I WAS BACK IN Baltimore to look up some old friends. We were sitting in a bar and The Rafeman told me he’d just seen the recently released Trainspotting movie. He commented that he’d no idea that Scotland was so crazy and junked up. He was impressed.
When I first met Rafael Alvarez eight years earlier at the Baltimore Sun he showed me the docks area where his dad worked as a tugboat engineer. We drank National Bohemian beer and met under the JFX flyover to pick up our Bo Boys basketball team in his old green Ford Thunderbird. After the games we drank and smoked down at a rusted railhead in an abandoned area of the Inner Harbor. Rafe talked about his heroes Elvis and Johnny Unitas, legendary quarterback of the former Baltimore Colts, the football team that packed up overnight and moved to Indianapolis. I was taught some survival Baltimorese: “What’s shakin, hon?” “Nuttin. What’s goin down wich y’own bad self?” I also saw The Rafeman the night he got busted for possession. A Baltimore Police Department car appeared up a track at the railhead with its lights flashing. Two uniformed officers had The Rafeman with his hands spread on the roof.
“Aw, not Central, man,” he pleaded as the arresting officer booked him. “They have criminals in there”. A few days later a smart lawyer got the charges dropped on the technicality that his rights had not been fully incanted and The Rafeman saved his job as a city desk reporter on the Sun.
At that time I only made a vague connection between The Rafeman’s phantom docklands and those from my boyhood in the derelict yards of Granton Harbour in the 1960s, where the smells of rotting timber and wet coal mixed with sewage, rancid beach and dogshit. Now Baltimore had its smart Harborfront commercial development replacing the old warehouses, and Granton was getting its marina on a yuppie tide spreading along the shore from Leith. The Rafeman’s East Baltimore and my East Pilton area of Granton remained stranded above the economic and social watermark. Not that the version of Trainspotting that The Rafeman had just seen in Danny Boyle’s jaunty film reflected anything of this.
“Fuck the movie,” I responded. “It’s Whisky Galore! on heroin with an Iggy Pop soundtrack. If you want the real voice, read the novel. It tells you what it’s really like to be a Hibbie”.
Book reviewers are often as guilty as sports writers or crime reporters of overusing a word like ‘shock’, but I did experience something close to that sensation when I first read Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting in 1993. This wasn’t a response to the subject of drugs, the violence, the expletives or the despair. None of these elements was new in Scottish fiction, and Peter McDougall had already applied all of them to the housing schemes of Edinburgh, then known as AIDS Capital of Europe, in his under-rated 1986 television play Shooting For The Sun. But the novel carried what a variant cliché calls the shock of recognition.
I didn’t know when his first novel was published that Welsh was brought up in Muirhouse and that he was almost of the same generation as me, growing up a mile away and getting his first hit from gluing an Airfix plane kit. Like the characters in the novel, my mates either went to Ainslie Park or St Augustine secondary schools. We were split on football loyalties, but like Rents, Si, Spud and Begbie in the novel, I was a Hibbie, and here was a novel that didn’t just mention the club and its Easter Road ground, but referenced the same Hibernian players I supported over several decades – Paddy Stanton, ‘Juke Box’ Durie and Paul Kane. Like all the best Hibs players since the 1960s, they moved on to bigger clubs, to ‘better themselves’ as the footballer’s phrase always has it, and perhaps this anticipates Mark Renton’s escape to Amsterdam in the final pages of the novel. One of the voices in the novel says grimly that he’s not going back to watch Hibs until they get rid of the manager Alex Miller, who was ten years in the job until 1996, and who therefore represents a malaise that will never be improved during the period covered by the novel.
Some literary critics have tried to pin down the novel’s timeframe from close textual analysis, but they miss at least one date that can be established from a Hibs semi-final appearance at Hampden on April 16, 1989. This is the game, a quarter of the way into the novel, that Davie Mitchell can’t remember because of the state he has got himself into beforehand on space cake, acid, dope and vodka. His mortified recollection focuses on the aftermath when he wakes up in a bed he has soiled at the parental home of Gail Houston.
