In his appearance on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg, philosopher and writer Roger Scruton, author of An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Modern Culture, sniffed at Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting: “It’s so badly written that I would call it an unsuccessful attempt to elevate to the level of high culture… If you compare his ‘scotified’ dialogue with Sir Walter himself you would see how badly written it is.” In 1993, Trainspotting was longlisted for the Booker Prize. But, according to Wikipedia, it was rejected from the shortlist for “offending the sensibilities of two judges”. (The eventual winner was Roddy Doyle’s Paddy Clarke Ha-Ha, which I have not read.)
Whether Roger Scruton and those two Booker judges like it or not, twenty years on Trainspotting is going strong, still in print (what do you want to bet that Roger Scruton’s book is still in print?) And I think it deserves its accolades and success. In fact, I disagree with Roger Scruton completely because I think it is a *very* well-written book. Irvine Welsh captures the speech and culture of a very specific time and place, of a very specific group of people, in such a vivid manner that the reader is completely drawn into it. One does not have to be a 90s Scottish junkie to identify with the characters or the situations they find themselves in. I can understand why establishment figures like Roger Scruton and those two Booker judges would find this book disagreeable because it essentially reveals all the ways in which the government and society has failed this group of young people. And it doesn’t criticize existing social systems in the safe, comfortable, moralizing way that Charles Dickens would. We are not invited to pity the poor characters. Instead, we are made to feel we are one of them, to understand why they make the choices they make, even if we don’t necessarily agree with them. While we are laughing and feeling the exhilaration at some of the madcap antics of Renton and his crew, we are acutely aware of the fact that, had their circumstances been slightly different, these young men would have been indulging their high spirits in less self-destructive ways, that they could each of them have a better life but they are trapped, by their environment, by habit, by a lack of opportunity, and so their youthful energy and creativity is poured into criminal behavior rather than more constructive pursuits.
I feel as though I could easily write an entire essay on this book but since this is a pocket review, I’m just going to say that this is a really good book, well worth reading. It’s smart, funny, entertaining and thought-provoking.