Thirteen years after writing Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh finds David Cameron ‘attractive’ and admits some of the nicest people he’s ever met have been middle class. Blimey, says Nigel Farndale
As he sits down for lunch, Irvine Welsh places two mobile phones on the table. Noticing me noticing them, he points out, in his lethargic way, that they aren’t meant as symbols of his importance, it’s just that he can’t get a good signal here in London with the one he uses at his house in Dublin.
Having heard him speak, or rather mumble, I would have thought his own signal strength was the real problem. He barely opens his mouth, and the words come out slurred and monotonal.
Edinburgh permeates his every syllable – not genteel, shortbread Edinburgh, but hard, council-flats-and-discarded-needles Edinburgh – even though, since finding fame 13 years ago with his debut novel, Trainspotting, Welsh has divided his time between London, Dublin and San Francisco. But that seems to be the only echo of his former working-class self.
Gone is the pasty pallor of early photographs. Instead, he is tanned, in a flowery shirt, comfortable – perhaps complacently so – in the literary salons of the world. True, his head is still a large lightbulb screwed into his neck, but, at 47, this is more to do with hair loss than his early incarnation as a skinhead.
He raises an eyebrow, a perfect circumflex, and asks if I have read his sixth and latest novel, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs. I have, I have. It is about a hard drinking, sex-addicted young Environmental Health Worker who tries to establish the genetic origins of his crippling compulsions.
The experimental prose style is not for the faint-hearted. What did I think of the scene where the young man has sex with the 85-year-old woman? Strong stuff, I say. He seems a little disappointed. OK, it was disgusting. He grins lopsidedly.
The scene begins with the old woman struggling out of a series of cardigans, pinafores and vests. ‘Lying on the bed, she looked smaller but still monstrous, wrinkled rolls of flab spilling over the mattress…’ Oh, trust me, it is disgusting. Has he included the passage for its shock value?
‘No, for me it comes out of the characters and the situation. And once I’d written it, I couldn’t delete it because it would have felt false.’
But did it shock him, when he re-read it?
‘Not at the time I was writing it, because I was seeing it from a crafting point of view, making it as strong as possible stylistically. But when I read that passage back to an audience in Aberdeen, I realised I was becoming uncomfortable and everyone in the room was becoming ashen-faced. Some started to walk out. I felt the twisted power of it for the first time.’
He is proud of it, clearly, and he can justify it to himself as an intellectual exercise, but does he worry about what kind of a mind can imagine such things; that he might actually be a sick man?
‘It’s weird because I don’t. Maybe I should! Ha ha ha!’ He rocks back in his chair as he sprays the room with a nervy, machine-gun laugh, delivered Popeye-like from the side of his mouth.
‘Maybe that’s part of the lunacy. You need an almost psychotic disengagement from the world to be able to write certain things. You go into a zone, like diving into the centre of the sun and finding it cold. It’s a very selfish, one-dimensional place to be. I become hell to be with when I go there, so I try to limit my journeys.
‘I do sometimes worry about the sick side. I’m not going to go out and axe-murder someone, but it is like being a psychopath because you have no sense of your own self, your own humanity.’
Last summer Irvine Welsh married Beth Quinn, a 25-year-old American student he met when giving a talk to a creative writing class in Chicago. Does he let her read his works in progress?
Does she ever feel embarrassed by the lurid sex scenes?
‘No. Though she will sometimes kindae look at me and.… He pulls an appalled face. ‘But it’s just for a laugh. She will back out of the room and then I’ll hear the suitcase being pulled off the shelf. “My mother warned me!”‘ He shakes his head. ‘Actually her mother did warn her.’
There was much to warn about. It was Welsh’s second marriage, the first having been contracted during his wilderness years – the 1980s – when he was living in squats, on the dole, being a heroin addict.
To be fair, he was a product of his upbringing. He was born in Leith, the port town which gives Edinburgh its route to the sea. His father worked in the docks there; when he was relocated to a housing estate at Muirhouse, up the coast, he became a carpet salesman.
Irvine left school at 16, without qualifications, to work in a television repair shop. He gave that up to do clerical work for the local council; that and laying paving slabs.