What Davie doesn’t tell the reader in his brief narrative is that his amnesia may also be related to the game itself. “We’ve no chance,” he anticipates. He is proved right. Hibs were 3-0 down to Celtic within the first 28 minutes. It was a black day for football, the day after the Hillsborough disaster, and I only went because I’d already got my ticket, but I don’t care to remember much about it either. In over 40 years of following the team it is the only game I ever left before half-time. A central theme in the novel is that sharing is strictly restricted to needles, but there is a sub-text for long-suffering Hibernian readers who identify with Davie’s hurt and shame, and his excremental hangover might serve as our collective metaphor.
Mark Renton uses a splattered bluebottle to write Hibs on a toilet and speculates that his personal drug problems are directly related to the dismal record of the team in the 1980s. Hibernian gives a whole different root to all the F-ing and C-ing in Welsh’s work. The only anachronism is that the 1989 semi-final is played on a Saturday in the novel. It was actually a Sunday game. Possibly, Welsh bent the detail because of his fondness for ironic section titles and ‘Traditional Sunday Breakfast’ was too good to pass. Football is central to the wordplay on “kicking” in the novel: kicking the ball, kicking the habit, kicking heads, alive and kicking. Hibernian is Davie Mitchell’s team that couldn’t shoot straight.
So Easter Road is a vein in an anatomy of the city which uses topography as a metaphor for damage to the body politic. Mark Renton’s flat is in the adjoining Montgomery Street, leading to Leith Walk, became a natural starting point for Trainspotting coach tours which doubtless also took in Mikey Forrester’s maisonette in Muirhouse, Johnny Swan’s gaff in Toll-cross, the view of the gasworks that Monny’s aunt is allocated with her hotline council house in West Granton, the number 10 bus down to Western Harbour via the fit o’ the Walk and, as a climax, the opportunity to take the plunge at Leith Water-world swimming pool, built on the former site of Leith Central Railway Station.
This doesn’t exactly rival a Bloomsday celebration of Joyce’s Dublin, but it is certainly a ‘beyond the fringe’ experience which travels further into the interior than Edinburgh’s traditional literary landmarks of the Scott Monument, Stevenson’s house in Heriot Row and the Conan Doyle statue at Picardy Place. Begbie might have been thinking of previous novelists who used Edinburgh settings when he expresses contempt for tourists who know nothing of the city beyond the castle, Princes Street and the High Street. When Muriel Spark changes scene from Morningside or the Grassmarket in The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie she takes the reader on a genteel excursion to Cramond, and certainly not by the scenic route via Muirhouse. Scott placed Jeanie Deans in Liberton in The Heart of Midlothian, but during the period of his novel’s setting, leprous Liberton was an outlying village. Vladimir Nabokov argued that The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll And Mr Hyde could only be properly understood if the novel’s London setting was transposed to the Edinburgh New Town, but this is the closest Stevenson got in fiction to revealing his intimacy with the “swinging gait of harlots” in the seamy sides of the city.
For all his representation of himself as a non-literary writer, Welsh is a direct descendent of several generations of Edin-burgh poets who followed Allan Ramsay in versifying the street language of the city. This is no accident, since Welsh has suggested that he initially hears the voices and strong rhythms of his stories as song lyrics. He is closest to the Robert Fergusson of ‘Auld Reekie’, where the lawyers spend their pence in Newhaven, Leith and Canonmills to “stock their heids wi drink and sense”, and ‘Leith Races’, where the tinker billies clink their siller to go “daffin and drinkin” down Leith Walk. Two centuries later, Sydney Goodsir Smith started a crawl at a pub at the top end of Walk on Leith Street to get the first line of one of the poems in Under The Eildon Tree: “I met her in the Black Bull”. The tavern still looks down on the Calton Road location of one of the opening shots in the Trainspotting film. There seems more than just a geographical link between Smith’s meth drinkers and Welsh’s heroin-addicted schemies. Norman MacCaig used to tell a story of a hungover Smith staggering blindly into his local bank branch and slumping over the big wooden counter before trying to order a pint of Bass. This dislocation illustrates the same kind of comic dissipation that could easily have found its way into one of the stories of Welsh’s The Acid House.
