What’s to really like about Irvine Welsh’s Filfth?

filfth“Failure is much more interesting to me than success,” said Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh in a recent talk I attended in Melbourne

“I write about people who are going through a bad time, when things are falling apart. I try to show these characters grasping for the light switch,” he said in an attempt to explain the grim reality of many of his characters.

In the case of Scottish Detective Sergeant Bruce Robertson, the light switch might as well have been in Hawaii, in an abandoned, graffiti stained warehouse where the power has long been turned off.

He is beyond hope of redemption, right from the very first pages:

After two fruitless strikes I feel a surge of euphoria on my third as his head bursts open. His blood fairly skootches out…

Robertson its an utterley despicable character. A murderer, a rapist, a racist, a misogynist, a betrayer of his friends and family, a drug fiend, an alcoholic, a rabid consumer of pies, chips and deep fried food; a man with eczema-encrusted genitals that rise at the slightest whiff of sexual conquest, who retreats to the bathroom to give his itchy anus “a good clawing”.  Into the mix, throw in a distinct lack of interest in personal hygiene, fetishes that include erotic asphyxiation (strangulation sex) and a side interest in bestiality, and you get a pretty good picture of DS Bruce Robertson.

And yet it’s an enjoyable book to read mainly because Robertson is an entertaining, wise-cracking first person narrator who speaks directly to his reader without any sense of remorse, who plots the downfall of his work colleagues, friends and adversaries with Machiavellian cunning. One enjoys his scheming and plotting in the same manner as one enjoy Blackadder and his many “cunning plans”.

At the heart of it all is a man who hates everything but his own shadow, driven by a burning rage that will not cool:

I hate them all, that section of the working class who won’t do as they are told: criminals, spastics, niggers, strikers, thugs, I don’t fucking well care, it all adds up to one thing: something to smash.

Robertson is a voyeuristic release for every bad thought a (male) reader has ever had (and yet there are also female fans of this book).

There’s a guilty pleasure in allowing Robertson to enter your head, knowing that you can close the book and return to the real world where hopefully some sense of morality and decency remains.

Perhaps this is partly why Welsh wrote it, to get all his inner demons on the page to expunge the Bruce Robertson buried in his pysche. Either that, or it’s an opportunity to write about a character who remarks during a bout of sex with an Amsterdam prostitute:

I’ve given the pole a good greasing but she’s pretty tight. Once I get in though, it starts to slide up. I can tell that she’s in a bit of distress cause she’s making hissing noises and her back muscles are tensing, but it’s probably  just cause the fucking hoor’s loving every minute of it.

These type of graphic descriptions dominate the book in between heavy bouts of drinking, drug taking and “hooring”.

The female degradations inflicted by Robertson reminded me of a question a woman asked at the same talk Welsh gave in Melbourne. She asked him about his depiction of woman characters and whether there was something misogynistic about it?

At the time I scoffed at the question, but having read Filth, I’ve reconsidered.

Women are the chief focus of Robertson’s humiliations. They are reduced to play things without feelings or emotions. They are objects for his pleasure and derision most horrifyingly illustrated in a scene I won’t even dare to quote where Robertson drives a prostitute to an isolated farm to have sex with a sheep dog.

It was this scene where – out of sheer revulsion – I considered putting the book down.

Trainspotting was Welsh’s first book and I wager – though I have only read it and now Filth – his finest by a country mile. Trainsportting was  a brilliant depiction of the post-Thatcher generation lost to drugs. A modern classic.

Filth is almost pure literary pornography with an enigmatic villain unlike any created in fiction who engages in every possible depravity. There’s whiffs of Trainspotting in Robertson’s occasional hilarious commentary on Scottish football, tabloid journalism (Robertson is a big reader of The Sun – for the football and the girls on page 3) restaurant food and local politics. But it has little gravitas and nothing meaningful to say about the society that created such a monster as Bruce Robertson.

Yes, we learn something of Robertson’s motivations and inner psyche –  through a tapeworm in his bowels that speaks in Queen’s English. But in the end and upon reflection, I tend to agree with what The Observer book critic Alan Taylor wrote of the novel when he reviewed it in 1998:

“As an archetype, Robertson is over the top. Welsh slips so easily into degradation mode that pages slip by in wodges, a miasma of pornography that is mindnumbing…Welsh lets him sink so low he is not resuscitable. For such a man, the idea of redemption seems risible. His sin goes beyond breaking the law. Guilt, ultimately, is the least of his problems. He has committed the cardinal crime. He is a crushing bore.”

