Message from the Skies returns to Edinburgh this month, with five celebrated writers reflecting on Scotland’s relationship with our waters, coasts and maritime heritage. Their words will illuminate and animate landmarks around the city until Burns Night, 25 January. Here, Irvine Welsh recalls the lessons he learned from a well-travelled sailor he met growing up in Leith...
The Sea, by Irvine Welsh
The sea indirectly facilitated my transition from boy to man. More accurately, it stopped me from becoming the grown up I probably would have been. But strictly speaking my fate was decided not so much by the oceans themselves, but by another man from the port of Leith who had allowed the tides to define him. Like him, I was born very close to the water, but unlike him, I very rarely saw it. From our vantage, first from Leith tenement then Muirhouse flat, “the sea” was visible only as the oily, dark, Firth of Forth, a river long gone tidal since its weaving adolescence in the Trossachs, as it bled slowly into the frozen North Sea.
The port and associated north Edinburgh schemes could occasionally be difficult terrain for a fledging (self-described, they all are) intellectual. That horrendous archetype who wrote terrible poetry and wanted to seduce the kind of beautiful girl you saw on television, rather than (strictly) the ones next door. (This largely because you didn’t like the way she always wanted to hang out with her mum and big sister and looked at her latter’s children, and then to you, with challenging intent.) The girls on TV and in the movies, or the ones you saw up the toon at the festival, lived in different worlds, seemingly free from such oppressive ties. Those were the worlds I wanted access to. Meanwhile, the scheme ploughed on with its beautiful, raucous dramas that invigorated and frustrated in equal measure. Role models for masculinity were abundant and fascinating, but generally limited. That was my own fault: I always asked for and expected a hell of a lot more from life than most.
Of course, I wasn’t just an arty ponce. I loved football and boxing and music (I was only average at them all, which is worse than being bad – you simply stick around longer for more humiliation) and I could curse and drink with the best of my fellow spotty apprentices. I possessed a sharp and caustic tongue, which I sensed better fighters were often wary of. I tried on all the clothes; hard man, fanny merchant, joker, intellectual, politico, sharp dresser, drug-addled waster, but none fitted correctly, and none would until I added the other special ingredient that made me more comfortable in my own skin. I had always craved the endless possibilities of travel. I wanted romance with somebody whose brother I didn’t know, someone who never baby sat for her younger siblings or her sister’s kids. I wanted to access lives I only had a vague idea ever existed. I was far from unhappy with my own life, in fact I loved it. I just wanted variety. I was curious.
It was one particular man of the sea who helped provide that pass. Let’s call him JL. He was a stick-thin Samuel Beckett clone, a mate of my dad and uncle. A bunch of those “old boys” as we called those men in their forties then, all from the docks, shipyards and maritime fleet, drank in the Marksman Bar in Duke Street. The old industrial working classes may have been on their way out, but back then they still ruled supreme. Unlike the dockers, who talked of thieving, and the tooled up shipyard workers at Robb Caledon, who talked violence, JL spun tales of the merchant seaman’s life, spiced with the intoxicating promise of sex and travel. It struck me fondly back then that young men need an uncle figure to tell them about carnal affairs. Your own dads are too embarrassed: “find a nice lassie, treat her right, and dinnae bring shame on this hoose” are admirable sentiments to live by, but also a little limiting. A road map to the good life they do not constitute on their own. Not for a poncy arty type.
JL had a different approach. His life was the sea, as it offered him freedom from not just confinement, but from attachment. He would move close in and advise us in his Grouse whisky breath, one eye shut, the other outrageously open, “get up the toon and fire intae they posh festival birds. Dinnae waste your time wi some wee hing oot fae The Spiral, you’ll never leave the scheme that wey.” I sensed that JL was particularly directing those sentiments towards me.
In my complete engagement, he read a fellow wandering soul. But like him, I didn’t so much want to leave the scheme as take it with me all around the world. Out of the thirty or so of us who went to see our dads and the old boys for a pint before going our way on a pub crawl, which culminated in the Spiral or even some disco up the toon, only myself and three or four others, including the best-looking guy in the mob, ventured as far as the Royal Mile and the pop-up festival clubs. The other lads, (and they will probably kick f*** out of me for saying this), I think were a wee bit intimidated. It was out of their comfort zone.
JL however, was on hand to provide advice for every possible outcome of our romantic adventures. I recall one particular contention which was highly idiosyncratic and not empirically correct, but like all raconteurs, he knew that loose words spoken with conviction have a dynamism and charge that supersedes their content. “Wi posh birds you have to love them like thir cabin boys,” he informed us. “Portuguese cabin boys are the best.” When some of the other old guys heard this they would nervously bark: “Dinnae listen tae um. He’s talkin nonsense. He’s winding ye up.” But I detected the strong waft of truth in his pithy disclosures.
We would later learn that JL had two families, one back in Granton and the other in Montevideo, or “Monty” as he called the Uruguayan capital, in his unmistakable gravelly tones. And yes, it transpired that there was also a lover who was Portuguese, whom he’d worked with on several ships. This man came to Leith to find JL, probably to confront him about his treachery, perhaps bribe him or elicit some sort of commitment, (in the late seventies homosexual acts in Scotland were still illegal) but strangely, or perhaps not so, ended up lodging for several years with JL’s long-suffering wife, EL. Of course, JL himself was gone. “Probably got another boat...” his mates in the Marksman would mumble, resolutely set in non-grass mode. But yes, it was inevitable that the old craggy-couponed dog would be back at sea, or perhaps in “Monty” with his second family. Or maybe there was a third set of kin somewhere, and I can see his progeny in Shanghai or Marseilles, briefly looking up from the mischief they were indulging in, perhaps wistfully gazing out to the sea. Wondering about its possibilities, and if they will ever allow it to make them.
It certainly helped to make me, for better and for worse, if only by the proxy of JL. I was on a train to London at sixteen and then a plane to New York at nineteen. I’ve never stopped moving since and it’s all down to JL and those strange lessons he gleaned from the sea.
Devised by Edinburgh’s Hogmanay in partnership with Edinburgh City of Literature, this year’s Message From the Skies is subtitled Shorelines and marks Scotland’s Year of Coasts and Waters 2020 with texts by five leading writers reflecting on our relationship with our coasts, waters and maritime heritage projected onto buildings around the city. Supported by Creative Scotland through the Scottish Government’s Edinburgh Festivals Expo Fund, these literary illuminations continue until Burns Night on 25 January. For more information, visit www.edinburghshogmanay.com