Mark Renton has it all: he’s good-looking, young, with a pretty girlfriend and a place at university. But there’s no room for him in the 1980s. Thatcher’s government is destroying working-class communities across Britain, and the post-war certainties of full employment, educational opportunity and a welfare state are gone. When his family starts to fracture, Mark’s life swings out of control and he succumbs to the defeatism which has taken hold in Edinburgh’s grimmer areas. The way out is heroin. It’s no better for his friends. Spud Murphy is paid off from his job, Tommy Lawrence feels himself being sucked into a life of petty crime and violence - the worlds of the thieving Matty Connell and psychotic Franco Begbie. Only Sick Boy, the supreme manipulator of the opposite sex, seems to ride the current, scamming and hustling his way through it all. Skagboys charts their journey from likely lads to young men addicted to the heroin which has flooded their disintegrating community. This is the 1980s: a time of drugs, poverty, AIDS, violence, political strife and hatred - but a lot of laughs, and maybe just a little love; a decade which changed Britain for ever. The prequel to the world-renowned Trainspotting, this is an exhilarating and moving book, full of the scabrous humour, salty vernacular and appalling behaviour that has made Irvine Welsh a household name.
1993 was the year in which Irvine Welsh was flung into the bestseller/cult realm with his debut, Trainspotting. Since then, he has continued to riff on ideas of masculinity, and other, bleaker, aspects of life.
I was thrilled to listen to Welsh at Adelaide Writers’ Week in 2010, and to learn he was working on a prequel to Trainspotting. Yes, that’s right. Antihero Mark Renton, the womanising Sick Boy, Spud and the volatile Francis Begbie are back, and they’re up to all sorts of malarkey. Reading Trainspotting and Porno (although less so) you can’t help wondering what it was that went awry in Renton’s life for him to start using heroin. This prequel explains all of this, making it essential reading.
Again, Renton is firmly at the centre of this book, which begins with the infamous industrial dispute of 1984, the Battle of Orgreave. Welsh superbly charts specific episodes that are crucial to Renton’s spiralling out (and back in, and out) of control. As the drugs take hold, Renton ignores all advice to the contrary, continuing down his chosen path. One can draw a number of parallels between Skagboys and the works of Evelyn Waugh and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Peppered with ‘junky dilemma’ soliloquies, Welsh invites readers into the psyche of his characters and as with Trainspotting, he neatly inserts some stats that not only contextualise the novel but juxtapose the antics of these lads and serve as a sobering reminder of the effects of drug use.
Skagboys is a great read, and you can tell that Welsh is most comfortable here because he knows these guys better than anyone. He’s a brilliant storyteller and I couldn’t help but become invested in the characters’ journeys.
Julia Jackson is from Readings Carlton
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