My dad was a Shetlander and East Pilton was the closest he could get in Edinburgh to a house near the sea. He used to drag me out on Sundays to keep him company for a trudge along the Granton Harbour breakwater. We would look down on oil-slicked pools in which pale condoms floated like jellyfish. When I became a gangling 15-year-old he introduced a new incentive by adding the Old Chain Pier bar in Newhaven to our route. The publican was the eccentric Betty Moss who wore bamboo-framed glasses and kept a cutlass behind the bar for dealing with intransigents. Among the mementoes in that establishment, like a seaman’s bordello covering as a den of curios, were shrunken heads in the gantry, seaside postcards and magazine photos of naked women stuck to walls with yellowing sellotape. I had to duck past Betty and head straight out to a rickety balcony that overlooked the Firth before my dad eventually brought me my pint and tapped me for an Embassy cigarette. We would light up and listen to Betty yelling above the banter in the bar.
It is strange that I completely forgot the sheer idiosyncrasy of speech, inflection, vocabulary and register in that part of Edinburgh until it all came back in a rush when I began reading Trainspotting. My parents moved away from Granton when I left school and my next two decades were spent living in Stirling, Fife, Dundee, Aberdeen and Glasgow, apart from a few years when I returned to the city to live in a New Town flat. I only later met mates from my boyhood on two separate occasions. One had become a market gardener and the other had joined the police. Sickboy transit gloria mundi.
“In this city we know nothing of our real identity,” says the narrator in one of Welsh’s more recent novels, The Bedroom Secrets of Master Chefs. I realised that I had submerged and abandoned the language I had grown up with. I had forgotten that when you need to do something quickly you nash. Or that you take a deek at the clock to check the time. That it’s barry when things are going well. I’m ashamed to confess that I not only knew that a radge was a person of unpredictable, violent or unstable temperament, but that was my boyhood nickname. If it was only a question of vocabulary and accent, all of Welsh’s characters would speak uniformly, but as in William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, each has their own speech pattern, tics and inflections in both dialogue and the interior monologues they share. The reader doesn’t have to be told that it’s Spud who is speaking because his habitual “like-say” (like, say = the likes of) immediately identifies his voice.
I discovered that the novel was also speaking to other readers, regardless of whether or not they recognised the inflections of Edinburgh speech, but Giles Havergal was not among those I would have predicted. Havergal was among my heroes in the Scottish artistic community since the early 1970s when I first started seeing his productions at the Citizens Theatre in Glasgow, but he was the last person I would have imagined being receptive to a work written in the patois of my native city. After decades of programming German expressionists, obscure eighteenth-century Italians, Shakespeare and the Jacobeans, Tennessee Williams and adaptations of Proust and Graham Greene, it had long been assumed that the Citz would never perform the work of any contemporary Scottish writer. It was my job to go and interview Havergal in early 1994 about his new season at the Citz. He asked me how I thought a stage adaptation of Trainspotting would go down.
“It’s significant that none of the writers on The Wire came up through TV and that quite a few are crime novelists”
My opinion didn’t matter as he had already booked Harry Gibson’s production for a Mayfest run, but it was evident that Havergal had read the novel closely, liked it and immediately grasped its potential. This was more than the BBC had managed when they were offered Gibson’s original adaptation for radio. The four-hander stage version was memorable for the performance of Ewen Bremner, who doubled to play Spud so brilliantly that he was regarded as indispensable in the role when Boyle later began his otherwise wholesale miscasting for the movie.
We learn in the novel that Mark Renton was a Pilton schemie who became an apprentice joiner after he left Leith Academy. He later took his Highers at Telford College to go on to Aberdeen University where he felt completely alienated and dropped out after concentrating his studies on prostitutes and alcohol. He may discuss Brecht with Edinburgh Festival thespians, but he applies his intelligence more pragmatically to a complicated benefits scam that involves holding five separate addresses. Where in the book does it say that he has the Crieff accent of a former day boy at Morrison Academy? From his first voiceover, Ewan McGregor is all wrong for the part.
