Darkness, obsession and addiction are constant threads throughout the work of Scottish writer Irvine Welsh; but then so is football, as ALEX STEWART explains.
“Ah’m movin oantae a crossfield baw fae Kenny and ah try n trap it, withoot killin the baw right. It runs oan a bit n thir’s a Fet boy gaun for it. We clatter intae each other n ah gits right up n he’s still oan the deck. The referee’s blown n gied a foul against me. What a radge.” (Glue)
Billy Birrell, talented aspiring footballer and proto-hoodlum, one of the characters in Irvine Welsh’s blisteringly funny and morally bankrupt novel Glue, narrates an encounter with the football club Fet. It is a rare example of football actually happening in Welsh’s books, but the sport is utterly pervasive as a background, a point of reference, part of the fabric of the lives of Scotland’s working class that Welsh describes so brilliantly. The above quote is from a chapter titled ‘Sex as Football Substitute’, but Birrell actually eschews physical love for the all-consuming passion of the game. Recalling an earlier encounter at school, he says that despite having a full packet of condoms, he chose only to have sex once:
“We hud loads ay time, a whole packet, but ah jist did it the once cause ah wis telt thit it fucks up yir legs fir the trainin.”
On the day the chapter is set, he sees a girl he is stepping out with approaching his house and, temptingly, he is home alone. The priorities of possibly playing in front of a scout, though, cause him not to answer the door and football ends up being, in fact, a substitute for sex:
“It wid be good tae huv a ride up here, take the eftirnoon oaf. Ah dinne want her tae think we’re gaun oot thegither but. Aye, ah’ve goat fitba the morn. Ah ignore it, n watch her gaun oot the stair n doon the road.”
Welsh’s novels chronicle the lives of society’s misfits and peripheral characters, criminals, drug addicts, and police officers (though, in fairness, DS Robertson in Filth is pretty much a criminal who’s fond of a toot now and again as well). Football is an ever present trope in his writing, part of the fabric of the city of Edinburgh, where his novels are set, a city whose status as the second football city in Scotland, despite being its capital, is a source of much chippy rage:
“Lenny went down to the pub and sat at the bar with his Daily Record and a pint of lager…The back pages of the Record were full of Rangers/Celtic shite as usual. Souness spys on some fucker in the English second division, McNeill says Celts’ confidence is coming back. Nothing about Hearts. No. A wee bit about Jimmy Sandison, with the same quote twice, and the short passage finishing in mid-sentence. There’s also a small space on why Miller of Hibs still thinks he’s the best man for the job, when they’ve only scored three goals in the last thirty games or something.” (Trainspotting)
In a city so obsessed with the game, and divided by it, it’s hardly surprising that football is often simply an almost reflexive frame of reference for his characters. Bruce Robertson, the psychotic strand of the thin blue line in Filth, also reads the paper but, as he says, “I read it for the fitba and Andrew Wilson. He’s the only one that talks any sense on that fuckin paper, even if he is a Hibby Leith bastard.” Robertson, disgusting but horribly funny in equal measure, finds himself listening to the description of the finding of a murder victim and deploys football in an unusual simile:
“I fart silently but move swiftly to the other side of the room. The technique is to let the fart ooze out a bit before you head off, or you just take it with you in your troosers tae the next port of call. It’s like the fitba, you have to time your runs.”
Robertson has few interests outside ‘the job’, sex, drugs, and the Freemasons, but football is a constant, resonant part of his life, forever cropping up in the book:
“We find a seat and I hear some cunt at the next table talking aboot the fitba, he’s saying something Stronach’s been a good servant but there isnae a full ninety minutes in him anymair. I’m considering this rather obvious point when out of the corner of my eye I see a completely wrecked auld cunt in faded but clean clathes, noising up some students.”
Tom Stronach is actually known to Robertson, who describes him as “My friend and neighbour, Tom Stronach, a professional footballer and a fanny-magnet extraordinaire…Tom Stronach. Not a magic name. Not a name to conjure with.” Unlike Robertson, Stronach is successful in life, and the trappings of a professional footballer’s life even provide Robertson with similes in his day-to-day life: “Her cool’s blown. Her eyes are like the satellite dishes on Tom Stronach’s ootside wall.” Football, like crime, is one of the ways out of the poverty of the Edinburgh schemies, or council estates, and the commitment of Glue’s Billy Birrell, while it lasts, is testament to that lure. Football is glamorous and wealthy, and Renton, the protagonist of Trainspotting, even puts his sexual success down to an unlikely similarity:
“A few years ago, though, a woman told him that he was a dead ringer for Alex McLeish, the Aberdeen and Scotland footballer. Since then the tag had stuck. When Alex McLeish hangs up his boots, Renton has resolved to travel up to Aberdeen for his testimonial as a token of gratitude. He remembers an occasion where Sick Boy shook his head sadly, and asked how some cunt who looked like Alex McLeish could ever hope to be attractive to women.”
Unfortunately, despite the prizes that football can bring, like success and enfranchisement more generally, there is rarely an escape for the characters that populate Welsh’s books. Trainspotting’s Rab ‘Second Prize’ McLaughlin, who “went doun tae Man Utd”, had a promising career as a footballer ruined by alcoholism; now a shambling wreck of a drunk, his nickname stems from his inability to win the fights he starts while under the influence. Football is a spectral presence in these men’s lives, a reminder of what they had or could have had before drink and drugs destroyed them.
