Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Life among the Leith Plebs: Of Arseholes, Wankers, and Tourists in Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting"

Academic journal article Studies in the Literary Imagination

Life among the Leith Plebs: Of Arseholes, Wankers, and Tourists in Irvine Welsh's "Trainspotting"

Article excerpt

In the eyes of its original publisher, Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting is, in its most basic terms, a novel about "heroin addicts on a run-down Edinburgh estate" (McLean qtd. in Redhead xv). This seems difficult to dispute, as the city of Edinburgh figures prominently throughout the novel and almost all the novel's action takes place within Edinburgh's municipal boundaries. In some very clear, very basic sense, Trainspotting is an Edinburgh novel in the same way that Dickens's novels are London novels and Joyce's Ulysses is a Dublin novel. This said, Trainspotting does not really seem to be a novel of Edinburgh even if it is largely about it. As most readers recognize, the novel is obsessed with the construction and transgression of boundaries: the boundary between Scottishness and "Britishness," the boundary between working and ruling class behavior, and, most famously, the boundary between mainstream "washing-machine" culture and the subversive drug culture that haunts it. Less obviously, but for me crucially, the novel delineates a clear boundary between "Edinburgh" (the city of Walter Scott and castle postcards) and "Leith," the specific home of all of Trainspotting's major characters. When the novel's protagonist, Mark Renton, expresses a desire to leave his home behind, for example, he claims he needs to get "oot ay Leith, oot ay Scotland. For Good" (201). This construction bypasses Edinburgh altogether, moving from neighborhood to nation without reference to the capital city because Welsh's characters are from (of "of") Leith; Edinburgh, in stark contrast, is a foreign territory, the home of "posh wifies [who] think people like us ur vermin" (160).

Trainspotting famously claims that Scotland has been "colonized by wankers" (78) and that it has had the terms of its existence dictated by "effete arseholes" (78), yet the discourse of colonialista extends to Edinburgh itself, insolar as the capital city has forcibly amalgamated Leith and re-figured it as the "outskirts of Edinburgh" rather than an autonomous space (Farred 219). Originally a separate burgh, Leith was compelled to "merge" with Edinburgh (against the wishes of many residents) in the 1920s. From the perspective of municipal politics, Grant Farred is undoubtedly correct to say that Leith exists on the outskirts of the Scottish capital, yet, as the novel's exaggerated contempt for all modes of formalized authority makes clear, Welsh's characters are not at all interested in the rule of "parasite politician[s]" (228). Instead, they operate according to a highly idiosyncratic cultural logic that frequently inverts conventional values. And, just as Scots characteristically feel the politically irrelevant but symbolically crucial distinction between "Scotland" and "Britain" (a distinction that Welsh foregrounds in the novel), Trainspotting posits a categorical distinction between Leith and Edinburgh as central to almost every character's sense of self. Officially speaking, their tenements may be managed by the city of Edinburgh, but, as the novel's linguistic register emphatically indicates, Welsh's characters have no interest in official language. The peculiar, and very much concrete, socioeconomic and cultural conditions of life in Leith trump the abstract, bureaucratic procedures that designate them as Edinburgh residents, and, no matter what the census says, these characters are not from Edinburgh. In the end, Trainspotting isn't so much a novel of the "Edinburgh underground" as a novel of day-to-day life in Leith. (1) As a novel, it is not figured underneath the overarching umbrella of upstanding Edinburgh, but literally and figuratively outside Edinburgh's boundaries. When Renton visits a court-ordered psychotherapist, he claims that "society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae's behaviour is outside its mainstream" (187). In Trainspotting, the city of Edinburgh is an agent of this "spurious" homogenizing logic, while Leith, with its variously articulated modes of anti-social behavior (drug use, theft, profanity, violence, sexual exploitation, etc. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.