DA THE Guardian
An audience of readers gives their varied responses to Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting. By John Mullan
Saturday June 21, 2008
At this month's Guardian book club we heard more uses of the two worst four-letter words in the English language than at all the previous book clubs combined. Trainspotting is, of course, dense with these words (the language of the film version is decorous in comparison). Confronted with Kingsley Amis's argument that the expressive powers of profanity disappeared once it was used without restraint, Irvine Welsh mounted a spirited defence of the shades of meaning that could be achieved by swearing. An obscene word could be affectionate, or amicable, or even tender - and he acted out some vivid examples.
It was true that Welsh - who cheerfully explained that the bourgeoisie cannot swear in a relaxed and natural manner - made the most forbidden words sound affable. There was no detectable frisson among his readers as the words resounded. But then Welsh's readers are perhaps not the same as those who form most book groups. "Where were you at when you began writing this book?" is not what Kazuo Ishiguro or Margaret Atwood get asked. ("Getting into acid house," was the answer.)
Readers did have strong reactions to Welsh's strong fictional brew. One of them spoke of reading the section called "Bad Blood", a monologue in which Davie plots his revenge on the man who raped his girlfriend and made her HIV-positive. The rapist is himself dying of Aids and cares nothing for this life. But Davie fakes the torture and murder of his young son, the only person he cares about, and lets him die believing it has happened. The trick of the narrative is to let us believe it too, until the very end, and Welsh's devoted reader told him that he had thrown the book across the room in fury at the nastiness of it. But then he picked it up again.
A reader with a Scottish accent suggested that Welsh might have been out to rescue Edinburgh from its genteel reputation and upset the prejudice that "gritty" Scottish fiction could only be written by Glaswegians. Welsh happily discussed how Edinburgh's supposed "dark side" had always appealed to writers of fiction, though I roused him to ire by suggesting that even Sir Walter Scott might have been part of this. Robert Louis Stevenson - "Scotland's greatest writer" - was a model to be followed, but Scott was "just an arse-licker to the Prince Regent". There was much discussion of the use of dialect, at least one member of the audience wondering how the author managed to suppress his usual vocabulary in order to achieve the narrowed lexicon of some of his characters. (There is a moment of release near the end of the novel when he uses the word "vestibular".) In fact, it was an exercise not of suppression but of translation. Welsh had begun writing the book in standard English, and had turned it into dialect when "it didn't work".
He was asked to compare himself with James Kelman, and whether he might be thought a "postcolonial" Scottish writer, or indeed a "distinctly Scottish writer" at all. Welsh was evidently amused at the inevitable comparison with Kelman, whose "influence" he suggested was in the minds of critics rather than his own. The author who inspired him and of whom he was most emulous was actually Evelyn Waugh. (He mischievously added that Jane Austen was another favourite exemplar.) The most vividly remembered sign of cultural "oppression" that Welsh remembered from his education was a ban on the use of the word "aye" at his school. "If you're being told that, it does have an effect on the psyche."
There were some attempts to prod the novelist into voicing colourful anti-English sentiments. One reader reminded him of Renton's "rant" against everything English in Trainspotting and asked him whether some of its energy was his - or whether we were supposed to find it ridiculous. Welsh seemed to admit the former: it was a book of the 1980s, written when few Scots voted for Mrs Thatcher but the English electorate decreed that she decide policy for the Scots. But then we discovered that his distance from England was sustained only by announcing that London (which he seems to like almost as much as Dr Johnson did) is "not England". "Everybody likes coming to London."
One of those who had read most of Welsh's fiction talked about his habit of using the same characters in different books. Indeed, we had found out in the course of the interview that the novelist was considering a prequel to Trainspotting, in which we might, among other things, find out why Begbie was so horrible. Why the return to the same group of imaginary people? "Do you think you will ever get tired of this community of characters?" Some novelists, Welsh observed, give you the same characters in book after book, but give them new names and pretend they are different. He doesn't pretend.