 

A very Scottish evening with Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh

irvine welsh2I went to hear legendary Scottish author Irvine Welsh speak last week.

My friend Jonny, who has read all his books, invited me along to a talk hosted by the Wheeler Centre.

I have read just one of Welsh’s books, “Trainspotting”, but it was enough for me to say “yes” immediately.

Trainspotting – a brilliant, excruciating, haunting and often hilarious story about a group of doomed Scottish junkies set in the impoverished council estates of Edinburgh in the late 1980s/early 1990s – was published in 1993 and has sold more than 1 million copies in the UK alone.

It’s listed in my literary reference bible: “1001 Books You Should Read before Die” alongside contemporary literary masterpieces by Salman Rushdie, Ian McEwan, Donna Tartt and J.M. Coetzee.

welsh

Irvine Welsh with a fan in Melbourne

Welsh, a bald, tallish man sat down on stage  at the Athenaeum Theatre on Collins Street dressed casually in a black t-shirt, jeans and leather jacket looking like the kind of guy you’d strike up a conversation with about football at the pub. The only sign of possible eccentricity: bright red socks.

He was there ostensibly to promote his latest book which has the intriguing title of ‘The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins’. It’s his first novel set entirely in the US – Welsh lives in Chicago and wrote and set the novel amongst Miami’s gym, fitness and dieting culture.

(“If people want to lose weight, they should just eat less. Instead, in America, they consume diets.” he says.)

It’s his first novel without a Scottish character with only the vaguest references to Scotland.

Putting on a bad American accent, Welsh recalled a line in the book spoken by one of the aggressive female characters to Wheeler Centre director Michael Williams:

“I don’t wanna go to a fillum set in Scotland or Bosnia speaking a language no one can understand.”

Williams reminded Welsh that he is had pronounced “film” in the Scottish dialect of “fillum”.

Welsh throws back his head and roars with laughter.

Miami agree with Welsh. He goes to gym, eats well, walks around in shorts and t-shirts taking in the good weather.

But his heart – thankfully – remains firmly rooted in Scotland, where he created his most iconic characters – Renton, Begbie, Sickboy and Spud.

It’s not just his heavy Scottish brogue that makes it hard to imagine he’s become an American in any way, he still clearly loves his homeland, telling the audience that he has enjoyed “discovering Scotland from the US”.

Moving to somewhere “exotic” like Miami, he says, made him realise that Scotland is “one of the f-cking weirdest places I have ever been to in my life.”

And he’s also kept up with local politics, noting that the country is “re-inventing itself from the inside out” and that it is an “exciting time” with the Scottish independence referendum vote on September 18 – a remark which draws a large cheer from fellow countrymen in the packed audience of devoted fans.

Welsh has also maintained that famous, sardonic, playful Scottish sense of humour, that made Trainspotting such a huge success.

He quips: “Scottish people are always wonderful to outsiders – they like people coming to visit, but they f-cking hate each other.”

He then jokes that the last time he visited Edinburgh everyone was so nice to each other, which meant he had nothing to write about.

This is thankfully an exaggeration with Welsh telling the audience that his next book – coming out next year – will be about a taxi driver in Edinburgh.

More than likely it will be about one of those failed characters, who he writes so well about – whether its Renton, Spud or Begbie in Trainspotting or the vicious Detective Seargeant Bruce Robertson in the recently filmed “Filfth” (a novel I’ve already picked up from the library).

Failure, is something which inspires Welsh and the characters he creates on the page: Trainspotting is not just about failed characters whose lives have been blown off course by heroin addiction but is set within a landscape of failure  created by Margaret Thatcher and her Tory cronies, and one experienced by Welsh himself.

“Failure is much more interesting to me than success,” he says. “I write about people who are going through a bad time, when things are falling apart.

“I try to show these characters grasping for the light switch,” a beautiful phrase, which encapsulates the sadness behind doomed characters like Tommy Laurence, a football-mad childhood friend of Renton in Trainspotting who turns to heroin after his girlfriend dumps him and ends up contracting AIDS.

“These are people who were not always like what they are now,” Welsh says.

Welsh himself knows a lot about failure. He couldn’t play football or cut it as a musician (his two other passions) – but he was good at storytelling.

“Most writers are serial failures,” he says.

Speaking about his own success – he notes humbly that many celebrated Scottish writers blazed a path for him but did not achieve the international recognition he did.

He says he is inspired by bad fiction, rather than by what other great authors have written (one of his favourite books is Ulysses by Irishman James Joyce):

“When I read a shite book, I tell myself, I am going to take that c-nt down.”

Renton, couldn’t have said it better.