of smuggling heroin from mainland Europe to the UK. We are presented with an officious middle manager with a cream shirt, spectacles and a clipboard. He appears to be gay, as well. A full house, you might say, in the eyes of Welsh’s 1980s Leith progressives.
I thought: “This guy is going to get smacked within two chapters, tops, and we’re supposed to enjoy it.” And so it proved.
Cream Shirt is a stock type, akin to Walter the Softy in Dennis the Menace; a walking excuse for a sore face. He has the full kit. There are lots of people like this in Welsh’s fiction - boring jobsworths and fond of rulebooks, to be sure, but basically harmless. Welsh snaffles these characters up like a shark meandering through a sh*t-slick seeping out the back of a ferry. The guy might well be inspired by a real-life figure, but he comes across as cartoonish. Renton and Sick Boy, clearly more talented and charismatic than Cream Shirt, snicker and sneer at his ilk as they buccaneer their way through picaresque adventures, streetwise hustlers in a world of grey drones. They’re always one step ahead of this stage of the Thatcherite game – though as Welsh craftily points out, lurking just two moves ahead on the board lies the McJobs generation.
Welsh had a surer hand at the helm nearly 25 years ago, when he showed the Leith gang for the small-timers they really were as they tried to sort out a drug deal in London. They get ripped off by the big dogs, but never know it. It’s strange that Skagboys’ earlier iteration of Renton and Sick Boy cotton on quickly that they are being exploited – capitalism’s long arm reaches every area of society, Welsh reminds us - and yet they’re so easily conned a couple of years later.
To be fair, although Welsh’s heroes fling out disgust, disillusionment or sarcasm for breakfast, by lunchtime it has usually boomeranged back. This is the prism of disgust through which everything is visualised. Welsh surely knows that in the rat race it’s the Cream Shirts and Clipboards who end up sitting pretty, or at least doing alright, not the Rentons and Sick Boys. Perhaps the author is simply venting against dull, austere authority and petty rule-making. Fair enough. I’ll drink to that.
Welsh is better with personal confrontations, particularly those involving the short-fused, yet spine-chillingly canny Begbie. He’s from the stone age, assaulting friend and foe alike as a means of keeping tight control of his territory. We also see him take his first steps in the world of organised crime. Begbie’s eagerness to impress leads to a clash with a family member which he resolves with what must seem like perfect logic to someone who is absolutely, certifiably off their nut.
How beautifully Welsh sketches his monster. That chilling plunge in temperature when someone says something Begbie doesn’t agree with; the million and one ways you can offend him; the hair-trigger outbursts and burst mouths; the palpable fear and loathing among supposed friends, conditioned to dread his approach, his very voice.
I especially liked the way Begbie’s highly-strung antennae twitch at the merest hint that some of his friends are doing something without his consent, such as spending a day in bed with a girlfriend as opposed to joining an organised brawl between football casuals. Begbie’s cousin lives in the flat below Tommy’s girlfriend, and so, armed with the knowledge of where his mate might be hiding out, he stomps over to drag Tommy out of bed. “There’s nothing going on in Leith I don’t know about,” Begbie says, to the astonished Tommy.
Generalissimo Franco also gets one of the most poignant moments, when he reveals his beautiful singing voice at a New Year party. After he is praised for his performance (the song is never identified, though someone says it’s Rod Stewart), Begbie, of course, Takes It The Wrong Way. “It’s just f*ckin’ singin’,” he snarls.
I saw this as an inversion of that glorious part in Porno, when Spud helps a girl tidy her house. (“Come on! Let’s just get intae it! We can dae this!”) It said so much about the character, without resorting to showering us with muck.
Welsh isn’t quite so good when the action moves out of the tenements and crappy pubs, into the world of middle class people, offices, suits, wine bars, tawdry affairs and quick paddles in dangerous waters. The sub-plot involving one of the female characters, her boss and a scam his brother’s got going with some bikers was vital to the historical context, but not to the novel. It’s curious that even though Irvine Welsh has enjoyed a successful career and presumably doesn’t live anywhere near a tenement flat, it’s his depictions of working class strata which he is at least 25 years removed from that are the most convincing and compelling parts of his work.
Cultural capital of Europe
Heroin forms a prolific double act with HIV, which went on to claim dozens of lives in a spate of cases in the 1980s and 90s linked to shared needles which saw Edinburgh branded the “Aids capital of Europe”. Its growing effect on the main characters is fully chronicled by Welsh, who intrudes on the narrative at key points to give us an overview.
By far the best set-piece is Renton’s Moment of Crisis. Badly needing to fix, Renton and a couple of jangly friends decide on a whim to rob a newsagent’s of a collection for a cat charity. The ensuing farce involves a junkie jailbreak from a parental balcony, a woman playing host to baby budgies in her bra and a desperate attempt to break open the charity box from the fourth floor of a block of flats, while chittering schoolchildren lie in wait below. It was my favourite part of Skagboys, and it recalled Trainspotting’s best qualities. No matter how grim the scenario, and perhaps even despite yourself, you laugh.