Worse is Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy Williamson, more Primrose Hill than Pil-ton. Kelly MacDonald is Bearsden in a Notre Dame blazer. Kevin McKidd is from Elgin, Jimmy Cosmo from Clydebank. I had watched Bobby Carlyle and Peter Mullan both from their early days in the Raindog theatre company, and the best two Scots actors of their generation they may have been, but Carlyle is a Maryhill Begbie and Mullan is a Peterhead Swanney. Apart from Bremner, the only other Edinburgh person to appear in the film was Irvine Welsh himself, in a Tarantino-style cameo as Mikey Forrester, apparently contributing cheerfully to the betrayal of his own novel, just as Compton MacKenzie accepted a walk-on part in Mackendrick’s 1949 Whisky Galore! film of his novel. Andrew MacDonald, the producer of Trainspotting, commented that Welsh was so into house and club culture that he regarded the film as a special remix of his novel. On the back of the film’s success, Welsh was delighted that the book started to sell alongside the video and the soundtrack in Virgin Mega stores. Inevitable comparisons have been made between Irvine Welsh and James Kelman as Scottish writers using urban patois in their fiction, but here’s one difference. No gadgie has ever choried an HMV chart-busting Busconductor Hines tee-shirt.
The rest of the English-speaking world managed to get into Trainspotting without translation aids, but the American edition provided a glossary. I would like to think that The Rafeman read the novel without too many skips to the back of his book, receptive enough to tune into an unfamiliar idiom by picking up the rhythm and context.
After my 1996 visit, he began sending drafts of short fiction he was writing to tell the stories of his family. His grandfather and great uncles had been seamen from Galicia in Spain who settled and raised families in the Highlandtown area of East Baltimore. His mother’s family were Poles living in a row house in Dillon Street in the Canton docklands district where I had rented an apartment in a converted tin factory when I was working on the Baltimore Sun. The settings were familiar and so were some of the characters, because I had been entertained warmly at the home of Rafe’s parents, Manny and Gloria, by stories that had a kind of black and white documentary feel about them, acts of remembrance and homage produced on Rafe’s old Rem-ington portable typewriter. They grew into two published collections which appeared alongside two anthologies of Rafe’s pieces in the Sun. Anyone who has worked in journalism would recognise these ventures as signals of a reporter preparing an exit ticket from newspapers. When Rafe quit he joined the brotherhood of the Seafarers International Union, partly with the romantic notion of working on boats, and partly to forge another link with his family forebears, who had all been strong union men and women in the seafaring, brewing and garment trades of Baltimore. All of this background would provide material when Rafe’s writing career took a different turn through a collaboration with another ex-Sun reporter, David Simon.
Everyone talked about Simon when I worked at the newspaper, but I never once saw him in the office on Calvert Street where I experienced a preview of the way that daily newspaper practice would be heading in Scotland, with reporters lining up endless phone interviews in a direct input conveyer belt of second-hand information and comment presented as news. Simon had become disillusioned with the lies and shallowness he saw in journalism, and negotiated a sabbatical year to shadow officers of the Baltimore Police Department. This experience was worked into the book, Homicide: A Year On the Killing Streets (1992), which became the source material for two multiple series produced by Simon to revolutionise the television docu-dramatisation of crime: Homicide: Life On The Street and The Wire. Rafael Alvarez worked with Simon as a staff writer. His influence is particularly evident in the second series of The Wire, which focuses on police investigation of a drug smuggling operation through the port of Baltimore against a backdrop of a dockworkers’ union fighting against political and gangster corruption and the threat of jobs being made obsolete.
The other four seasons of The Wire successively examine themes of drug crime on the streets of West Baltimore, corruption in City Hall, a moribund education service and the semi-collusive role of an ineffectual local media. The final series is set mainly inside the Baltimore Sun. When BBC2 announced the first terrestrial screening of the five series of The Wire earlier this year, they used a commendation as part of the publicity: “Author Irvine Welsh called it ‘the best thing on TV. By far. Nothing’s close to it’”.
When The Wire went out on cable last year and first began to receive rave critical attention, Welsh told the Observer: “It’s significant that none of the writers on The Wire came up through TV and that quite a few are crime novelists. There’s a big difference between a proper writer and someone who’s learned how to write scripts. The guys on The Wire are proper storytellers. I had dinner with David Simon a few weeks back and I was asking him how they managed it. He’s just so careful about selecting the writers”.
One of the three episodes written by Rafe has an opening scene where the detectives on a BPD drugs operation are struggling to make out what street dealers are saying to each other on a wiretap recording. The language, register and delivery of the suspects resists deciphering, even among cops who are natives of B-more. One of detectives finally provides a translation. He explains that he taught himself to hear spoken words by listening repeatedly to ‘Brown Sugar’ by the Rolling Stones to catch the lyrics. That line could only have been written by The Rafeman.