Indeed, football is often a sorrowful presence, a reminder of a carefree, even childish state before crime and drugs get their hold on people. In Trainspotting Tommy, the previously (relatively, drink and speed notwithstanding) clean member of the gang before he succumbs to heroin’s allure after a break-up, dies of an infection complicated by having AIDS. His body lies undisturbed for weeks. The film version of the book, directed by Danny Boyle, shows his room, the kitten whose excrement caused the infection in the background, then a football, slightly deflated, before panning up from dead Tommy’s feet to show the lower portion of his body. Tommy’s life is reduced to one room and the constant need to take heroin, but the football is still there, the same football Renton had kicked about on an earlier visit after he had got clean, a vestige of Tommy’s previously healthy, sane existence.
The opening sequence of the film version of Trainspotting, before the reality of addiction and death kicks in, features a five-a-side match between the collected misfits of Welsh’s novel and Calton Athletic, a real-life team set up to assist addicts. Some of the crew are wearing green and white shirts, replicas of Edinburgh’s Catholic team Hibernian. Renton’s team are scrappy and aggressive, no match for the properly kitted out boys from Calton. As Renton collapses back from being hit in the head by a free-kick, the film cuts to him collapsing in a room, high on smack, and as the camera pans around, there is a football tucked away under a chair. The energy and humour of the match is contrasted to the use of drugs, but without the darkness that creeps into the film later. Indeed, that contrast is used to humorous effect by Renton. Contrasting the addict’s life, where the only worry is scoring more junk, he posits that, off junk, all of a sudden myriad other concerns creep in: “You have to worry about bills, about food, about some football team that never fucking wins.”Embed from Getty Images
Humour is very much a part of Welsh’s novels and Boyle employs it to great effect in the film version of Trainspotting as well. In one of the films most famous montages, after the bar where Renton meets Diane, he goes back to her house (actually her parents’ house), while Tommy and his girlfriend go to their flat, also to have sex. Tommy scrabbles around for the sex tape he has made and that Renton stole earlier, replacing it was a 100 Best Goals compilation. As Tommy looks on with increasing horror, realising that his intimate moments are now out there in some sort of public domain, Archie Gemmill’s famous goal from the 1978 World Cup is played, interspersed with Renton and Diane’s increasingly passionate encounter. The commentator intones, “And he scores…what a penetrating goal that was”, just as Renton and Diane reach a mutually satisfying climax. Renton, lying back and very pleased with himself (the book chapter that relays these events is called ‘The First Shag in Ages’), he says, “I haven’t felt that good since Archie Gemmill scored against Holland in 1978.” Football is a light counterpoint to the encroaching darkness of the film, a relief because its utility is as a vehicle for fun and humour, much as Robertson uses football as an amusing simile above.
In ‘A Fault on the Line’, a short story from Reheated Cabbage, this humour reaches its darkest apogee when a woman is horribly injured and her husband is more concerned about missing the Edinburgh derby. One Sunday, the woman says to her husband, “Lit’s take the bairns doon tae that pub in Kingsknowe, the one ye kin sit ootside ay.” The man replies, “Cannae, eh…fitba’s oan it two. Hibs fuckin Herts.” In a rush to get home from the pub, the man persuades his wife and children to jump some railway lines despite the inherent danger, but his wife’s build imperils the attempt:
“The wee man, that wee cunt Jason, he’s ower like a shot n she finally waddles oaf the fuckin platform doon ontae the track. Fuckin embarrassment that fat cunt.”
A train hits her and her legs are severed from her body, but the man continues to worry about missing the game more than his maimed wife and mother of his children:
“Some cunt’s shoutin tae git an ambulance, n she’s lyin on the groond cursin n ahm thinkin aboot the fuckin fitba, kick-oaf in ten minute’s time. Bit then ah gits tae thinking thit the ambulance’ll maist likely huv tae go past oor bit oan its wey up tae hoaspital n ah could bail oot n catch up wi her back up thaire, eftir the game, likes.”
The man goes so far as to ask the ambulance to drop him off, which is refused, and he then asks the paramedic if there are televisions on the ward. The tragic-comic bathos of the story reaches its high point at the end, when the man exclaims:
“It was her ain fault as well, the fuckin fat cunt. Fuckin things up fir me like that. No thit the game wis anything tae write hame aboot, mind you, another fuckin nil-nil draw bit, eh.”
This is typical of Welsh, a blend of humour and obscenity, a character whose personal thoughts and feelings are at once abhorrent and yet hilarious. But the darkness, the encroaching of an obsession into a life to the exclusion of all else, even basic human decency, is the basic thrust of what Welsh examines in his books.
The ultimate use of football, then, seems to be as a tragic counterpoint to what comes after in the adult life of most of Welsh’s characters, an obsession replaced by a worse obsession. After an overdose, Trainspotting’s Renton is picked up from hospital by his long-suffering parents and taken home, where they lock him into his old room in an attempt at detoxing him. In Boyle’s film version, the walls of his childhood room are papered with trains, a nod to the book’s title, but there are also posters of Hibs all over and a sticker on the bed’s headboard, often in shot as Renton writhes and sweats the junk out of his system. The book’s title, according to Welsh, is an evocation of sub-cultures with their own idioms and shared experiences, impenetrable and possibly even incomprehensible to those who do not share the passion. Whether it is noting down locomotive numbers, supporting a football team, or intravenously injecting Class A drugs, such cultures grow around activities whose dedicated pursuit removes their adherents from the day-to-day norm, whose obsessive followers band together in a way that causes others simply to scratch their heads. But football is a healthy obsession, despite its occasional relationship with violence in Welsh’s novels (about which a whole other piece could be written: Begbie is a member of a hooligan firm in Trainspotting and many of the lads in Glue are involved in firm activities as well), unlike drug addiction. Welsh’s brilliance is to thread football through his books as it is threaded through the lives of his characters and, more importantly, through the real lives of those who inspire his books. Football brings humour and resonance, but, more than that, it brings pathos, a sense of what might have been before it all, as it inevitably does, went wrong.