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Irvine Welsh is doing just fine for money. He knows he never has to work another day in his life, but he can’t stop himself. “I don’t like it when people say I’ve got an addictive personality,” he says. “It’s people who never take drugs who say that. But I have an obsessive-compulsive thing going on.” Writing is an itch he’s got to scratch – particularly when it comes to Trainspotting.
The author is about to release Dead Men’s Trousers, the fifth novel in his Trainspotting series. Welsh says it will be the final instalment (though by the end of the afternoon he’s not quite so sure). Trainspotting, published in 1993, is a violent black comedy about working-class heroin addicts in Edinburgh. In a Waterstones poll of 25,000 people, it was voted the 10th greatest book of the 20th century. It has sold more than 1m copies in the UK alone and is said to be the most shoplifted novel in British publishing history. The film of the book had even more impact: in 2012, it topped a poll of the best British films of the past 60 years.
Trainspotting follows the exploits of five (later four) pals, and a pretty unwholesome group they are: liars, thieves, scammers and, of course, that unforgettable psychopath Francis Begbie. Their lives are desperate (a baby girl dies because her parents are too mashed to save her), yet Trainspotting somehow became a symbol of 90s cool. The novel is fast-paced, shocking, amoral, written in a sweary, phonetic, catarrhal slang. Welsh captured brilliantly what it felt like to be cocooned in a heroin haze, no matter how scabby the reality. It could even be said that he created a new genre: kitchen-sink surrealism (notably the scene where Renton fishes in his excrement for his precious opioid suppositories before disappearing down the toilet).
In Dead Men’s Trousers, the gang are a quarter-century older; Renton is a successful DJ, Sick Boy a pimp of sorts, Spud the loser he always was and Begbie an internationally feted artist who claims to have renounced violence. In some ways they are transformed, in others not. When Spud and Sick Boy enter the world of organ harvesting, you know things are not going to end well.
I meet Welsh at the tube in Farringdon, east London. He’s tall, so easy to spot. In a woolly hat, jeans, Dr Martens and a parka, he looks like a recently retired football hooligan. We head for a pub. This is one of the areas Welsh used to go clubbing when he lived here in the 80s. Since the success of Trainspotting, he’s lived all over: Amsterdam, Barcelona, Chicago, San Francisco and now Miami. Like Edinburgh, London has changed a good deal over the decades, and this pub is as gastro as it gets. To be fair, Welsh has also changed. He orders mashed avocado on toast and green tea, and bemoans the disappearance of the London that was.
You sense nothing terrifies Welsh so much as the thought of growing up. He once said he would rather “sell my arse” in King’s Cross than settle down to a life of “home-garden-kids” dreary domesticity. Not surprisingly, he has no children. Now he’s 59, a few months short of a pensioner’s bus pass, and he’s getting rose-tinted about the good old bad old days. “The bookies on Pentonville Road is my biggest disappointment. You could get anything in there: speed, coke, smack. Not particularly great, but it was always there if there was an emergency.” Today, he largely restricts himself to a good bottle of red, though he also has a penchant for a hallucinogenic drug called DMT – he has found it revelatory and life-changing.
There has always been an autobiographical element to Trainspotting. The original novel is set in Leith, the port district of Edinburgh, where Welsh was born to a waitress mother and dock worker father. He became addicted to heroin in his early 20s. To some extent, the lives of the characters still mirror his own. In middle age, Welsh became a DJ (post-Trainspotting, he found he could make a fortune playing in clubs across the world, and he loved the social side); in Dead Men’s Trousers, Renton manages DJs. And while Begbie is a renowned artist seeking sun and sanctuary in Los Angeles, Welsh is a renowned artist seeking sun and sanctuary in Miami. He moved there a few years ago with his second wife, American Beth Quinn, 23 years his junior.>
It’s a common malaise people feel. They search for something, then they think, what was all that about?
