Irvine Welsh: return journey

With his new book, Irvine Welsh is bringing back the Trainspotting characters that made his name a quarter of a century ago.

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It’s a damp, dreary Tuesday morning in Manchester and Irvine Welsh is a little jaded. He flew in from Miami five days ago and has spent much of the time since catching up with family and friends in his native Scotland while promoting his latest book, Dead Men’s Trousers, which reunites the characters he first brought to the page in Trainspotting 25 years ago.

“I’ve got friends who have had rough and tough lives. Most of them have come through it.”

Welsh, 59, has written 16 books, plus stage and screenplays, but it’s fair to say that Trainspotting, a tale about a collection of friends, thieves, thugs and heroin users in Edinburgh, remains his best known work, thanks in part to the 1996 film version. A sequel, Porno, appeared in 2002, followed both by a prequel, Skagboys, about the early life of the characters, and by a thriller, The Blade Artist, which focused on Francis Begbie. But despite the fact that Dead Men’s Trousers is the fifth book to feature Trainspotting characters, Welsh sees this one as the third part in a trilogy.

“Trainspotting was a tale of friendship and betrayal and, in a broader sense, a whole generation of working-class people being betrayed by old institutions like the Labour Party that were supposed to have been their own,” he explains in a gentle Scottish accent. “The second book, Porno, is about rivalry and revenge. And this book is a twisted sort of redemption and atonement.

“It’s also a way of self-actualising my own life too, getting into a sense of completeness, that kind of metaphysical journey we’re all on.”

That’s the kind of speak that someone like the psychotically violent Begbie might have nutted him for, but maybe it’s also a sign that Welsh has been living on and off in the US for nearly a decade now.

Welsh started work on Dead Men’s Trousers while involved in the making of T2 Trainspotting, the film adaptation of Porno, for which the cast of the first hit movie reunited with both Welsh and director Danny Boyle.

“The book wouldn’t have come about if I hadn’t have been working on that film,” he says, explaining how the process prompted him to start thinking about where the characters would go next.

Which is all over the globe. Renton, the anti-hero of the first book, is now a jet-setting DJ manager and Begbie a renowned artist in California. The two meet on a transatlantic flight and then end up reunited with Sick Boy and luckless Spud. A series of crazed adventures follow, imbued with lots of violence, sex and drug taking. It’s an over the top, frantic and fun book.

Returning to the characters he created a quarter of a century ago is indicative of the special connection Welsh has with them. “It’s a kind of first love,” he says. “The first characters you write are the closest to you.”

He admits that, as his Hollywood agent puts it, Trainspotting has grown from that first book into a “franchise” but the original book has “a kind of cultural purity that the other stuff doesn’t match”.

Trainspotting was “very much of its place and its time. It doesn’t explain anything. You don’t know anything about the characters or about me and there’s something about that that’s brilliant. You can only have that with your first novel.”

The novel was, as Welsh says, “uncompromising” in its depiction of working-class life in the Edinburgh suburbs. It took a group of people who had been excluded from mainstream society and made them the stars of the show, and its depiction of the highs and lows of heroin use and heroin users stood out as something both shocking and revealing when it was first published.

“People could see that this was out there, even if they didn’t have direct experience. They could see people in shop doorways and shuffling about and they thought something was going on, but it was murky and it was dark. The shock of the new is also the shock of recognition. Now we live in a social media culture. There is no underground culture, no sub culture, the media just shines a light on everything.”

And what about his own life? Does he still feel any connection to that murky and dark world he exposed all those years ago? After all, when Welsh wrote Trainspotting, he was to some extent drawing on his own experiences of using heroin in his early twenties.

“I’ve got friends who have died along the way, and a few of them have gone to prison and had rough and tough lives. Most of them have come through that. They have got married, settled down, had families and all of that.” Now they talk about their troubled pasts like it’s an “embarrassing blemish”. He feels though, “as a storyteller, there’s a burden to keep it real”.

For a time, the social problems exposed in Trainspotting appeared to have faded a little, but now poverty and exclusion are back on the rise. Indeed, when Welsh agrees to go outside into the damp Manchester morning for a photo shoot, he has to sidestep a makeshift camp that’s been erected at the side of the canal, in the very shadow of the hotel where he is staying.

Welsh becomes animated as the topic turns to what he describes as the “existential crisis” that society is facing. “You have to look at the way things are going, the way capital and power is being concentrated in few and fewer hands. Now that capitalism is on the way out, because everything can be produced at zero cost, there are big questions about what we do next. I feel quite sad because we haven’t come up with anything to replace it yet. Traditional socialism and the state is on its way out as well because that was also a product of the Industrial Revolution.

“It’s been unbridled neo-liberalism that has been wrecking capitalism. Social democracy could have saved it and eked it out until we had come up with a plan B.” And it’s not just the working classes who are now affected by this decline in capitalism, he says, “Everybody is in the same boat now. Journalism is being destroyed by technology. Medicine, paralegal, they are all under threat.” He adds that “traditional publishing” is also “fucked”, although he still professes a love of books and notes that “people will always want to tell stories”.

Would someone from a working-class background like his own have the same opportunities today that he’d had? No chance.

“I always thought I was hard done by but kids today don’t have anything like what I had. Education is crap. The economy is crap. You could go from a well-paid job into another job when I was young. And the dole payments were decent and you could live off that if you wanted to. That was the school for many artists and musicians, and there was a vibrant culture around that of music and storytelling. And you could do A levels for a couple of quid, go to night school, go to university, get a grant paid. My full grant was two-thirds of my dad’s wage. It was a tremendous opportunity. There was much more social mobility.”

Now, he says, with even middle-class professions under threat, the arts have become the new home for “the toffs”.

“There was a boy band on before me on breakfast TV this morning. Nice posh young kids. They were savvy. They’re not going to give the record company a problem. It’s not like trying to get Primal Scream out of bed all those years ago.”

His passionate air continues as talk turns to Brexit. “I’m not a fan of the EU but I detest Brexit – the idea of having a passport that allows you to bounce around one shit country that you have elected to make poorer, instead of being able to travel around 28 of them. It’s nonsense, absolute nonsense. Another thing that has been stolen from young people voted for by people who never move from their sofas.

“It’s one of the most dystopian things that we’ve created where old and middle-aged people like me are actually pitying the youth. That to me is perverse. I mean, what have your kids done to you to deserve all of this?”

One of the things Welsh remains positive about though is sport. He is official ambassador for the Homeless World Cup, in which teams of young, homeless street soccer players come together annually for a week-long tournament at venues across the world.

Welsh, who himself “does running and pilates and all that”, says that sport is one way of both bringing people together and helping young people trapped in poverty. “Even when I was a drug addict, I was sporty as well. The sporting high is very similar in many ways to a drug high, but a lot better for you. It’s a big redemptive thing. And the idea of people who had been out on the streets playing against each other in an international tournament – there’s nothing not to like about that.”

Uplifting sporting tournaments aside, is he fearful of the future? “It’s incredible, uncertain and wonderful times that we are living in, but I remain optimistic that people will evolve, that we will come through and the best of people will emerge.”

But in order to do that, he argues, what’s needed is a return to “pure education” as he sees it. “It’s time to get back to things like sociology, economics and critical thinking. Saturate people with that because they need that more than ever. It’s only pure knowledge, science and philosophy that’s going to get us out of this mess.” He smiles. “I feel like I’ve been running for office.”

That’s an interesting thought. Would he ever consider a career in politics? “You must be joking. I can smell the corruption already wafting around me!”

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