The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020. sky thinking for an open and diverse left

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About a week before I saw the film I read the book for the first time.

I was struck by some of the similarities of the themes used in Welsh’s book to those in a book written nearly two hundred years ago, the great Scottish classic by James Hogg, ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner ‘.

The Hogg character [ Robert Wringham ] feels his nefarious actions are justified by faith. The Welsh character [ Bruce Robertson ] pretends his machinations and deeds are justified because he is a policeman who is bound by the state  however brutal that state may be. Moreover he feels that the rules are for other people and that he is exempt from any laws or concerns of fairness. He also uses the so called brotherhood of the Masonic Lodge to further his plans which has echoes of the way Robert Wringham uses religion to justify his misdeeds.

The action for both books is concentrated, mainly, in Edinburgh and the city provides a chilling and distanced setting which gives a perfect backdrop for both characters descent into their own private hell.

The effects of upbringing have a huge effect on the emotional and psychological reasoning of these protagonists who, although cunningly intelligent, battle with the failings of a particular kind of Scottish male who never, willingly, gives in to his more tender feelings.

Moreover a large part of both books deals with the idea of a doppleganger which is apparent in Hogg but unacknowledged and seemingly unknown to the main character in Welsh. Similarities to Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde spring to mind.

Filth is an extremely challenging book.  What goes on in Bruce Robertson’s mind can be very hard to take.

He is racist, homophobic, misogynistic, cruel and manipulative. Literally and metaphorically he is being eaten away on the inside and Welsh uses the imagery of a tapeworm to great effect as it devours any nourishment entering Bruce’s body and also parts of the actual text of the book.

Bruce Robertson is obsessed with and constantly needs sexual gratification. However his addiction to drugs, alcohol, porn, masturbation, and encounters with sexual partners is used brutally to highlight that these episodes are only short, mind obliterating, escapes from the terrifying memories and thoughts that he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

On the outside he is intelligent and friendly . A good guy, especially in male company . The Federation Rep who, apparently, only has the best interests of his members at heart and a brother in the Lodge who befriends and pretends to assist in solving the problems of a fellow brother. Women, of course, are excluded from the Masons which suits Bruce just fine.

This is a front which he uses to try to manipulate and bring down his colleagues in order to gain a promotion.

He teeters on the edge of a precipice then falls, inundated and suffocated by an incoming tide of despair and mental collapse which ultimately drowns him in memories of the wife and child he has lost and the terrible traumas of his childhood.

I think this book is an amazing tour de force and should be regarded as a classic of Scottish literature. Its themes are huge and fascinating. The writing is amazing and although, initially, as a woman I found it hard to read, this no holds barred account of the character's thoughts, which are distasteful to say the least, became for me unputdownable.

Seemingly against all the odds Welsh turns Bruce Robertson from being a despicable cesspit of a man into a character who , if not a hero ,is someone we can recognise and feel sympathy for, and also regret at the waste of this man’s life and intelligence.

I was a bit apprehensive going to see the film [ directed by John S. Baird ]. I wondered how it would deal with the great themes of the book but I needn’t have worried. Although big sections of the book disappear and others are changed the thrust of the film remains true to the feelings , thoughts and ultimate despair of the main character.

The cast is impeccable and James McAvoy delivers an emotional, sympathetic and stunning performance as Bruce Robertson.

There are laugh out loud moments and parts that can reduce you to tears.

The tapeworm is replaced by an amazing Jim Broadbent as the doctor who conducts Bruce through increasingly bizarre  and surreal encounters with the subconscious memories of his early life.

The film takes a slightly different approach to the book in that it shows in a very clear way Bruce’s longing for the  normality of what he once had. At one point he breaks down as he watches a home video of his wife and child making something in the kitchen which is in sharp contrast to his desperate consumption of porn movies. This works really well  and allows us to feel empathy as he loses everything and at last confronts his doppleganger and his fate.

I really enjoyed this film. It has humour, depth, fantastic use of settings and an Oscar worthy performance by James McAvoy.

See the film, read the book, try  James Hogg’s ‘The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner ‘ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘ The Strange Case of Jeykll and Hyde ‘. A stream, a beck, a burn runs through all these great Scottish books,  adding up to a river of consciousness which haunts the psyche of the Scottish male but also helps us females to understand the great conundrum of the men in our lives.

Liz Walker

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left


The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books