I have always been fascinated by his relationship with the Trainspotting characters. Which is most like him? Welsh says he has most in common with the main narrator, Renton (played by Ewan McGregor in both films). “Renton is in some ways a more authentic self. I write more self-consciously when I write as him.” He talks about how Renton has changed over the years. “He has become a little bit more successful. He’s got to that point where he feels he’s got something out of life; it’s something he wanted, but he doesn’t really feel fulfilled by it. It’s a common malaise people feel. They search for something, they get it, then they think, what the fuck was all that about? Was it worth spending all the time and energy on this quest?” That’s another of Welsh’s obsessions: always wanting something new, better, different, and destroying what we have in the process.
How would he describe Renton to somebody who has never met him? “He has ideas above his station and is a bit full of himself. He oscillates between being really cool and in control of everything, and socially inept. Which is probably me!”
Welsh seems to have been far from inept in his relationships with women. “A certain kind of woman always liked me,” he concedes, and gets the giggles. “It was always cool, interesting, quirky women who liked me.”
He was not the type of man a woman would look to if she wanted to settle down. Despite having tied the knot twice, he never considered himself the marrying type. “Women who just wanted to find a guy, settle down, have a couple of kids, hang out with the mothers and sisters all the time when the guys went to the pub, didn’t like me. They saw me as a bit of a threat. They saw me trying to seduce their quirkier, more interesting mates.”
And were you trying to seduce them? “Well, of course. We’re all seducers, for God’s sake. But also they saw me trying to lead their boyfriends into places where, like, ‘Ach, you don’t want to get fucking settled down. You’re better than all that.’ I was a threat to the potential nuclear family, to that kind of social order.”>
I was one of these horrible kids that made the snowballs for other people to throw
Welsh was never going to be a model citizen. At the age of eight, he received his first conviction, for playing football in the street. Did he get in a lot of trouble? He smiles. His smile has a touch of the Hannibal Lecters about it. No, he says, he tended to get others into trouble. “I was one of these kind of fucking horrible kids that made the snowballs for other people to throw. I was quite good at manipulating thicker kids and causing trouble. It’s a horrible thing now to say.” He refers himself back to the characters in Trainspotting. “Maybe that’s more Sick Boy than Renton. Hahaha!” Sick Boy is the most cynical of the Trainspotting characters, an amoral con artist always sniffing out a chance to screw the next sucker.
Welsh is good company. You sense he enjoys his own company, too, that he would happily spend all day listening to himself telling stories. In the past, interviewers have suggested that his stories tend towards the tall; that they can’t tell when he’s telling the truth and when he’s making things up. You can find any number of dates of birth for him, for example, with his age ranging from 56 to late 60s; the most reliable appears to be 59. I mention this and he bursts out laughing. “Yeah, I never know myself.” We’ve been chatting for a good hour already. “I’ve not told any real whoppers today.”
Welsh left school at 16 in the mid-70s, did a City & Guilds course in electrical engineering and became an apprentice TV mechanic, before a powerful electric shock prompted him to move on to other work: “A lot of menial jobs – dishwashing, portering, clerical, paving roads.” And then there was that heroin habit. Unlike many addicts, he says, he was not self-medicating to escape the horrors of life; for him, heroin was purely hedonistic. But it soon became a problem. “The first year, I thought I was fine, but the second year, I couldn’t pretend to myself. I was moving in different circles. I was more unkempt.”
I ask what was so great about heroin. He talks at length, and rather beautifully, about it. “To feel a tremendous sense of wellbeing to the point where you really don’t give a fuck about anything. To have that feeling of invincibility. The good thing about heroin, and the worst thing, is not having to deal with other people. Of course, it’s a complete delusion. You can be sitting in your own fucking piss in a shithole flat, but it gives you that illusion of strength and power and wellbeing. And you can see why people who don’t have any sense of empowerment would embrace that. In the end, you’re just chasing: you’re taking heroin to avoid being sick, rather than to have that euphoric feeling.”
Welsh was addicted to heroin for about 18 months. He went cold turkey, and says it was awful. But he beat his addiction. He spent most of his 20s moving between Edinburgh and London, trying – and failing – to make it as a punk rocker in bands. By the mid-80s, he was living in London, flipping houses in the crazy property boom. His big break was an accident – literally. He was on a bus going to a Hibernian football match when the bus was involved in a collision and toppled over. He received £2,000 compensation for an injury. He used the money to secure a mortgage on an £8,000 flat in Hackney, which he sold 18 months later for £15,000. He then bought a house in south-east London for £17,000 and sold it for £52,000 18 months later.
