Irvine Welsh: Filth

Gary Marshall

When Trainspotting rapidly grew from underground publishing success story to zeitgeist-surfing, underworld-soundtracked cultural event, Irvine Welsh was described as a spokesman for a generation and the most exciting writer in Scotland. While the use of language and setting was something of a novelty first time round, Filth is Welsh’s fifth novel and revisits the same ground as everything else he’s ever written. We have deviant sex from The Acid House, Tarantinoesque musings on rock records from Trainspotting, half-arsed attempts at psychology and social comment from Marabou Stork Nightmares and, of course, lots of swearing. As with most recent Welsh product, it’s also a shambolic and incoherent mess.

Filth tells the story of Bruce Robertson, an Edinburgh policeman whose life resembles Harvey Keitel’s in Bad Lieutenant. Racist, misogynist, homophobic and psychotic, Robertson devours hard-core pornography whilst mentally and physically abusing himself and everybody around him. Despite his appalling personal hygiene supplemented by a genital rash and an attack of tapeworms (more of this later), he nonetheless manages to have sex with almost every female he meets, in between setting up colleagues for queer-bashing or driving others to the brink of suicide.

Robertson isn’t really a bad person, though. As his tapeworm explains in the latter chapters of the book – yes, the narrator is quite literally talking out of his arse – Robertson has had a tough time. He came into the world as the result of a violent rape, his adoptive stepfather made him eat coal, and the first love of his life died. The section describing the death of his first girlfriend is the only funny part of the book as Welsh goes massively over the top, piling on the pathos as he recounts how the poor crippled girl is struck by lightning in a scene that could have come straight out of an Airplane movie. Unfortunately this bit is supposed to be serious.

Filth UK bookcover

The book runs to about 400 pages and fully 300 of them repeat the same endless catalogue of sex, violence and hatred with little in the way of variation. Some of the scenes are evidently supposed to be funny, such as the set-piece where Robertson attempts to make a video of a prostitute being penetrated by a dog or when he sleeps with a colleague’s wife after framing her husband for making obscene phone calls. Conspicuous by their absence are the wit and invention that characterised Welsh’s earlier novels, like the foul-mouthed baby in The Acid House or Sick Boy and Spud in Trainspotting. Weighed down by the expectations of his audience, Welsh has produced a book that fails on every single level: a comedy that isn’t funny, a police procedural that can’t be bothered with the details, a tale of redemption without any trace of warmth or sympathy for any of the characters and a closing plot twist that’s visible from the first chapter.

There’s a tradition in reviewing where you make sure you don’t give away the ending of a novel for fear it will prevent people from reading it. Hopefully, then, the news that Robertson committed the brutal murder he’s supposed to be investigating throughout the book and then kills himself at the end should prevent people from wasting their hard-earned cash on this pathetic attempt at a thriller. Maybe then Welsh will stop recycling past novels and will attempt to write something that’s actually worth reading. To describe Welsh as the greatest writer in Scotland is a huge insult to talented writers such as Jeff Torrington, William McIlvanney, James Kelman, Iain Banks and Janice Galloway who produce novels which combine well-drawn characters with empathy and social conscience.

Although the title works on several levels – Filth as slang for policemen, or as a description of the world in which Bruce Robertson lives – the publisher was too restrained. A more fitting title for this shambolic, scatalogical mess of a book would have been Shite.


  1. Peter Bryan says

    While book reviews are of course relative, I find it hard to believe that you can consciously dismiss and worse, slander, this brilliantly-written novel.
    Since you don’t seem to be able to discern the serious from the non-serious too well, allow me to clarify: I genuinely like this book and my praising of it is not an attempt at humour.

    I find it crass and ignorant that you so blatantly gave away the plot; I can appreciate that you do not like the book, but it is unfair to so casually spoil the book for potential readers. Even more unfair is the statement you made: “Hopefully, then… should prevent people from wasting their hard-earned cash on this pathetic attempt at a thriller.”
    Filth is not a thriller; I would not say that it even attempts to be one. Rather, it is a social commentary; an exploration on just how depraved and inhuman mankind can be. I would not like to pin it down into a genre – I would say it’s classed under a sub-genre, perhaps a hybrid of genres even.

    I personally loved the book; I love the writer. Clearly you do not. In fact, it seems to me that you do not like Welsh as a writer. I can accept this.
    However, what I cannot accept is your unconventional, smart-arse approach at reviewing the book. Again, I cannot attack you on your criticism of the novel; whether you liked it or not is entirely your decision. I am however attacking you on your approach to blatantly slandering it, and it is your method of doing so that has provoked me to comment on your review of Filth.

  2. woody4543 says

    most pathetic attack on a novel i have had the displeasure to witness; i stronly advise you to refrain from reviewing in future.

  3. Michael says

    Currently reading this book, I just wanted to see a few more opinions as I am thoroughly enjoying it. Unfortunately I stumbled upon this…

    Peter Bryan has summed this review up perfectly. If you feel the need to “review” further novels, just keep your thoughts to yourself. You are not capable of writing one.

