Short Courses

Creative Writing - Irvine Welsh

Nicky Melville, a Creative Writing Tutor at COL looks at a range of Scottish writers, or writers based in Scotland. This piece focuses on Irvine Welsh as not only was he the reason that Nicky got into writing, Welsh is also appearing at this year's Edinburgh International Book Festival; at an event that COL are proudly sponsoring.

Scottish literature is in rude health. Sometimes it has been ruder. Two Scottish books from the 1990's, written in two different styles of Scottish slang, launched a particularly rude period.

Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting was published in 1993 and slowly snowballed into a global phenomenon that culminated in the 1996 film. James Kelman, who had been pushing the boundaries of the vernacular in narrative for a decade, won the 1994 Booker Prize for How Late It Was How Late — much to the horror of Britain’s literary establishment. Sir Simon Jenkins called Kelman an ‘illiterate savage.’ I imagine – hope! – that if Jenkins wrote that now he’d be cancelled. Deservedly so. Upstart Scots going down there(!) with their uncouth books written in a variety of vernaculars! That’s one thing I really love about being Scottish: our unique slang(s). We’re bilingual and can switch registers at the drop of a ‘See You Jimmy’ hat, depending on the company. Slang’s another language, almost a weapon. No wonder it was such shock to the London literati.

Trainspotting opened the window onto a side of Edinburgh that I was yet to experience as a naïve nineteen-year old, but one thing I was familiar with was the slang of the Edinburgh area. I can honestly say that Irvine Welsh is to blame for my writing career. Being from Dalkeith the slang was a little different. Instead of likesay, we said like. (It’s funny that use of the word like has become a talking point recently, when it’s been a multi-purpose word in these parts for donkeys.) Welsh gave me, and many others, the permission to use the vernacular as a valid form of expression and validated it as a way to present local tongues on the page. The short prose pieces and poems of The Acid House, in particular, helped me rethink what a poem could be, how it could reflect, as Wordsworth put it, the ‘language really used by men [sic],’ and how it might look on the page.

In 1996 I wrote what I consider to be my first ‘proper’ poem, not just the notebook ramblings of a melancholic teenager. When I showed it to friends they said it was a poem. So I wrote some more – typically short, funny poems – in my Dalkeith slang and started submitting to magazines. I still know some of them off pat, even now, twenty-five years later. Someone I recited a poem to a party said they were reminiscent of Glaswegian poet Tom Leonard. I had never heard of him, but I tracked down his 1984 collection Intimate Voices in Dalkeith library. That collection was another game changer and is still one of my favourite books. Leonard’s work is much more than the vernacular poems for which he is best known, but those poems were my gateway poems. I have Leonard to thank for showing me the variety of forms that poetry can take. His range and its arrangement across a book informed my approach when pulling together the poems for my own Selected poems, Decade of Cu ts.

Across the five classes which I teach at the Centre for Open Learning I look at a range of Scottish writers, or writers based in Scotland. Poetry in Practice includes many. Tom Leonard is a key figure, alongside Edwin Morgan, Ian Hamilton Finlay, Veronica Forrest-Thomson, and contemporary poets Colin Herd, Maria Sledmere, Tessa Berring and Nat Raha. I don’t use Scottish writers because they’re Scottish and I’m Scottish, working at a Scottish university in Scotland. I use Scottish writers because they’re great writers and important in their own right on a local, national and international level.

If a poetry class sparks your passion then you're in luck! We have a variety of creative writing classes starting in September.

Book Poetry in Practice 

If you enjoyed reading this blog piece by Nicky, please find the link below to his book of poems:

Decade of Cu ts by Nicky Melville