I don’t get it, I say. How could he possibly go from a life of reckless abandonment to one of such disciplined self-interest?>
I’m quite impatient. Once I’ve got the story done, I want to get it out
“It’s that obsessive-compulsive thing. I’m obsessed with anything I’ve done. It was a way of making quick money, a wanker’s job. Why would you want to do that? What’s the fucking point? You want to do something with your life, not fucking ponce around doing up fucking flats and selling them.”
In the late 80s he returned to Edinburgh and another new career, this time in local government. And again he made a success of it. He received a series of rapid promotions to end up as head of training at the economic development department. “I was quite hated by my staff. I was really straight.” He was sufficiently senior to recommend himself for a part-time master’s in business studies, which he completed. At the same time, he started writing seriously. Much of Trainspotting, he claims, was written at work. After publishing it in 1993, he gave up his middle-management job and wrote full time.
Whereas property had been a temporary obsession, writing became a permanent one: “That’s the one I’ve stuck with, because when you’ve got a blank page, you can create a whole world, and if you get bored with that, you’re fucked, basically.” Has he ever been bored by writing? “Never. Never. I’ve been bored with some projects, but not the idea of writing.” He chews on a piece of halloumi approvingly. “That squidgy noise it makes on your teeth is great. It reminds me of the sound when you’re washing up a plate.”
It’s a nasty, brutish world he creates. In Filth, his protagonist is the filthiest of police officers; Marabou Stork Nightmares is about a man in a coma who was sexually abused by his uncle; A Decent Ride features an oversexed cabbie; Bedroom Secrets Of The Masterchefs is about a hard-drinking football hooligan; and on it goes. Welsh returns again and again to the same themes of corrupt, destructive masculinity: drinking, scoring, snorting, raving, shagging, bragging, betraying and destroying.
Trainspotting remains by far his biggest success. Does it bother him that critics often say he has never matched it? “I don’t get the chance to be bothered, because I go from one project to another. I’ve usually got a book or film or TV project on the go. And the one you’re doing, you’re totally immersed in. I don’t think Trainspotting is my best book by a long chalk.”
He hates the process of revision. By that point he’s already thinking of a new book. This is perhaps why they are so raw – at best fizzing with energy, at worst reading like first drafts. “I’m quite impatient. Once I’ve got the story done, I want to get it out. I don’t always take time to think about the stylisation and literary value, I just think, on to the next story.”
There is one act of violence in the new book that made me feel sick, I say, yet he seems to describe it with gusto. “Hahaha!” And it really is loud, full-throttle laughter. I’m not sure if it’s glee, embarrassment or both. “Well, you’ve got to get into the guy’s mind,” he says. “In Marabou Stork Nightmares there’s this rape scene that goes on and on, and I thought, this is just a bit of writing. I had that element of detachment from it. Then a play of it opened, and the rape scene was taking place inside this tent, so you didn’t see it, but you heard all the screams, and it went on for eight minutes, and I wanted to die. I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me, because I could feel the excruciating pain and torment of everybody in the audience. And I was thinking, is that the reaction people are going to have when they read what I’ve written?”
But it didn’t make him reassess how he wrote certain scenes. “You can’t self-censor,” he says.
Is there a bit of Begbie in you, I ask – do you have a temper? “I’m pretty even-tempered, but when I do lose it, I go a bit nuts, so I don’t like to do it. I haven’t done it for a long time. Anything that comes to hand is used. I hit somebody in the head with a bar stool once. It was quite a heavy stool. He was pretty fucked. I would probably rather have somebody do that to me than me do that to them, because the guilt afterwards is crippling. It’s much worse than the shock if it happens to you. You can get over that. But if you do it to somebody else…”
Even Begbie seems to reach an accommodation with decency of sorts in Dead Men’s Trousers; a kind of ethical nihilism – if you are going to destroy people, he philosophises, make sure it is people you don’t know, rather than those you love. Welsh smiles. “Yes, that’s Begbie. He is the poster boy now for white existential male rage. It’s his realisation that rather than hurt people close to you, just hurt total strangers if you need that fix of violence.”
