One of the most shamelessly egregious pieces of journalism to hit the streets recently has nothing to do with the ravings of Clown Prince Boris in the Mail
and the Telegraph
or the press briefings of Matt (not to be confused with Tony) Hancock in the red-tops. It could hardly be more different, indeed, though it should probably make us just as angry.
It's an article in The Big Issue
about a millionaire celebrity author who's made a great living from the denigration of working-class youth on Edinburgh council estates, some of them quite possibly vendors of The Big Issue
. Guessed his name yet? Here's a clue. His books feature a lot of intravenous drug-taking. And here's another thought; there has been a more than five-fold rise in Scottish drug deaths in the 25 years which have elapsed since the publication of his most famous novel, Trainspotting
Friedrich Engels (admittedly, a pompous old hypocrite at times) once visited Manchester with a 'Liberal, Corn Law repealing' member of the bourgeoisie and spoke to him of 'the frightful condition of the working-people's quarters'. The man listened quietly to the end, and said: 'And yet, there is a great deal of money made here, good morning, sir.'.
I have no idea if Irvine Welsh (for it is he) is a member of any Liberal elite, and indeed, to be fair, he makes no claim to be in the writing business for such causes as social justice or the betterment of mankind, though he knows that there's certainly a great deal of money to be made here, sir.
Mr Welsh is nothing if not disarmingly frank. 'I don't think it's the function of a book, film, play or piece of music to do social good.' So we're not dealing with Emile Zola or Charles Dickens attempting to put the world to rights – unless, of course, it's film rights, which have had his, and Danny Boyle's, coffers fair brimming over.
Talking of which, did you know that the Scottish Government, through its arts and culture agency, Creative Scotland (better known in some quarters as Cremative Scotland, I hear), gifted a generous non-returnable £500,000 to the Sony Corporation, parent company of Tri-star, to back T2 Trainspotting
? What sort of politician is it who actually subsidises the reputational trashing of his or her nation's unfortunates, one wonders?
Mr Welsh does have a kind of social vision, however. 'We have to engage with the fact that we are coming to the end of capitalism, and thus paid work, and drugs are what we have to replace work.' Tough, Jean Jacques-Rousseau and Keir Hardie – your dream of a just world was but an illusion!
Those familiar with Dr Pavlov or the perceptive documentaries of Adam Curtis will know that, as ordinary mortals, we are all susceptible to conditioning and can be programmed to act out whatever fashionable new paradigm might be persuasively presented to us. In such a context, whether or not Mr Welsh assumes a position of amoral neutrality, we might legitimately ask ourselves whether or not it's possible that the Trainspotting
movies, in particular, had a damaging impact on that section of the community, long robbed of its dignity, which is underprivileged, poorly educated, and perpetually suffering from low self esteem and lack of hope.
To be presented with a role model such as jobless junkie and thief Mark Renton – played by Ewan MacGregor OBE, a privileged alumnus of Morrison's Academy, Crieff, where his dad was careers master – can hardly result in a beneficial case of social conditioning. One where the perverse glamour of an imagined council estate drugs underworld might somehow seem to be more appealing than your boring everyday existence in one of Edinburgh's crumbling concrete jungles where perpetual and endemic poverty is your lot in life, from cradle to grave.
In reality, the Trainspotting
cult turns out to be a largely middle-class fetish in which an abandoned proletarian underclass have been enlisted as a species of performing monkey pandering to the prejudices of the comfortably off, safely sequestered in leafy suburbia, or nice apartments in places like Bruntsfield and up-and-coming Leith (from which, in the latter case, the authentic old proletarian classes have largely been driven out to make way for the wine bar culture).
If that's bad enough, how much more horrifying is it that organisations like the Scottish Book Trust recommend Trainspotting
as 'iconic' while for those coming from overseas to study at Scottish universities it is placed, in one case, at the top of a list of books which will enable these new arrivals to understand the nature of Scottish society and the character of its people. Yah, Tarquin 'n Chloe!
This darkly patronising view of working-class life was enthusiastically endorsed by Scotsman
columnist John McTernan in 2013, when he wrote 'it is surely clear now that Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting
is the greatest Scottish novel of the 20th century'.
'... For myself, what blew me away was the accuracy of writing just like we speak in Edinburgh. The world of "coupon", "radge", "stoorie", "barry" and "chory" was my world. One skim through Trainspotting
and I was sold. This was (the) Edinburgh I grew up in – it was as mental as Glasgow. For me, the publication of Trainspotting
was like the first performance of The Rite of Spring
in 1913 in Paris. There was a moment before and a moment after but the world changed forever.'
Unfortunately, any suggestion that London-born Mr McTernan had first-hand experience of the world of Begbie, Sick Boy, Spud and Renton was beyond absurd. The son of a professor so distinguished that he has an academic building named after him, it is certainly the case that he attended a state school largely serving upmarket Colinton and Bonaly, yet he would hot-foot it back to London to become Tony Blair's director of operations at 10 Downing Street, and go on to have a career as a spin doctor and journalist with a column in the Daily Telegraph
– hardly the employment trajectory of the average Trainspotting
The problem with the Irvine Welsh literary canon is not that it depicts the life of a Scottish underclass and a society in disintegration so much as the fact that he exploits it as a form of entertainment, and banks the cheque. In commodifying this desperate group of buccaneering bad boys, Welsh also glorifies them, the danger being that for impressionable young disadvantaged males in particular, Trainspotting
, for some, is not so much a vicarious and indulgent depiction of an edgy world of drugs and violence which can be dipped in and out of at will, as a teaching aid which might well lead some down a particularly destructive path of self-annihilation.
This is certainly not a plea for the sanitisation of Scottish writing, particularly on the subject of the poor and dispossessed. There is a profound and penetrating note of social concern in, say, Darren 'Loki' McGarvey's Poverty Safari,
which is far more revelatory than anything Irvine Welsh has ever written. Jimmy Boyle's A Sense of Freedom
is, in its own way, a morality tale by a man who knew about Scotland's heart of darkness, and preached redemption, rather than immersion.
With Irvine Welsh, it isn't so much the lion who deserves our disapproval, as the lionisers who praise him, while knowing absolutely nothing about the tragedy of the fictional drug-taking milieu which has provided him with his lucrative revenue stream. He can no doubt be accused of double standards with his pronouncements on the end of capitalism while, at the same time, he is himself a rich beneficiary of that same system. But a writer is entitled to write. He can't be blamed for that.
On the other hand, those who praise and promote him, usually from positions of ignorance as far as his subject matter is concerned, might do well to reflect on that simple, horrifying statistic. Drug deaths in Scotland have increased five-fold since Trainspotting
was first published. Might they, by any chance, be just a wee bit collectively responsible for this disaster?