At that stage, Welsh could never have imagined he would become a bestselling author. Novelists were middle-class and well-educated. ‘Back then I didn’ae have ideas above my station,’ he says with a laugh.
‘The idea that working-class people wrote books was absurd in my family. The only books in our house were Catherine Cookson novels passed down via aunties. There was nowhere to put books anyway, no shelving. Besides, I could barely write my name to sign on the dole when I was 21…’
His metamorphosis occurred almost by accident when he discovered one day that he actually enjoyed reading books; not least because they offered him a means of escape. After that he read voraciously and eclectically: Jane Austen, Sir Walter Scott, Salman Rushdie.
Indeed, he become an autodidact, ending up with an MBA: as he says, ‘I’ve gone from one extreme to another.’ Then, in the early 1990s, he found some diaries he had written 10 years earlier, when he was a junkie. They became the inspiration for Trainspotting, a darkly comic account of the Edinburgh heroin culture of the 1980s.
It was subsequently made into a film starring Ewan McGregor as the disreputable but lovable Renton, and Robert Carlyle as the sociopath Begbie. John Carey, Emeritus Professor of English at Oxford University, was among the first to recognise how innovative the novel was.
Other reviewers praised its rawness, authenticity and energy, one calling Welsh ‘The poet laureate of the chemical generation.’ The book sold nearly a million copies and was translated into 30 languages.
In Trainspotting, Renton attempts an unorthodox self-cure for his heroin addiction: he nails up his own door from the inside and sits down with several cans of soup, a blanket and a sick bucket. It was more or less based on Welsh’s own experiences. Most young people who experiment with drugs draw the line at heroin, I suggest. Why had he no fear of trying it?
‘For me, it was stupidity. I didn’t give it any thought. Back then there wasn’t the knowledge about it that there is now. Such drugs education as there was actually encouraged you towards taking it, because your parents and your teachers didn’t know much about drugs.
‘They would tell you: “One puff from a joint of marijuana and that’s you dead.” So once you saw someone smoke it and saw they didn’ae die then you give it a try and you don’t die either.
‘Then it’s like: “If you do one line of speed you’ll die.” Again, not the case, obviously. “Tab of acid. Die.” Not the case. And so next came: “If you shoot up heroin you’re going to die.” They had cried wolf so often I was disinclined to believe them.’
He says that nowadays he has ‘no problem’ with cocaine and ecstasy but that he has come round to the view that long-term cannabis use – by which he means 20 years – can be damaging.
But he is tired of being called upon as an expert witness on drug culture. ‘Even when I was a drug addict I never saw myself as a junkie,’ he says. ‘In the same way it took me a long time to admit I was a writer.’
Was this, I ask, because he thought that there was something fey about writing; not a job for a real man? ‘A bit, but actually I think that is more an English working-class thing than a Scottish working-class thing. In Scotland there was always a manly tradition of subversive writing, expressing yourself in writing. You know, going back to Rabbie Burns.’
Welsh first realised he was a proper writer when he saw a bestseller chart at the time the film of Trainspotting came out. ‘I had more than one book in the Top 10, and I couldn’t believe my name was alongside writers I’d read, like Julian Barnes and Martin Amis.’ Did he still feel an impostor, though? ‘I suppose the others were all middle-class and Oxbridge educated.’
Actually, I suggest, they probably envied his natural way with dialogue, especially his experimental use of phonetically spelt, working-class dialect. Trainspotting, for example, starts with the unforgettable line: ‘The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.’
When the film came out in America, it had to have subtitles. ‘I had given some thought to the plotting and had tried to write it in standard English initially,’ Welsh recalls, ‘but it didn’ae make any sense. It felt sterile and pedestrian. It seemed almost pretentious to do it. The characters wouldn’t talk like that. The humour didn’t work. The engine that drives it is the language.’
All his novels since, which include the bestsellers Filth and Porno, have used the Scottish, expletive-filled vernacular and, as such, they can seem like self-parody, with Welsh, the addled seducer, goosing his passive, middle-class victims. Perhaps it is the curse of creating your own genre.
