Irvine Welsh gets back on the horse with Skagboys
Few novels have been as deeply connected to the time and place of their birth as 1993’s Trainspotting. Written in a broad Scottish dialect, the book’s jagged episodes followed a group of young working-class junkies and hoods as they scammed their way through the streets of Edinburgh in the late ’80s. It was jaded, violent, bitterly comical, a bleak mirror image of Thatcherite Britain and its tidy, ultimately ruthless code of consumerism and market-enriched ego. It was also an unlikely international bestseller, spawning a hit movie and making its author, Irvine Welsh, a literary star.
Now, nearly two decades later, comes a sprawling prequel, Skagboys. The four main characters of Trainspotting are with us again: Renton, Sick Boy, Spud, and Begbie, all speaking in their hard-edged, lyrical tongue. But this time, with the calendar rolled back several years, we get a clearer image of the social forces that eventually engulfed them, as Edinburgh’s economy flipped over and heroin flooded the city.
Irvine Welsh spoke to the Georgia Straight during a recent book-tour stop in Toronto.
Georgia Straight: When Trainspotting was released in 1993, Margaret Thatcher had been out of office for just three years or so, and the gap between the late-’80s setting of the book and its publication was only around five years. With Skagboys set slightly farther back in time, in 1984, the gap is now pushing 30 years, and for many readers Thatcherism will be a distant memory, if a memory at all.
Irvine Welsh: Yeah, it’s a historical novel now—there’s no getting away from it. I had to come to it with a different sensibility. Trainspotting was more character-driven. This is character-driven as well, but it’s much more thematic. It’s about a kind of era, and about the ’80s, when everything changed basically for people in Britain, especially for working-class and lower-middle-class people in Britain. It was a pivotal decade, really, so I wanted to capture what happened….I wanted to write something that was quite definitive for me about the decade that shaped my life and most of the people in my generation’s lives in Britain. And I wanted to use these characters to get to a kind of personal understanding of it. And these characters were there, and bits of the story were there, so I thought they were just the best tool for that job.
GS: That political context is a lot more explicit in Skagboys. Does it show how different things were then from what they are now, or how similar?
IW: I think a bit of both. I think, politically, right through Thatcher to Blair to the current government has basically been a right-wing government’s ascendency, with the same kind of policies, really. Nobody’s tried to tackle the ripped-up social fabric and the exclusion of large amounts of people from mainstream society. It’s just been taken as given that we can’t afford to bring people into mainstream society. So whole principles of universal healthcare, universal comprehensive education, have all gone by the wayside. And as a result of that, the political consensus between Scotland and England has gone, and now they’ve gone off in different political cultures and, as a result of the ’80s, will probably become independent states in the not-too-distant future. So there’s big ramifications from that era.
GS: Given the destruction of unions and the dismantling of the welfare system, how connected are these circumstances to the characters’ actions and choices—for example, to Renton’s extreme cynicism?
IW: I think he sees everything changing around him. He’s one of these guys who would do well under Thatcherism, because he’s fairly smart, fairly ruthless, fairly ambitious in a strange way….It’s not going to benefit his friends and his family and the community around him—they’re going to be crushed by these economic policies. And it’s basically a very Scottish thing, because when Thatcher sold off British Telecom and British Gas and the railways and the council houses, Scots got into all that. They bought their shares, they bought their council houses, and all that kind of stuff. But they still hated them. It didn’t translate into votes, as it did in the south of England. People got into it and did it all, but they absolutely hated them, because they saw the bigger picture. They basically saw that the whole thing was going to be detrimental to society as a whole, and it was like we were just getting some crumbs off the rich man’s table, really, and that wasn’t going to count for a whole lot. As it is now, we’re saddled with debt, and people are really kind of angry and very defeated. And what have we got for it? Maybe a shopping mall and some more concrete instead of green fields.
GS: The characters in Skagboys are 21 or 22 years old. You’d think people that age would be upset or angry about this destruction and see it as cutting off their future, but that’s not the reaction of many of these characters.
IW: No. The interesting thing is that when everything was kind of tossed up and broken up like that, Thatcher and all said, “We’re setting the people free.” And obviously that’s nonsense on one level, but on another level there is an element of truth about it. It’s like if you’re not in an ossified structure of family and community—if your family’s broken up and your community’s broken up—in a sense you don’t have ties to them anymore. So you can either say you’re free or abandoned, depending on what way you look at it. But the sanction of social control that family and community have is removed to some extent.
GS: And so these characters are kind of loose in the world.
IW: Yeah, they’re set loose. They’re not anchored down by work. Basically, work ties you to a place—it ties you to your family and your immediate community. If you’re working in the shipyard or you’re working in the mine, you’re kind of landlocked in that place, you know? And you’re also into a kind of dense family network. To be taken away from that is very, very scary, but for some people very liberating.
GS: Are people like Begbie and Sick Boy sociopathic products of a sociopathic society, or were they born that way?
IW: I think it’s a bit of both. One is a violent nutter, one is a manipulative controller, but if guys like that live in a much more grounded, regimented community, then things are much more controlled, basically—their excesses are controlled. But if they live in a society of rampant egotism where it’s everybody for themselves, then that almost sanctions the excesses of their behaviour….It’s like the whole bankers’ thing recently comes right out of that kind of culture—that culture of entitlement, that culture of authority and power unchallenged. So it gives the nutter and the psychopath some kind of sanction to behave in that way too.
GS: Back when you were writing Trainspotting in this dialect, which is specific not just to Edinburgh but to a certain area of the city, did you worry that readers wouldn’t be able to follow it? Likewise, there are no compromises in Skagboys when it comes to local in-jokes and rhyming slang.
IW: Yeah, it’s always a concern, in a way. But I just write what I write, basically. You are what you are. I can’t write these characters in any other way. I mean, I’m writing a different book now, in a different place with completely different characters, and you’ve got to give them the same respect and discipline in your writing as when you do the other characters. They are Scottish working-class characters, and I can’t really make them any other way, you know?
GS: Has anyone ever tried to talk you into softening it for the general audience?
IW: No, nobody has. I get a really good readership abroad because, especially now, I think there’s a reaction against globalization. People like local cultures and they want to invest a bit of time in it. I mean, it’s difficult for anybody, reading that book, even if you’re from Scotland. You’re just not used to seeing words on a page like that, so you do have to read it out in that kind of voice, in a way, for the first 30 pages or so.