Who would win in a fight between him and Begbie? “Begbie,” he says instantly. “The other three I would take easily.”
In Dead Men’s Trousers, Renton talks about the worst thing he has ever done (having sex with his pregnant sister-in-law at his brother’s funeral). What is the worst thing Welsh has done? For the first time all day, he refuses to answer.
“I’d never talk about the worst thing I’ve ever done. There are things you’ve done you feel uncomfortable talking about, and there are things you’ve done that are hurtful and beyond the pale. When your behaviour has occasioned distress in people who have put trust in you, that’s the worst thing you can do.”
There is no glee in his voice now, just a deadly seriousness. “I’ve always had some kind of moral conscience, but it gets stronger when you get older. It’s harder to be a bastard.” But there’s pain that comes with this, too, he says. “With everything you do, you’re striving to be a better version of yourself. But you lacerate yourself more when you do improve and get into a slightly higher moral plane. You look back more critically. So I think you’ve got to be a bit kind to yourself as well.”
It’s mid-afternoon and Welsh is due at a recording studio to meet up with the legendary American record producer Arthur Baker. They are recording a single to coincide with the new novel. Welsh has written a verse, loosely based on Dead Men’s Trousers, that he will rap over a dance track. He polishes off the pot of green tea and we head out.
In the street, he talks politics as we look for a cab. He says he is a product of the Thatcher era (like the Trainspotting crew, he is a natural wheeler-dealer), but defines himself as a punk rock anarchist. He hates everything the EU stands for in terms of centralised power and big business, but he would still rather be in than out. As for Scotland, “I’m less about Scottish independence than I am about the dismantling of the UK. I’m not so much a separatist as a breaker-upper. Taxxxxxiiii!” He hails the cab with magnificent authority.
We head off for the studio in Hackney, and he is thinking about the notion of control. Often, he says, he’s felt the urge not to be in control, which may well explain his love-hate relationship with drugs. “You need to knock yourself out of your comfort zone, that has been a feature of my life.”
But you seem to have enjoyed a sustained period of stability, I say – he has been married to Beth for 13 years. “Well, actually, we’re in the process of divorcing,” he says. “It’s not been easy for either of us.” Was there another woman? He seems simultaneously to laugh and choke. “No. Let’s just say it’s been a turbulent year, relationship-wise. I did get into a relationship afterwards very quickly. That was silly, because it was too quick.”
Welsh is ready to shake up his life again. “I’ve been in three long-term relationships with blocks of single shags in between. I’ve got the co-dependency thing and the commitment-phobic thing running at the same time. A lot of guys have that. It’s like, find the beautiful princess, build a castle, then fuck off on a quest. And I was always fucking off on a quest, whether working on a film set or researching books or going to literary festivals. I was off all the time. It’s been a problem in every relationship I’ve been in. I like to have somebody I love and am loved by, but at the same time I’m always running away from them, too. That is something I have to resolve.”
Separation is both traumatising and liberating, he says. Now he has started DJing again, hanging around nightclubs, living a young man’s life. We arrive at the studio. He introduces me to the production team, puts on a set of headphones and they start recording him, rapping against a heavy dance beat. His words are full of rage, but Welsh is thoroughly enjoying himself.
Before I go, I ask if this is really the final Trainspotting book. He looks astonished at the suggestion. Then he remembers his own words. “Did I say that? I probably did say that, didn’t I? I might change my mind already. Yeah. There will be another one.”
And with that he returns to his rap. He is entertaining us, entertaining himself, loudest boy in the class, centre of attention, eternal rebel, just as he likes it. For all his new-found introspection, Welsh need not worry too much. There is no danger of him growing up just yet.
• Dead Men’s Trousers is published on 29 March by Jonathan Cape at £16.99. To order a copy for £14.44, go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846.
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Source : https://www.theguardian.com/books/2018/mar/17/irvine-welsh-when-older-harder-be-bastard