I’ve not said much for a while on here. For once, I observe this with a complete absence of blogger apologia. I have been, it gives me great pleasure to say, busy. Not that that’s anything new – with two little people running around my feet and the day job persistently coaxing me to redefine the term ‘day’ (if not its conditions) being busy is by and large the norm for the foreseeable.
That said, I’ve actually had two weeks away from the office, during which I’ve done some research into two great influences of mine. The first of these is Hugh MacDiarmid. Like it or not, one of the things I do best in life is write poetry in Shetlandic. I did once form a habit of writing in a kind of everyscots, but it has been some time since I made anything in this tongue, ithir as a dreadfu din. As a student of poetry and of Scots, I was drawn to the works of MacDiarmid like a moth to a flame.
Well, I’ve recently had the great privilege of learning about a big influence on his writing, the Langholm Common Riding. I’d intended to take footage of the event, but on the eve of my departure the VJ camera decided to report unfit for work.
Armed with a stills camera, a good pair of boots, some stamina and the best guidance I could have prayed for I witnessed a truly mesmerising spectacle as the burgh marked its boundaries, and its citizens past and present showed exactly how far flung the boundaries of human achievement are.
I’m working on an account of my experiences, some poetic responses and the better stills I took. If they’ll have me, I plan to return with good kit and collaborators to begin a film in tribute to the way he changed Scottish poetry and its standing in the world.
The other influence is perhaps a little less obvious. In many ways, the mean streets of Leith and London were a million miles away from my background (they just were), and as far from the work I’ve produced in the intervening years (they just are), but in 19993 I was a very easily influenced teenager. I sat my highers that year, and a book which went on to define a generation was published.
Irvine Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting‘ could hardly have been more antithetical to my life experience up until that point, son of an island Manse. I’d been sooth, but never for more than two weeks at a time. That said, my brother did (and does) live in Edinburgh, and I had a functional familiarity with the city (even if I only really got to know the Port of Leith when alumni from the University of Stirling settled there around the turn of the century).
That novel did two things. First, it offered more a crow bar in the door than a credit card in the lock of my horizons. Intravenous drug use, prostitution and organised violence were not part of my experience, but I knew they were part of human life. The novel ‘Trainspotting’ in its characteristically uncompromising fashion offered them up – behaviours which did not define the characters behind them, but which were defined by real, believable human actors.
The other, paradigmatic impact the book did to my pliable young brain was to make ‘Scots’, or ‘Non Standard English’ or ‘Colloquialism (ya cunt)’ okay. Not just okay to speak – I was lucky enough to grow up in a place where the Queens English was secondary in day to day life. The warm embrace it received critically (and commercially, but I was more of an idealist back then) provided a kind of validation to me, along with the fact that it was in fact exceptionally well written. I can’t remember much of what I wrote when I was 17, but the fact I wrote so readily in my middir tongue at 27 can not be decoupled from my positive experience with this book.
So the appearance of a prequel to the world’s first meeting with Renton, Sick Boy, Tommy, Spud and Begbie had my whistle well and truly whetted. After the much bemoaned office chipped in to get me birthday Waterstones vouchers, I grabbed the chance to acquire a novel I felt I more compelled to read than any since Robert Alan Jamieson’s ‘Da Happy Laand’.
I need to read ‘Trainspotting’ again, especially now I’ve topped up on the antique antics of the chemically enhanced YLT. I do remember ‘Trainspotting’ having greater urgency, and the tension of any first novel, especially one as risk loving as that. But everything I loved about that book I love about ‘Skagboys’.
To draw perhaps an outlandish parallel, Welsh is as rare a writer as was C M Grieve in his embrace of politics. They have changed in the intervening decades between each other’s output, but young Kirsty Grieve ae Langholm became an outspoken political figure as surely as he became a uniquely independent political mind. Young Irvine of fair Edina has (I feel) followed in that tradition, and allowed demographic struggle as well as the more savoury psychological variety to flavour his contribution to the early twentieth century.
‘Skagboys’ opens with a brutal, strikers side account of the policing atrocity authorised by Margaret Thatcher’s government at Orgreave in 1984. Our eyes and ears through this piece of national history is Mark Renton, immortalised in celluloid by Danny Boyle and actor Ewan MacGregor.
His character is central, and one feels closest to Welsh’s perspective. I’m not suggesting that Renton is Welsh, I think the latter is far too clever for that (and arguably the former, but lets not get smart); the fact does remain though that Renton is a literate character in the way that his drummer, Keezbo, isn’t – or heaven forfend Francis Begbie, the seething mass of potential, actual and already perpetuated violence.
The only match for Renton in misdirected nouse is Simon Williamson, a Sick Boy who uses his dictionary as a bludgeon with which to elicit companionship, and his silver tongue as the rapier to pin it down so it can’t run before he does.
All 548 pages are packed with humour, empathy and the sweet tragedy of human lives whose direction is determined by something they have no control over. For me, the best deal was in the pages during which all the major players in each other’s heroin dependent lives are contained in a rehab clinic in Fife. Here, Renton really bares a little bit of his writer’s soul (and a big bit of his human one), and addresses the language question cleverly (‘That is more like how I sound in my head heid. Sometimes. Why try tae sound different? Why the fuck be the same as every other cunt? Ah mean, whae’s fuckin interest does it serve?).
In the final, most devastatingly and beautifully believable tale of the book, you can hardly deny Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting industry Mark Renton’s deliciously post modern observation to Sick Boy that “It’s no like some famous cunt’s gaunny come along and make a film ay our lives, is it?”
As far as I understand it, this has already happened. This cunt Welsh, however, has long since done more. He’s given them a voice.