Irvine Welshs Edinburgh, Edinburgh and the LothiansWith his no-holds-barred social commentaries of Edinburgh’s heroin problems, bent coppers and sleaze, Irvine Welsh remains one of Scotland’s most controversial authors.
He is also one of the most influential, siring a whole subculture that is not afraid of societal taboos, a cultural movement that adopts a more confrontational stance on Scotland’s ills and the often ogreish characteristics of its society’s mores.
Welsh was Edinburgh born. Through his writing, which reveals huge swathes of his own personality and identity, he has preserved an umbilical relationship with the city, taking inspiration from the darker immoral maze that lies underneath the city’s more celebrated veneer of enlightenment, the tourist-coddling Edinburgh as proffered by the mainstream media. He was a product of working class Britain; brought up in Leith ’s tenements before moving to West Pilton and then Muirhouse. This endowed Welsh’s imagination with a number of locations where his often macabre, comedic and hallucinatory set-pieces unfold.
Welsh extricated himself from Edinburgh’s apron strings in the seventies, lured to London’s aerobic pulse. In some ways, if Edinburgh played host to his imagination, London dictated the tempo to which it would be released. The vibrancy of the city, under the solvent miasma of the punk scene, would be a quality inherent to his writing. When Welsh returned to Edinburgh, his mind’s eye was certainly accustomed to the twilight of the city’s subcultures.
The rave scene’s wanton drug use and escapism was a primary influence on his debut novel Trainspotting. The novel was a graphic depiction of heroin’s debilitating influence on young people and those around them. But rather than endorsing the ‘Just Say No’ ethos, championed in the previous decade by Nancy Reagan et al, it took an ambivalent look, deferring judgement onto the reader. If therein lies one source of controversy, then it should be assuaged by the gruesome descent into addiction, crime and death which should, on the whole, read as the most strident anti-drugs text imaginable – far more powerful than Nancy Reagan’s earnest warnings from Capital Hill.
Come 1996, with Danny Boyle ’s cinematic treatment of Trainspotting, Welsh was a household name. Every student flat in Britain had the novel’s anti-heroes staring down from the walls. In the process, Boyle’s film – and by extension Welsh’s novel – had made stars of Ewan McGregor , Kelly MacDonald and Robert Carlyle . Being ignored by the Booker prize was in hindsight an endorsement of Welsh’s anti-establishment kudos. An endorsement which perhaps encouraged a more rebellious commercial success.
Being so ‘anti’ has served him well. For starters, his generous use of Leith slang immediately identifies his writing as defiant, and in some cases impenetrable. The language is also coarse, befitting of the subject matter. Welsh’s writing succeeds in marrying a rather dispiriting subject to an unexpected, surreal treatment. Take ‘Filth’; it’s protagonist is a loathsome police officer taking instruction from a tapeworm residing in his digestive system. Welsh is written for strong stomachs, and thankfully for Welsh there is an appetite for his work that has given him huge commercial success. All without diluting his metier with more urbane subject matter.
Welsh may be the author that the Edinburgh Tourist Board may run from, but his work reads like an extension of the city itself. No city is without its ills, but with an unerring eye for the cultural zeitgeist and an imagination which gladly swallows subversive Edinburgh as its muse, Welsh has offered an alternative view of the streets of Leith, of Old Town and New Town, one which has been greedily consumed by those who hang on to every one of his explicit scenes of societal deviance. He may live in Dublin now, and cavort around Miami when the mood takes him, but he is Edinburgh through and through.
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