I once taught an undergraduate Scottish literature survey course in a North American University. A young man in a heavy metal T-shirt and long shorts of many pockets appeared for the first class and promptly disappeared for the next six. He resurfaced for the module on Trainspotting then hopped it again. Sometime later, he boarded a downtown bus that I happened to be on, apologized for missing almost all the classes and produced a rolled up copy of Trainspotting from one of his pockets. He told me he had read it three times. It was, he said, the best book he had ever read.
Sometime before that, there was a feature in the local paper called ‘The Hots for Scots’. Written by a young female journalist, it included this: ‘I want to be Scottish. I want to be pasty-faced and in imminent danger of losing all my teeth. I want to eat deep fried mars bars. I want to be skint. I want to use anatomical terms to describe my fellow human beings. I want to ken things. I want to collect the giro. I want to have punched out veins and say I canna, I wisna and I willna. In other words I want to be hip….I imagine being Scottish as being a kind of foulmouthed, drugged-out nihilist.’
The inspiration behind this transformation in North American notions of the Scot – previously a kilted warrior, ‘cheapskate’ or running joke – was, of course, the same book that fired the imagination of the absentee student. We may have worried briefly about the replacement of one set of Scottish stereotypes with another, but the overwhelming feeling among the Scots I knew in North America when Trainspotting arrived there was one of relief. Rather a junkie than a joke.
Not everyone agreed that this development was a good thing. In a short piece in the New Yorker which accompanied Richard Avedon’s 1995 photograph of Welsh and nine other Scottish writers, Alan Taylor wrote of an ‘efflorescence’ in Scottish writing. Alexander McCall-Smith, however, regarded this new wave of Scottish writing as more effluvium than efflorescence. The ‘foul-mouthed, drugged-out nihilist’ was not an image that he thought Scotland should be exporting.
All this and much more is the ‘Trainspotting Phenomenon’ that John Neil Munro promises to explain in his latest book. Why the phenomenon needs another explanation after twenty years of people trying to explain it, is not obvious until it turns out that this is the author’s default position. Munro originally planned a ‘conventional biography’ but could not persuade his subject to go along with it. That forced him to accept a lesser mission: ‘this is a book that I hope explains how the Trainspotting book, stage play and film were made, and the remarkable impact each had’. Welsh initially said that he would not contribute even on this basis and then, apparently, relented. After repeated readings of the book’s introduction, I still could not figure out the degree to which he was eventually involved.
Munro overcomes the fact that Welsh did not want him to write a biography by simply treating the early part of the book as if it were one. A standard chronological approach has him in Edinburgh’s Muirhouse scheme in the first chapter where he visits the local library and searches for records to prove that Welsh grew up there. This is a strange quest given that nobody seriously doubts Welsh’s former residence in Muirhouse. In fact, the visit to the scheme reveals more about Munro than it does about Welsh. He gives the locals a wide berth, calls their pub ‘one of the most intimidating hostelries in the western world’ (Bosnia? Belfast?), and piously hopes that a proposed revamp of the area will include bulldozing their mall. He quotes (actually slightly misquotes) William McIlvanney’s character Laidlaw who said similar Glasgow schemes were ‘just architectural dumps where they unloaded the people like slurry’, but doesn’t note the lines that follow: ‘Glasgow folk have to be nice people. Otherwise they would have burned the place to the ground years ago.’
By page 15 Munro is speculating on ‘when Irvine first got drunk’ and his quest to explain the Trainspotting phenomenon seems already forgotten. We discover that Munro and Welsh met when they both worked at Edinburgh’s Telford College in the mid 1970s. Munro has, by his own estimate, twenty letters from Welsh and mines their contents to the core seemingly oblivious to the possibility that it is this kind of exploitation that might have put Welsh off cooperating with him in the first place.
With such scant personal resources and limited access to subject, Munro is forced to depend on newspaper articles and the testimony of other people who knew Irvine Welsh. In the early part of the book, his main source is Sandy Macnair who met Welsh while working at Edinburgh’s housing office. In 2011 Macnair wrote an Irvine-and-me memoir called Carspotting, apparently with Welsh’s best wishes. He included media-attracting stories about his pal’s drinking, drug taking and the submission of a fake CV for the manager’s job at Hearts. Welsh’s sanguinity in the face of these revelations only deepens the mystery of why he drew a line with Munro. Munro eventually finds other people to talk to and, fortunately for him, most of them are interesting. Alan Warner is one primary source, Robin Robertson another. However, neither says much that he hasn’t said before. Robertson’s part in bringing Scottish writing to the attention of major London publishers, in particular, is well-trammelled territory. The narrative only lights up when Munro unearths more unusual voices. One of these is Dr. Roy Robertson who has been a GP in the Muirhouse area since 1979 and led the fight against heroin addiction and HIV infection in the area. Another is Lesley Bryce, a junior editor at Secker when the Trainspotting script was passed to her and ‘the paper still had those little perforations down the side’.
Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting Phenomenon is neither one thing nor the other. The early indication that is it going to be some kind of unauthorized biography eventually gives way to a rather dutiful examination of the process by which Trainspotting went from book to play to internationally acclaimed film. Interesting though this process is, it doesn’t really shed any new light on the ‘phenomenon’. The book has elements that are nothing to do with anything. For instance, Munro has a recurring interest in how much Welsh earns and whether he is a millionaire or not. This reaches its nadir when he takes to calculating the relationship between sales, royalties and projected income. He also seems to have to have a problem with some of Welsh’s friends. By the final chapter Munro is bemoaning his exclusion from Welsh’s company as ‘he always seemed to be surrounded by people with the evil eye, eager to be seen with Irvine Welsh though strangely unwilling to buy a round’.
There are numerous Edinburgh bars mentioned in the narrative and it is a pity that more of the author’s energy wasn’t expended on the part played in the Welsh/Trainspotting story by Scottish pub culture. One pub of particular interest is Robbie’s Bar on Leith Walk which is only mentioned in a picture caption of Sandy Macnair enjoying ‘a quiet drink with the author’. A former neighbour of mine in the Leith authority housing across the road said that he didn’t go to Robbie’s because ‘it’s owre snobby for me’. Snobby isn’t an adjective normally applied to Robbie’s, but what he meant, I think, was that it is one of those Scottish pubs where folks gather who have moved on from situations similar to his. It is no coincidence that Robbie’s is also a place to meet many former students and employees of Telford College (now amalgamated into Edinburgh College) which was one of those ’70s portals through which people processed from one life to another often without obvious outward changes and while continuing to drink in the same bar.
In 1994, American journalist Lesley Downer foregathered in Robbie’s with Duncan MacLean, Alan Warner, Gordon Legge, Paul Reekie and Rebel Inc. publisher Kevin Williamson. Downer is now a bestselling author in her own right, but back then she was writing her first piece for the New York Times Magazine. It eventually appeared under the headline ‘The Beats of Edinburgh’. Understandably Downer had no feel for the complex culture of Robbie’s and simply described it as a pub in a working-class area. Three days earlier she had met Irvine Welsh in London and was surprised to find ‘that there was none of the foul language that peppers his writing. He was articulate, intellectual, intensely serious, speaking not in Edinburgh dialect but in educated Scots’.
Without realizing it, Downer was approaching the point where any analysis of the ‘Trainspotting phenomenon’ should begin. Scots understand bi-linguality very well (see Sandy Craigie’s fine poem ‘Bilingual’) and many in the Central Belt especially have made the same journey as Welsh from scheme to Telford (or equivalent) to another life. His was an extreme version of a common process. Like Downer, Munro doesn’t seem to see this ‘class-merging’, for lack of a better term. If he had, it would have saved him from some pretty awful stereotyping. It may be, for instance, that Welsh once disdained theatre though that doesn’t necessarily ‘befit a working-class boy from Muirhouse’. And some of Welsh’s attacks on the denizens of Charlotte Square and readers of the Guardian don’t get a rise from Munro despite the fact that he faithfully records Welsh’s appearances at the Edinburgh International Book Festival and often quotes him from the Guardian.
In truth, Trainspotting needed just about everybody to make it a phenomenon. It sold well in prisons, but depended on Guardian readers and their equivalent in North America to support it in order to create ‘the phenomenon’. Munro quotes Renton to the effect that he was ‘too fuckin’ poncy tae be a proper Leith gadgie n too fuckin’ schemie tae be an arty student type’ which gives a sense of the character being trapped. For his creator, having a foot in both of these worlds, and others besides, worked the other way.
Surprisingly, Munro makes no reference to Welsh having taken all this into cyberspace. From his base in Chicago, the author of Trainspotting has tweeted 27,000 times to 94,000 followers alternating between Scots, Standard English and ‘foul language’. His subjects include Hibs, sports in general, literature, telly, Bowie, shagging and bevvying. The spirit of Leith is alive in the Windy City. To those of us who dabble in Twitter, that really is phenomenal.
Lust for Life! Irvine Welsh and
the Trainspotting Phenomenon
John Neil Munro
Polygon, PP220, £12.99, ISBN 9781846972423