Simon made an early decision with The Wire that it would make no compromises with language. No dilution, no censoring of expletives and no subtitles to make it easier for television audiences to follow the street patois of Baltimore’s project communities in the East and West sides. Consistent with this was his decision that every scene in the series would use Baltimore locations. This authenticity is supported by specific references in dialogue to streets and districts of Baltimore and street signs are often deliberately revealed in shot, so that a viewer of the series would have no difficulty using Google Maps to recreate a comprehensive city plan of the action. The five series build up a composite profile of Baltimore. This strong documentary feel exposed The Wire to the criticism that it provided ghetto tourism for safe middle-class American viewers, but this is to trivialise Simon’s ambition to re-create his city as the dominating character in a television form of a nineteenth-century serialised novel. He and his writers have made repeated statements about their objective to create a series of novels for television. The five seasons of The Wire, divided into their thematic explorations of crime, street life and politics, build with the same juggernaut power and attention to meticulously researched detail that Zola employed in his magnificent 20-novel cycle to expose prostitution, corruption, alcoholism and hypocrisy in the Paris of the Second Empire. More than one critic has accurately described The Wire as Zolaesque.
The connection between The Wire and the Trainspotting novel is one that younger viewers and readers, precisely the constituency Welsh has consistently stated he was writing for, would make more readily than literary traditionalists. The Amazon site currently reverses a reader’s review to plug the novel on the back of the television series: “If you like Welsh you might like David Simon, you know, from The Wire”.
Both Trainspotting and The Wire examine deprived city locations; both are about the class system, or more specifically, an underclass system. Both look at drugs culture without clichés and preconceptions, the violence and abuse often mixed with humour and evident sympathy. Both use drug abuse as a metaphor for the breakdown of the city. Simon sees drugs in Balti-more as an industry with its own hierarchies, codes and brutally enforced rules. It is a strictly institutional world which closely parallels the Baltimore Police Department. In Trainspotting, Welsh shows drugs as an anarchic consumption which destroys individuals and relationships. Johnny Swan says that there are no friends any more, just associates. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?
I don’t know if The Rafeman even read Irvine Welsh. It might be entirely fanciful of me to imagine that the novel had any influence on The Wire. Danny Boyle’s film certainly did not, because it is obvious that it pursued an entirely different aesthetic aimed at commercial success. I resented that film because it was criticised from time to time as showing up Edinburgh in a negative light, but it wasn’t even Edin-burgh. At least half of it was shot in Glasgow. The same criticism is made of David Simon when viewers complain that he shows up Baltimore, turning Charm City into Mob Town, but these nicknames long pre-date The Wire, and the same criticism was made of Baltimore film makers Barry Levinson and John Walters. I never thought of Baltimore as a violent or dangerous city when I lived and worked there, yet the homicide rate then was moving up towards the 1993 record of 375, six times the per capita murder rate of New York City. I have felt more threatened by the undercurrent in English cities like Manchester or Birmingham or Nottingham. The Wire is faithful in revealing the cultural and ethnic diversity of a city that bred Billie Holiday and Frank Zappa, H.L. Mencken and Edgar Allan Poe, Mama Cass and Wallis Simpson, Babe Ruth and the Hattie Carroll I looked up in the Baltimore Court records to confirm the references to her murder in the Bob Dylan song. But I never thought of East Pilton as a deprived area, either. Two years ago I drove through the streets I grew up in as my wife and youngest son sat silently in the car. It looked smaller and meaner than I remembered, but this is an almost universal reaction to going back to childhood areas. Irvine Welsh now lives in Dublin, from where he still recreates West Granton characters in his fiction, just as Joyce went to Paris to recreate Dublin. I suppose by the laws of symmetry there is an undiscovered French writer currently living in West Granton and recreating Paris in their as yet unpublished work. And The Rafeman now lives in Los Angeles. He says he lives there, but he works in Baltimore.
Jonathan Cape, £18.99
pp288, ISBN 9780224080545
The Wire – Truth Be Told
pp448, ISBN 9781847675989