‘It’s weird to see academic books being published about me,’ Welsh says, taking a sip of red wine. ‘There’s one guy published a book about me for Manchester University Press. Another guy at a Texan university. Just bizarre. I almost, as a survival mechanism, have to dismiss such analysis of my work as hollow. Otherwise I would become self-conscious. Paralysed. You have to trust sales more than critics.’
Spoken like a true capitalist… and on the subject of politics I wonder what Welsh, a hardened socialist by reputation, makes of David Cameron. His answer is not what you would expect.
‘What’s attractive about him, for me, is he is very much another Blair, but without the weariness and baggage. With Cameron, things feel very much like they felt when Blair was coming up to take over from Major. Just as Blair did for socialism so I think Cameron is doing for traditional Toryism, or at least Thatcherism.’
Blimey. This endorsement prompts me to ask whether, in retrospect, Welsh considers that he himself might have been something of a Thatcherite, or at least a product of Thatcher’s pull-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps ethos?
‘I’m a product of Thatcherism in many ways,’ Welsh says, tilting back his head, ‘and I’ve benefited from everything I detested. I’ve had to come to terms with it.
‘My whole family background was a socialist one. I didn’t consciously embrace those changes in the 1980s, but they did help me personally. My dislike of Thatcherism is very much a class-based thing. I really had a problem with the middle and upper class.
‘Basically, I thought how can a Tory be nice? Now, some of the nicest people I have met have been middle and upper-middle class and some of them, I suppose, must be Tories.’
Blimey again. But actually there is an almost yuppy brashness to Irvine Welsh. He is not shy about telling you how in demand he is at the moment. ‘I’m planning to buy a place in California,’ he says, ‘because I need to have light all year round. I have so much work lined up at the moment, I’m going to have to have more hours in the day, you see.’
Part of his new novel, a Jekyll and Hyde parable, is set in San Francisco. It includes a line about how, when the Scottish anti-hero is in San Francisco, he wishes he were in Edinburgh, and when in Edinburgh he wishes he were in San Francisco. That has to be autobiographical; does Welsh ever feel settled anywhere?
‘I always feel that the big party is somewhere else,’ he says, scratching his blobby nose. ‘I’ve been spoiled because I’ve got the kind of job where you can write from anywhere and I have the money to live anywhere. I don’t mean this in a “poor me” sense, but sometimes opportunity and choice can cost you because you are always thinking: “I wonder if I would be better off somewhere else?”
‘Sometimes I think I should become a proper writer and have a study overlooking the sea and write big historical novels.’
But maybe, I suggest, he needs to feel ill at ease with his surroundings, to give his writing a sheen of underclass edginess after all those years of material comfort. ‘Yes, when I write I have music blaring, or I sit in cafes, or on the Tube with my laptop and people banging into me.’
Frankly, it shows, at least in his latest novel. But Welsh seems to think this is a good thing: ‘I like the commotion. I’ll go around the Circle Line five times and then, 10,000 words later, I will look up and realise I haven’t seen a single thing going on around me.
‘It’s always good when I write like that. You’re in the pace of real life. I know if I am distracted by people, it’s not working.’ He splays his fingers out on the table – a demonstration. ‘When I’m in the mood I bang really hard on my keys. I do actually go through keyboards.’
It is a romantic idea, the novelist as lost soul wandering the earth, never feeling at home, only able to find his muse on a Tube going round and round, but never arriving. Maybe if he had children he would feel more settled.
‘I think it would affect me as a writer. I would worry that they would read what I was writing. It would make me self-conscious. You know, I’d have to tell them: “Don’t you dare read those disgusting books!”‘
He isn’t even open to the idea of children: ‘Not really. I’ve gone through that phase in my life. I always felt I was too young to have kids and now I feel I am too old. There was about 10 minutes in between and I missed it. My wife is a lot younger than me so it is not entirely going to be my decision.
‘I’d hate to be the weird old guy at the school gates picking up the kids. You know: “Who’s that weirdo?”‘
Isn’t he used to that? ‘Yes I am, aye,’ he says with his clattering, Popeye laugh. ‘I’ve always been thought a weirdo.’