Irvine Welsh returns to familiar territory with his latest book. Ostensibly Skagboys is a prequel to the 1993 blockbuster Trainspotting that launched Welsh's career, although in reality much of the text was written before this and recovered from obsolete Amstrad word processor floppy disks. The book re-acquaints the reader with loveable miscreants Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie – names familiar to scholar's of Welsh's work – during the mid 80s at a time they have left school and are on the dole or in dead-end manual labour jobs. This places the characters in the time of Margaret Thatcher crushing the unions; Renton with his father attends the bloody Battle of Orgreave and having witnessed the wilful carnage meted by the police becomes disillusioned with political activism.
This is a tale written largely in Scottish vernacular in the first person, switching between characters every chapter, although Welsh does occasionally use third person. Each of the first person voices has its own dialect and speech patterns, so it becomes easy to guess which character has been adopted, although Welsh does tend to signpost for convenience also. The language is littered with the street slang of Leith barry - radge - gadge - coupon – bam – chib so it is worthwhile for the intrepid reader to have an Internet connection to urbandictionary.com. Some may well be Welsh inventions according to the comments on the site.
The narrative is picaresque in scope, and lays the foundations of the later Trainspotting thus doesn't contain any closure per se. It does however explain the central character's descent into heroin dependency, interwoven with an AIDS epidemic timeline as the first HIV+ cases were diagnosed in the clinics of Edinburgh.
Some of the set-piece moments are excruciatingly funny and will solicit strange looks from the public if you are reading on a train. The mental image of Renton (i.e. Ewan McGregor) winning a Monday morning human excrement contest at work will stay with me for a long, long time. The brilliant set-up when Sick Boy stitches up the impressionable Spud by suggesting he attempts anal sex in a one-night stand with middle-aged voracious man-eater chanteuse Claudia Rosenberg would not be out of place in a Confessions movie and certainly deserves consigning to celluloid.
There are deeply moving scenes too. Renton commits his thoughts into a diary (reproduced in handwriting) whilst in rehab. The harrowing capture of the mental and physical torture of cold turkey, always underpinned by the desire to score more skag immediately after completion, suggests first hand knowledge by Welsh.
This book is a return to form after some Welsh disappointments such as Porno and Filth that never quite scaled the heights. To have a greater appreciation of life in a scheme in Leith in the mid 80s, you would have to have lived it.