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Thursday, 15 December 2016

BOOK REVIEW: Skagboys, by Irvine Welsh

Some years ago I saw the film of Trainspotting. Subsequently I read the novel and much preferred it to the film.  Now I've just finished reading Skagboys, a prequel to the earlier book.

These novels are written mostly in Scots dialect (a term that is probably ideologically unacceptable but who cares). One effect of this is to force an Antipodean reader like me to read slowly and carefully, almost sounding out the words in my head. Partly for that reason and partly because Irvine Welsh is a very fine writer the events of the novel are heard almost as much as read. The result is a vivid account of the lives of junkies - unjustified optimism, degradation, euphoria, false hope, disillusionment, betrayal and more degradation.

When I was young many of my friends and acquaintances were heroin users. I never tried it myself: whether that was from cowardice or good sense I no longer know. Perhaps I just preferred alcohol, a foible which was viewed with tolerant condescension in those circles. In any case, the memory of that time gives me an interesting perspective on Skagboys.  

I was always amused by the degree of snobbery that was characteristic of junkies.  Many heroin users looked down on people who restricted themselves to acid or dope.  “At least heroin’s a physical drug.  It only affects the body.  I’m not going to take something that stuffs up my mind.”  As Monty Python would have said, “It’s all this Cartesian dualism that’s to blame!” It was the same kind of snobbery that was apparent, in wider social circles,  in music styles or clothing brands. Interestingly, the junkies in Skagboys don’t mix with potheads or acid freaks so the phenomenon that I observed isn’t visible here. Neither is the unspoken degradation competition that resulted from junkies measuring themselves against famous musicians or, less commonly, writers.  “Great artists are tormented souls, alienated from conventional society. I’m tormented and alienated; therefore I’m a great artist. However I’m more degraded than you so I am the greater artist.” The closest to this in Welsh’s novel is that some of the characters fancy themselves as musicians, though their musical careers don’t amount to much. I must also say (to prove that junkies aren’t the only snobs) that the main character’s taste in music is deplorable.

One of the saddest things about junkies - in real life and in Skagboys - is the degree to which their moral sense becomes subordinate to their addiction. In life I knew one or two honourable exceptions, but the characters in the novel are more typical. They hold out on their colleagues, steal from their families and pimp out their girlfriends. And yet, both in life and in fiction, I never found myself able to condemn them totally. It’s as if we make two simultaneous moral estimates of them. “Nice bloke, bad junkie.”  “I like him, but I wouldn’t turn my back on him.“


Anyway, read the book. Some scenes will make you laugh aloud, though most will make you cringe. A lot like life, really.

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