- Solvent Abuse: Irvine Welsh and Scotland
There’s a passage in Bill Buford’s celebrated account of football violence, Among the Thugs, that is relevant to the question of Irvine Welsh’s Scottishness. Buford is on the Italian island of Sardinia, amidst a rioting crowd of hooligan inglesi, fleeing from the police in the aftermath of a 1990 World Cup match between England and Holland:
Then I collided with the people near me. Someone had brought the crowd to a stop. I didn’t understand why: the police were behind us; they would appear at any moment. Someone then shouted that we were all English. Why were we running? The English don’t run.... And so it went on. Having fled in panic, some of the supporters would then remember that they were English and that this was important, and they would remind the others that they too were English, and that this was also important, and, with a renewed sense of national identity, they would come abruptly to a halt, turn around, and charge the Italian police.(Buford 296)
Questions of national identity are at the center of Buford’s book. An American, writing about British football, he observes that hooliganism runs through concentric circles of club, city, caste, and country. But given that the ne plus ultra of football violence is the foreign campaign—the “taking” of a Continental city—Buford’s analysis necessarily privileges the great circle of nationalism: “The effect was immediate: these were no longer supporters of Manchester United; they were now defenders of the English nation. They had ceased to be Mancunians; in an instant, their origins had, blotterlike, spread from one dot on the map of the country to the entire map itself” (38–9). Hooliganism has been described as “the English disease.” And so, in Among the Thugs, football violence becomes the privileged sociological lens through which to view the post-industrial unmaking of the English working class: “a highly mannered suburban society stripped of culture and sophistication and living only for its affectations: a bloated code of maleness, an exaggerated, embarrassing patriotism, a violent nationalism, an array of bankrupt social habits” (262).
Substitute “Scotland” for “England” and Buford’s dystopic sociology will serve as a fair entrance-point to the world of Irvine Welsh’s Glue, a novel with much to say about football, violence, “codes of maleness,” and the fate of four working-class men as they come to adulthood during the 1980s and ‘90s. Of course, it would be foolish to link Buford and Welsh without some strong sense of the difference between Scottish and English class and sporting cultures.1 What is more significant, however, is that both Glue and Among the Thugs are texts trapped endlessly between national and “post-national” interpretive and structural imperatives. For if Buford’s Manchester United fans fill out their identities, “blotterlike,” to color the entire map of England, then it is also true that this is a nationalism subject to some of the most profoundly internationalizing forces in the contemporary world. The plots of both texts depend fundamentally on mass international travel: budget airlines, the package tour, and the Continental “weekender.” Both texts are written under the sign of the 1992 Maastricht treaty, which abolished immigration and labor controls between most European countries, creating a class of “Eurotrash” itinerants—both poor and wealthy—and giving fits to Continental policemen, struggling to separate law-abiding vacationers from an impossible-to-define “hooligan element.” Finally, both hooligans and literary cognoscenti revel in the recent unprecedented expansion in European and international cultural events, whether Glasgow Celtic vs. Juventus of Torino or a city-break to the new Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao. This last phenomenon gets great comic treatment in Glue, when Welsh’s protagonists—in Munich for the Oktoberfest beer festival—crash a cultural reception of the “Munich-Edinburgh Twin Cities Committee.”
Though he barely addresses it outright, the Europeanization of England is the ever-present determining context for Buford’s narratives. The single market is a political economy that his motley crew of electricians and skinheads struggles to comprehend, yet knows intimately...