From there, at the invitation of Her Majesty’s Constabulary, Renton has a stretch in a pioneering rehab facility. The isolated setting features some mystery guest stars from Leith, and the stint begins to resemble some sort of internal war between discrete shards of Renton’s psyche. His handwriting reappears, if not quite his soul. With the junk gone, cracks begin to appear in Renton’s foundations. Mates, getting wasted, burds, fitba; if that all goes, what else is there?
Anyone expecting some sort of redemption for our favourite Alex McLeish lookalike shouldn’t hold their breath, though. There’s some deft probing by the counsellors and fellow “guests” at rehab, but Renton either doesn’t remember what it was like to have a good life, or dismisses the idea completely. W*nking and passive-aggressive contempt fills his days, with the odd foray into weightlifting alongside the foreboding bulk of Seeker, the biker and drugs kingpin. Only when he writes, page after page in his diary, does something purer, less wasteful, quicken in his blood. Once Renton’s out the door, and has negotiated a surprise party thrown to celebrate his mockery of a graduation, he’s back on the gear within hours.
Renton has made his choice, and doesn’t care what others think about it. This looks awfully like freedom, but not as we know it.
The book finally shudders to a halt opposite Trainspotting’s platform. Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and a couple of other cellar dwellers attempt a ludicrous heist at the motherlode, a pharmaceutical complex on the outskirts of Edinburgh next to a railway line, from which the initial flood of pure, uncut white heroin once gushed. The fact that the jangly Renton puts his big old brain into gear to formulate his laughable plan, and the rest of them all buy into it so readily, shows the corrosive effect of the drug on even the sharpest minds. Their whole lives, all their efforts, are sacrificed for the sake of one thing: scoring. Everything else is just a pointless habit. Like trainspotting.
Acceptable in the eighties
It’s never nice to think of our lives as minuscule, often insignificant parts in a larger historical narrative. Welsh is on the same page as Tolstoy in this respect. Skagboys is an examination of a blighted part of modern Scottish history, tying together the toxic threads of Thatcherism and concomitant mass unemployment, the ready availability of heroin and the spread of HIV. It is an indictment of the age and its masters. I’m from a Scottish town which gurgled down a plughole during the 1980s, and it still strikes me as astonishing that there are lots of people out there for whom that decade was a non-stop success story, who might have only the dimmest concept of the social and cultural trauma that was inflicted, quite deliberately, on working communities in Scotland, the North East of England, Wales and elsewhere (to say nothing of Northern Ireland). It was a neat move by Welsh to relocate part of the story from Edinburgh to London, with this effect undiminished, against my expectations. There are no yuppies, wine bars or Loadsamoney moments here; just simulacrums of Leith’s sh*tholes, but on a bigger scale.
But you could wring your hands over societal injustice all you like. They’ve no excuses. Renton’s a pr*ck. Sick Boy’s a pr*ck. Spud deserves better friends. Begbie should be put down.
It took me a horribly long time to read this book. It’s a strong meal, even sampled in small bites. Sweet moments are few and far between; you could have said the same of Trainspotting in this regard, but this prequel is ponderous in comparison, even as it ships filth and fury by the bucketload. Trainspotting, for a novel which had heroin use front and centre, was ironically more like a dab of speed in a carpeted nightclub. In comparison, Skagboys, despite its depiction of men just out of their teens - all piss, balls and gristle - comes across as more of a comedown after a few days away; that point when you just want to get away from your mates and the weekend at large and find blissful unconsciousness in your own bed.
Skagboys is stripped of the glee – my blasphemous soul wants to call it “the joy” – that characterised Trainspotting, that celebration of casual malevolence and grubby debauchery which makes it so beloved of teenagers desperate to be known, and to be in the know. It was similar to Porno in that regard, but it doesn’t drag quite so much.
Skagboys was clearly written by a much older man, a guy in his fifties a long way from the streets he illustrates so memorably. There’s analysis being offered here, but I would stop short of calling it “cool”. Welsh’s wrath at a squandered generation and the appalling forces that converged on it may be buried beneath a growing eloquence in his prose, but it’s there, all right.
What of modern Scotland? I’d like to read Welsh’s views on the rise of the SNP, the disconnection between Labour and its heartlands, and a new Tory government at Westminster which threatens to make Thatcher look almost benign, the same way George W Bush did for Richard Nixon. I want to see the Trainspotting boys in middle age, grappling with the modern world as it bypasses them in favour of a new cast of disenfranchised youngsters – no longer the poster boys for a generation, but old, and worse still, irrelevant.
Please don’t film it, though. And certainly, don’t film Porno. We all know deep down that Trainspotting’s lightning can’t strike twice.