Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
- 1 January 2005
100 Best Scottish Books of All Time
Much imitated but never bettered, Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting is my personal numero uno 20th century Scottish book. This novel is now so embedded in Scottish culture that it’s hard to remember it's only been around since 1993. In that time, it’s spawned Harry Gibson’s excellent stage play, a seminal album that introduced Iggy Pop to a new generation, and a major movie, which helped establish several Scottish movie stars including Ewan McGregor, Kelly Macdonald and Robert Carlyle.
The novel wasn’t an obvious candidate for success. Its initial print run of 3000 copies was tiny and its contents were allegedly too offensive for the Booker shortlist. Ignored and unhyped, the book filtered into the mainstream through readers, many of whom – even those whose biggest exposure to drugs was scamming a bit of puff from their big brother’s mate – were seeing people they recognised represented in literature for the first time. The whisper started somewhere on Leith Walk and swelled like a George Romero movie crossed with a disaffected Proclaimers video until Trainspotting’s popularity and unexpected commercial potential made it impossible for the literary establishment to ignore. The Leith branch of Woolworths began upping its order for jotters as every down-on-their-luck doley and alienated office worker started turning their hand to writing. Trainspotting empowered a new generation of Scottish writers, myself included.
The book didn’t come out of the blue. The likes of Burroughs and Trocchi had already written about drugs. Leonard, Kelman and others had written in the voices of Scottish working people. But Irvine Welsh built on these existing literary innovations to create a completely original work. He wrote about drug users who didn’t have the cushion of a middle-class education and for a generation who had never known apprenticeships, shipyards or slums. Here was the voice of the schemie.
Trainspotting is now an international phenomenon. It blew me away when I read it back in the 90s and even without the shock of the new, it still stands up as a hilarious, moving, stylish and intelligent novel. The Rebel Inc quote on the cover of my battered paperback copy is no word of a lie: ‘the best book ever written by man or woman … deserves to sell more copies than the Bible’.
Further reading: Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995) is the harrowing tale of haunted football hooligan Roy Strang; Porno (2002) returns to the characters from Trainspotting ten years on.
View the complete list of the 100 Best Scottish Books.