Recently I’ve been very much enjoying Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong*’s Channel 4 police drama, Babylon. This under-watched TV show dramatises both the bureaucrats of the police’s PR department and the individuals “fighting crime” on the ground, with a particular focus on the psychological after-effects of causing and seeing violence, including the use of recreational distractions that ultimately undermine the self. I.e. sex, drugs and violent videogames. I really rate Babylon, so I decided to read something offering a similar insight into “bad” policing, so picked up the copy of Irvine Welsh’s Filth that had been lying at the bottom of my pile of unread books since 2010. Although initially I found the novel a little repetitive, by the end I’d warned to it, as Welsh’s writing warmed to its themes. To be honest, I don’t think I’ve read anything that took 300 pages to “get going” for a long time…
Filth is a novel about Bruce Robertson, a racist, sexist, alcoholic, drug-using police detective. Robertson is meant to be investigating the murder of a young black tourist in central Edinburgh, but he instead struts around the city using his professional and Freemason connections to fuck as many prostitutes, drink as much booze, eat as many curries, wind up as many colleagues, watch as much porn, seduce as many vulnerable women and casually ingest as many drugs as possible. It all feels a little like a Scottish American Psycho, but with the key difference being that Bret Easton Ellis escalates the decadence and violence of Patrick Bateman as his novel progresses, whereas Bruce Robertson starts as a pretty horrific level and nothing really changes until more than halfway through.
Filth contains a lot of sexist and racist language, and with this is quite shocking. The book’s only sixteen years old, but the attitudes of many figures in the police force here seem to be straight out of the ’50s. The racist slang took me aback the most, because it’s unrelenting. In fact, the fact that this stood out so much beside the sexist language and ideology made me uncomfortably aware as to how commonplace sexist ideas still are. Though I’ve never encountered anyone (for a very long time) speaking genuinely hate-filled dialogue about people of other ethnicities, there are men I know** who make jokes about rape and/or domestic violence with the same casualness as Bruce Robertson, a dinosaur in the ’90s, does in Filth. It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs when the language of a repellent fictional character exists in common parlance two decades on. Projects battling sexism are incredibly important because it does still exist. I have one particular acquaintance who says truly horrible things about women on a regular basis, but I find it hard to imagine he’d say the same things about race. He feels, and I believe a lot of unpleasant people do, that sexism is allowed. Which it isn’t, which it shouldn’t be. The things a person says aloud are just the tip of their true opinions. Remember that.
Anyway, I’ve digressed.
The point of Filth is, though, that it’s about decline. This doesn’t really become apparent until about halfway through, when Robertson’s cocaine intake begins to balloon. One of his colleagues is an addict, and Bruce sneers at him a lot in the first half of the novel, but once he begins to share, the protagonist slips and slides and his mind begins to unravel.
He has tapeworms, and they speak to him from within his guts. He has memories of his wife and daughter, who have run away. He has an expanding rash on his scrotum and inner thighs that is likely caused by stress. He has anxiety attacks. He masturbates in the toilet at work. He drinks all the time. He has no friends. He doesn’t care at all for his lovers. He lies. He is cruel for no reason. He is corrupt in his job. He is untrustworthy and trusts no one. He tries and fails to save a man’s life who he sees having a heart attack on Princes Street, giving CPR to a disappearing corpse. This event, really, this is the singular moment where the novel goes from being a stream of obscenity to something more investigative, something more psychological.
The worms in Bruce’s guts begin to explore his memories; it becomes clearer and clearer that Bruce knows something significant and secret about the central murder; Bruce distances himself from the people that care about him, his poor performance at work is illuminated by the arrogant expectation of a promotion…
There is a good run of about 80, 100 pages in the second half of the novel where Bruce really slips, where his mind goes, where he departs, begins thinking of himself as a plural and the depths of his disillusionment become clear. There follows, alas, a little too much of a “he was fucked up by his childhood” flashback, almost trying to apologise for the nastiness of the rest of the novel, but this is almost fixed by a fine and a powerful ending. When Bruce Robertson began to be unhappy doesn’t matter, but the heart of the novel is a gripping and quite stark description of a mind being destroyed by drug and alcohol abuse.
It’s not a perfect novel, and it’s not a great novel, but there is a very significant section in here that had me in a cold sweat in a very warm room. When Filth hits the spot it is haunting, arresting and deeply chilling. When it misses, it’s little more than an unpleasant tirade. Not a bad read, though. Certainly the best novel about “the police” I can think of, but it’s a little overlong and takes a while to make an impact. But, still, nothing‘s perfect…
* Writers/creators of Peep Show and Fresh Meat. Both of them, I think, also wrote for The Thick of It and (definitely) co-wrote Four Lions with Chris Morris.
** I would like to stress here that they are “men I know” and not friends.