WHEN Irvine Welsh (b.1958) published Trainspotting (1993) one of the shocks delivered was that the idea of Scotland’s “violent city” had been shifted from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

The hitherto genteel, polite, pretentious city of Jean Brodie and her “set” was exposed as the habitat of drug-addicted young men and women, lacking neither intelligence nor inventiveness but cynical to the point of nihilism in the legacy of high Thatcherism. When Welsh entitled a chapter “Scotland takes drugs in psychic defence” he was making a gesture of scornful opposition to the Anglocentric British Conservative status quo. Continuing into the 21st century, Welsh’s journalism and other writings contributed enormously to the rejection of political assumptions and conventions about “superiorism” so brutally endorsed by the era he emerged from.

The linguistic energy of Welsh’s writing and the formally flagrant yet cunning structure of Trainspotting (a series of short stories, sketches and jokes interconnecting to deliver the impact of a novel in the extended narrative of the second half of the book), both contributed to Welsh’s popularity and lasting status. Trainspotting set a challenge to readers to engage sympathetically with characters who might seem utterly repugnant, people in whose company you would not wish to be.

He followed it quickly with Marabou Stork Nightmares (1995), a blunt morality tale of lurid immediacy revising the colonial world of John Buchan in a hellish nightmare portrayal of social, colonial and misogynist violence; Filth (1998) centred on the exploits of a corrupt policeman, cruel, self-serving and malicious to the point of perversity but compelling and, at times, bizarrely, discomfortingly sympathetic. Glue (2001) and Porno (2002) brought the characters from Trainspotting back and as Welsh’s books proliferated it became clear that almost all of them were interconnected in an epic vision of Thatcherland and its aftermaths. The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs (2006), Crime (2008), Skagboys (2012), The Sex Lives of the Siamese Twins (2014), A Decent Ride (2015), The Blade Artist (2016) and Dead Men’s Trousers (2018) unfold a panorama in which even Iain Banks’s Frank from The Wasp Factory would feel uneasy. His short stories, collected in The Acid House (1994), Ecstasy (1996), If You Liked School You’ll Love Work (2007) and Reheated Cabbage (2009), are hit-or-miss, unflappable, unflagging in energy and appetite.

Welsh’s writing in fiction was complemented by plays, films and journalism, and while it is, to say the least, uneven, it demonstrates a deepening engagement with social morality and political culture: undeniably left-wing, democratic, socialist or egalitarian in a broad sense, and in the approach to the 2014 referendum, out-and-out in favour of independence.

In a television interview from April 20, 2012, Welsh was introduced by the English TV Newsnight frontman Jeremy Paxman, well-known at the time for various Scotophobic asides (describing Burns in The Telegraph, August 14, 2008, as “no more than a king of sentimental doggerel”). Paxman’s opening question, trying and failing to be provocative, was: “Now, are you surprised to find yourself a nationalist?” Welsh replied: “Yeah, I don’t really see myself as a nationalist, I see much more the Union as being in a kind of secular decline. The Union was very much conceived to facilitate British imperial expansion, British industrial expansion, sustained by a kind of welfare state and the ésprit de corps of two world wars. All these things no longer exist. They’ve gone. So I just don’t actually see what’s driving the Union, what’s holding it together.”

Challenged by the Labour MP Tristram Hunt, Welsh continued: “People feel in Scotland now that it’s not so much Britishness that they’re against but it’s the actual concept of the UK and the actual Union. The two political cultures have become very divergent ... Scotland […] is a very different society that’s developed in a very different political culture. I just don’t see any kind of connection there.”

When Hunt says that one of the strengths of the Union is the stature of the United Kingdom on the world stage, Welsh responds: “When you look at some of the decisions we’ve made in foreign policy, if you look at Afghanistan, where so many people were against that war, I don’t think you can pick these things as being pluses.” Hunt admits that English people themselves need space to consider the complexities of Englishness. Welsh responds by emphasising the difference within the political construct of the United Kingdom: “People have moved on from that in Scotland. I just sense that people have rejected that model.”

The National: Labour MP Tristram HuntLabour MP Tristram Hunt

WELSH’S commitment to independence was salutary but even more telling was the sense that people need time to move on from the definitions that constrain them. In that respect, the velocity and sensationalism of his fiction was complemented by a more enduring understanding of the value of patience.

With the work of Carl MacDougall (b.1941), that quality of patient understanding is an essential element. In the novel The Lights Below (1993), MacDougall places at the centre of a vivid Glasgow cityscape a sensitive and resilient central character in a grim tale culminating in an entirely credible sense of redemption. Andy Paterson, an innocent man imprisoned on drugs charges, is released and sets out to discover who framed him. It’s a classic “noir” structure, brilliantly handled.

