Forget the drugs and the dialect. Trainspotting begins a trilogy about working-class Edinburgh life. In a society that so often romanticises its poor, Welsh exposes the ugly side of working-class culture: racism, domestic violence, misogyny, prejudice against gays, mindless sectarianism, child abuse, pointless violence. In the later book Glue, Welsh concentrates on the positive side and stresses the importance of trade unionism, family and community.
Trainspotting is a novel about friendship. His characters have grown up together and, in their mid twenties, are at the stage where their friendships are becoming peer relationships in which men compete for power, status, money and women. A big theme in Welsh is that friendship is never just about friendship just as sex is never just about sex.
The politics of friendship are illustrated in the character of Frank Begbie. Begbie has become an archetypal street thug but Renton’s narrative makes clear that he was not always a violent recidivist. Renton and the others bigged him up at school as a hardman for reasons of status and protection, with the result that Begbie inevitably believed the hype and, by adulthood, has become a relentless psychopath: terrifying and impressive but still, as Sick Boy points out, a loser and victim in his own way.
Renton and Sick Boy argue all the time but there are still moments of genuine love and affection between them. However, Renton grows increasingly disgusted with Sick Boy’s exploitation of women while the other man feels that his old friend is holding him back. By the time we get to Porno, set a decade or so later, the friendship is dead – not least because Renton has ripped off Sick Boy and the rest of the group to fund his escape. That book revisited the whole gang but only Renton has truly changed – the others are still stagnating in lowlife fiscal and social competition. The underlying point is that true change must involve a kind of betrayal. Welsh began Porno with a quote from Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals: without cruelty there is no festival.
Let’s look at a couple of chapters involving peripheral characters. The first takes place at the funeral reception of one of Renton’s distant uncles. It centres on his seventeen-year-old cousin Nina. Nina is your classic sullen and confused teen goth. A virgin who is not interested in losing her virginity: ‘Almost everyone she knew said it was crap. Boys were too stupid, too morose and dull, or too excitable.’ Like most teens, she hates her family (‘her relatives were so boring. They held onto the mundane for grim life’) but can’t handle being alone. The infamous adolescent awkwardness comes from having to go through the roaring physical, mental and emotional changes, and having to do it under the unblinking scrutiny of family and peers: growing up in public. Nina is at the stage where she is losing her faith in adult omnipotence and sense. Like the kid in The Information, she realises for the first time ‘that adults, too, were small, and pushed and tugged by many forces.’
No adult at the party has any idea how to handle the situation. Death, after all, is something not even grownups understand. Nina’s mother harrasses her to make tea as if it ‘could be expected to compensate for the loss of a twenty-four year relationship.’ The doctor arrives, the only adult with any relevant expertise, and in one brilliant line Welsh nails a secular faith: ‘A horde of breathless aunties fussed over him like groupies around a rock star.’ An uncle makes a joke at Nina’s expense (‘In ma day, lassies wore nice bright colours, instead ay tryin tae look like vampires’) and everyone laughs, but it’s ‘the nervous laughter of frightened children trying to keep on the right side of the school hardcase, rather than that of adults conveying that they had heard something funny.’ Another revelation: laughter is never just about laughter. It too has a place in the world of cruelty and competition. Nina comes to see her elders and betters as old and malignant children still playing schoolyard games long after the hometime bell. Her Uncle Kenny ‘looked at her as if he was a dog, his eyes bloody and his tongue darting slyly over his lips. She had a strange feeling that Uncle Kenny, despite his years, would be a bit like the inept boys that Shona and the rest had been with.’
Then the body of her uncle – in a typical Welsh surreal twist – appears to reanimate. It’s a false alarm of course, but it lets something go in Nina. Finally she loses her selfconscious and stops her adolescent self-monitoring and breaks down: cries in her aunt’s arms for ‘Andy and Alice, and the happiness and love that once lived here’. It’s a careful and sensitive portrait of a girl becoming a woman, and on the beginning of a great journey.
From beginnings to terminus. A support group for HIV sufferers is supposed to be a haven of compassion but even this is contaminated by intrigue. The heroin addicts hate the gay people in the group and the heteros, like Davie Mitchell, hate everyone. The narrator of ‘Bad Blood’, Davie has contracted HIV through a lover who discovered too late that she was infected by someone who raped her at knifepoint. His shock and anger is compounded when Davie begins group therapy only to be brought face to face with his lover’s rapist and the man who gave him the disease.
Alan Venters is the villain of this piece and a bad one even by Welsh’s standards. Venters sees women as nothing more than dehumanised vaginas (‘[e]ven some disparaging remarks about their tits or arses would have represented a considerable broadening of vision’) and other men as competitors: ‘a rip-off merchant’ or ‘a fuckin sap’ depending ‘on whom had abused, exploited or manipulated whom, on the particular occasion in question.’ Venters is only happy when making others unhappy: he only comes to group so that he can destroy the morale of already shattered men and women groping for the pieces of their lives. ‘The disease which racked his body was a sweetheart,’ Davie concludes, ‘compared to the more obscure one that possessed his sick mind.’ Venters doesn’t manage his condition well and is clearly going to die – but that’s not enough. ‘The disease could have his body… I wanted his spirit.’ But how?
Davie befriends Venters and pumps him for a point of sensitivity. He starts a relationship with Venters’s ex purely to get access to his son. The kid is the key because Venters does appear to be fond of his child; also because Venters believes that ‘he would live on, in some sense or other, through his son.’ The ex goes out on a girl’s club night and leaves Davie as babysitter. The next day, Davie visits Venters in the hospice, explains his true agenda and shows the dying man a snapshot of his son, raped, tortured and murdered. The photo does the trick: Venters’s soul is annihilated before Davie’s eyes. He then suffocates Venters with a pillow.
It would have been easy for Welsh to end the story there. ‘Bad Blood’ could have been framed around Auden’s overused line that ‘Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return’. But there’s a twist: Davie, an anaesthetist, has simply drugged the kid and mocked him up with hospital blood and Hallowe’en make-up. The child is fine with no memories of the incident. Davie is fine, and reunited with his old lover: ‘Life is beautiful. I’m going to enjoy it, and I’m going to have a long life.’ He gets a bloodless revenge with no collatoral damage: festival without cruelty. ‘Bad Blood’ is a classic revenger’s tale that should be set in university creative writing courses as a model of good storytelling.
Davie gives Venters one chance – he makes a fake confession to the support group, saying that he had sex with women knowing that he was HIV positive. This is Venters’s own chance to convince his sins. Had Venters done so, Davie would have called it quits: ‘At one stage I thought I wanted repetance from Venters more than revenge for myself. If I got it, I would have died with a belief in the fundamental goodness of the human spirit.’ Naturally, Venters sits there grinning and silent. At that moment the monster seals his fate. But another man comes forward and makes a similar confession. ‘Then he looked up at us and produced, through his tears, the most beautiful smile I have ever seen on anyone in my life. – but it wis awright. She took the test. Three times ower six months. Nuthin. She wisnae infected…’
It’s these flashes of humanity in the worst of urban environments that lift Welsh above a mere chronicler of predator and prey. Is there a writer who knows more about how people communicate and how people affect each other, and can express this knowledge with such warmth and style?