  4. Phillipa says

    So wrong in your review! The book was brilliant, I almost fell in love with this disgusting character in the end. This reviewer doesn’t know what he’s talking about.

    In many ways Filth is stronger than trainspotting. It will linger in your brain for days after reading it.

  5. Fissure says

    Agreed. Just because you missed the point, doesn’t mean others will as well- as far as Welsh being anything but genius, you obviously can’t recognize a truly innovative literary technique from your own arsehole, if you think there’s nothing innovative in this book. Welsh first blew minds with his use of Scottish vernacular, and here we have, in tru artistic expression, an author literally playing with the subject material by forced insertion of other text overtop. The tapeworm`s scenes are absolute gold, simply for the innovation of its introduction.
    Robertson`s story is SUPPOSED to be a mind-numbing rehash of disgust- so you tune in to the finer things this book is about.
    But I guess you didn`t see that.
    Let`s see you write anything other than weak criticism full of show but without substance.

  6. Alice says

    It’s such a relief to see someone else felt like the book was a waste of time. Yes, perhaps review was a harsh (though accurate, in my opinion) but if Welsh wants to write “unconventional” books, he can expect unconventional reviews. It is a little unfair giving away the ending though – the book has precious few rewards as it is; perhaps you should add “beware, spoilers” at the top.

    “Carole”‘s sycophantic praise of her husband and suspiciously unreal gratefulness for him sexually liberating her was, upon reflection, meant to make the reader suspect she was not who we thought she was. However, at the time I just assumed that Welsh was rubbish at writing women. I think he rather shot himself in the foot there.

    I didn’t predict the ending, in the same way I didn’t predict it would rain in Sweden yesterday – I just don’t give a fuck. Having said that, I read the whole thing fairly quickly, mainly to get it over and done with, I think. I was just hoping there would be a point to the whole thing. There wasn’t.

    Nothing about the book made me laugh, except how pathetically over the top his past was. Maybe if the worm had started revealing Bruce’s past sooner in the novel, I would have actually given a damn? I wanted to feel like I’d gained a little insight into corruption and abuse of power in the police force, and I think Welsh was perhaps very close, but just not quite right. I just got the feeling that the entire book was written not to provoke thought, or feeling, or debate, but just to provoke shock. But nothing in the book shocked me. Was gratuitous use of the word cunt supposed to? I really don’t care. I have never read a book that provoked such a lack of any kind of thought or feeling in me before. It’s a very strange feeling, to be honest. Is he trying to make one feel like an addict – just an unfeeling urge to continue? Perhaps, or perhaps I’m just giving him way too much credit here.

    This is the first of Welsh’s books I’ve read (although I have seen Trainspotting a long time ago). It makes me wonder what all the fuss is about, and I’d be reluctant to pick up another of his novels.

  7. Jo says

    After reading this vitriolic review, I feel compelled to say something, at the risk of echoing others on this page. But I can’t help questioning the criteria by which Gary Marshall has evaluated the book.

    I’ll admit that Welsh’s writing has lacked some of the power which it once had, especially in the light of Crime (which might be described as a poor thriller), the follow up to Filth, but I can’t help feeling that Filth was actually one of his better works. One of the things that I admire about Irvine Welsh is head on approach to questions which are all too often allowed to fade into the background in more ‘bourgeois’ (for want of a better word) fiction. Robbo is a character who initially evokes repugnance but through a painful process of earns back his humanity in the eyes of the reader, and in my opinion, Welsh handles this extremely well and paints a very vivid personality. I find it hard to think of this as a book which aims at simple shock tactics, as the previous reviewer mentioned. To be honest, aren’t we all completely desensitised to simple emetic shock tactics nowadays anyway? To appreciate any kind of shock, we have to engage with the character on a moral level, and come to resent his complacency, ie, his view of himself as person who can freely manipulate his wife and colleges with no consequences. And his subsequent downfall, as well as his difficult past, make for a satisfying end as well as positing a world view which does indeed sustain some kind of cosmic justice in a convincing way- which is one of the most noble aspiration of fiction, for my money, and a very difficult tightrope to walk. We can ignore the question and just plunge ourselves into a relitivistic soup of style, vogue and novelty, or on the other hand, handle the question badly and come out with something shockingly trite and banal. I don’t think we can accuse Welsh of having done that here.

    Of course, the book does have some flaws. Welsh can’t really write women, that’s for sure, but then neither can a lot of male writers. There was a certain repetitive quality to Robbo’s monologue at times, but I think this was consistent with the character.

    But, all in all, I really can’t understand the reviewer’s extreme reaction to this book, because I count it among my favourites of all time.

  8. Garbonzo Spearfish says

    Gary Marshall-

    kiss my mutha fuckin’ bacon flavoured polise arse!



  9. Brendan says

    Filth is fucking hilarious. I really don’t understand how someone could not think it’s funny.

  10. Cunty says

    Loved Filth. Hopefully Gary Marshall has matured as a critic and doesn’t post such undisciplined childish reviews, anymore. Same fucking rules.

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