MacDougall is also a master of the short story, often drawing on traditional sources, and in both his stories and novels, fabular fiction and retellings of traditional tales in modern contexts, familiar tropes are transformed with sharp, fresh edges. Underlying designs, like the returning prodigal, the need of the wronged to be justified, survival in a world of preying and exploiting powers, are revitalised and burnished by his writing.

Stone over Water (1990) tells of Angus MacPhail, conforming to work while his adoptive brother attempts to rescue Scotland by robbing banks. Lightly written, it gently deepens a sense of family and social responsibilities, the tensions and balances of comfort and risk. A Cuckoo’s Nest (1980) and A Scent of Water (1990) are charmed and eloquent collections of stories for children built on traditional tales.

THE short stories in Elvis is Dead (1986) centre on Glasgow life in its variety of strange capacities. The Casanova Papers (1997) begins in Glasgow with a widower taking stock of his situation, the death of his wife, his children, his own sense of life’s worth and his own mortality, then moves to Paris where he discovers a set of manuscripts relating to Casanova, which takes the narrative in entirely unexpected directions. The One Legged Tap Dancer (1981) is both funny and serious, presenting the efforts of a working-class man simply to earn a living.

Of the stories collected in Someone Always Robs the Poor (2017), style is the key. This is not to say style overtakes substance, characters, relationships or situations but rather that the form of address in each story is perfectly matched to its subject. The stories require the reader’s patience and amply reward. The words work quietly, unobtrusively, because the drama and tension (and there’s plenty) come from what’s being written about. When things go beyond the power of adequate exclamation, you have to make good use of persistence. In “Is this the place you now call home?” the plot twists and develops, taking you somewhere different from where you thought you were going, yet delivering the perfect conclusion. As Marshal Kutuzov says to Prince Andrei in Tolstoy’s War and Peace (Book Three, Part Two, Chapter 16, translated by Rosemary Edmonds): “Believe me, my dear boy, the two most powerful warriors are patience and time: they will do everything.”

Novels and short story collections by AL Kennedy (b.1965) include Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), Looking for the Possible Dance (1993), Now That You’re Back (1994), So I Am Glad (1995), Original Bliss (1997), Everything You Need (1999), Paradise (2004), Day (2007), The Blue Book (2011), Serious Sweet (2016), The Little Snake (2018) and her non-fiction includes The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1997), On Bullfighting (1999) and On Writing (2013). The latter is a rich exposition of matters of writerly craft and imagination, borne out by her own work.

Imagination bagatelles from each of Kennedy’s books to the next, never predictable, always intense. So I Am Glad (1995) begins as a realist account of a young, dissatisfied woman working in radio but takes on another dimension as Cyrano de Bergerac appears in her life: a fictional dream-figure, he breaks the parameters of the character’s expectations and of the possibilities of the novel itself, bringing a magic realist component to a feminist scenario in modern Glasgow. In Paradise (2004), the delusional self-justification of an alcoholic bleeds into the unreliable narrative itself: terror and compassion are woven together. It is a study of alcoholism, almost expressionist in its narrative and the liabilities of rationalisation. Day (2007) is the story of an air force bomber machine-gunner who returns to his wartime experiences in later years.

THE judgement Kennedy delivers at the end of the title story of her first collection, Night Geometry and the Garscadden Trains (1990), might stand for everything she has written since. She describes people, women and men, in so many situations and through so many different forms of desire and vulnerability, that it is easy to miss the underlying connective tissue where compassion and indignation are grafted together. Here she spells it out. The sense given arises perhaps from the similar intimation of human value George Eliot described in the closing words of Middlemarch (1871): “for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Kennedy’s world is recognisably that of the late 20th and early 21st century but the same compassion is here: “contrary to popular belief, people, many people, almost all the people, live their lives in the best way they can with generally good intentions and still leave nothing behind.

“There is only one thing I want more than proof that I existed and that’s some proof, while I’m here, that I exist. Not being an Olympic skier, or a chat show host, I won’t get my wish. There are too many people alive today for us to notice every single one.

“But the silent majority and I do have one memorial, at least. The Disaster. We have small lives, easily lost in foreign droughts, or famines; the occasional incendiary incident, or a wall of pale faces, crushed against grillwork, one Saturday afternoon in Spring. This is not enough.”

As the priorities of mass media, celebrity culture and political posturing continue to enact their distortions, Kennedy’s quiet opposition to that which numbs and silences is one of the steeliest instruments on the tray.