Irvine Welsh interview: Growing old disgracefully
The image of a former enfant terrible growing up, moving to a big house by the ocean and living a life of manicured leisure is hardly novel.
Even so, hearing Irvine Welsh – former heroin addict, guitarist with punk band The Pubic Lice, and author of Trainspotting – talk about his Miami pilates regime is a record-scratch moment. The idea of this pasty bloke from Leith limbering up with a bunch of lithe, tanned Floridians is hard to process.
“I’ve decided to do everything counter-intuitively,” he chuckles, adding, perhaps a touch defensively, “I also do boxing…”
We meet in Leadenhall Market, the last leg of his book-signing tour for Dead Men’s Trousers, the sixth novel following the characters from Trainspotting. There’s something familiar, almost archetypal about him. I used to work in Glasgow pubs, and he reminds me of a certain type of regular who’d prop up the bar: smart, working class, politically engaged, a touch misanthropic, someone to keep an eye on come closing time.
When Trainspotting was released in 1993, he was hailed as the new messiah of British literature, part of a groundswell of working class creators reshaping the country. He entered the public consciousness just as Brit-Pop was taking off, when Damien Hirst was on his way to being the world’s richest artist and Noel Gallagher got invitations to 10 Downing Street. It’s frightening to think he’ll be 60 this year; he doesn’t look it.
Today, he says, Trainspotting wouldn’t even get published. “It’s not an escapist, Booker Prize-type novel about people falling out of love in Tuscany or going on holiday to India – The food! The sights! The smells! No mainstream publisher would take a chance on it. It’s never going to sell as many books as Dan Brown or Dean Koontz or whoever.”
It’s safe to say Welsh isn’t enamoured with the state of modern literature. He loves Jane Austen and George Eliot but thinks most novels today are tame. It’s a systemic problem, he says: “You get people – at least the ones who can afford MFA programmes – being taught to write a certain kind of book, in many cases a genre novel because it’s easier to sell.”
In times of social upheaval, he says, people want to be comforted rather than challenged, to be “thrilled” but ultimately know that “the bad people aren’t going to come crashing through the door”.
Trainspotting isn’t like that. The bad people crash through the door. They kick it to smithereens. The series of overlapping short stories about a group of young heroin addicts revelled in squalor, addiction, violence, disease and death. But there’s also energy and hope. These characters were figuring out whether or not to ‘choose life’, and what exactly that meant. It implied there was a future.
In Dead Men’s Trousers, the characters are older and generally better off – Renton manages DJs; Begbie’s a hotshot artist; Sickboy owns an escort agency – but there’s a suffocating hopelessness to it, a sense that the cards have already been played and all that’s left is to work out who finished last. Renton, especially, is stuck on the treadmill of life, his ostensibly glamorous job little more than glorified babysitting, his life a fug of airport lounges, jet-lag and hangovers. It sounds suspiciously autobiographical…
“Yeah, I guess it is a bit. It’s been a hectic year. I’m looking forward to getting back to Miami and just sitting in the garden.”
We walk up Bishopsgate as the freak April snowstorm starts to fall. Sliding into a booth at M Restaurant on Threadneedle Street, Welsh orders steak and a glass of pinot noir, raving about the restaurants in Miami. I ask if he fancies sharing some octopus.
“No, I saw that David Attenborough programme. They’re super-smart and compassionate and social and all that. It’s like eating dog, basically.”
He’s soon back into his groove, railing against the system. He says we’ve been approaching an economic and cultural turning-point since long before Trump and Brexit; these things just made us notice.
“If we look at what’s happened in the last 30 years, and what’s going to happen in the next 30 years, it’s a long, drawn-out transition from an industrial society with paid work into something else, into authoritarianism maybe, and that’s a big adjustment. We’re part of a dying world, and that leads to rage and insecurity.”
This, he says, is what he was trying to capture in Trainspotting, and what concerns authors like Bret Easton Ellis and Chuck Palahniuk, both of whom he admires. “The characters in Trainspotting were the first generation to be made not just redundant, but existentially redundant, no longer fitting in the world. Now that process is starting to happen to middle class people, to their jobs. In 10 or 20 years, are we are going to be running around in fields shagging each other, writing poems and playing football, or are we going to be in an Oliver Twist-style workhouse?”
He clearly enjoys prodding at the architecture of society. He has nihilistic opinions on everything from Tinder (“If it had been around when I was a teenager, I’d never have been off the bastard”) to the health industry (“The best way to take someone’s assets is to keep them alive longer”). He comes across as part visionary Cassandra, part old-man-shaking-a-stick-at-the-clouds. I tell him he should write a sci-fi novel.
“Maybe, maybe,” he says. “I loved the new Blade Runner. It was so emotional. I was crying.”
Not that he needs to look far into the future for inspiration. Welsh has long been fascinated with toxic masculinity, from the casual psychopathy of Francis Begbie, to the cruel misogyny of Sickboy, to the brutal racism of Bruce Robertson.
Welsh is currently working on a new novel about spree killings in the US, starting out with the real-life Las Vegas massacre and ending with a fictional shooting two years later. I wonder if he worries about glamourising the people involved, or if he fears a backlash.
“Yeah, there’s a worry that they become poster boys for young guys. I try to show the consequences of that behaviour, on the character themselves and on the people around them. You can’t pretend it doesn’t exist.”
As well as the new book, Welsh is working on a handful of TV shows, including one about modern dating. Both are a long way from his early novels, which drew heavily from his experiences around Edinburgh housing estates, a time when he was briefly addicted to heroin and often in trouble with the law.
But then Welsh is a long way from the man he was 25 years ago. Since then, he’s released 20 books, married twice (he’s currently going through a second divorce), lived in Amsterdam, Barcelona, Chicago, San Francisco and Miami, turned his hand to screenwriting (earning more money, he says, for things that haven’t been made than for things that have), and revived his interest in DJing, with a string of club nights in the pipeline. His biggest regret, he deadpans, is that he “wasn’t a millionaire at 20 rather than 30”.
It feels strange to ask a man in the twilight of his 50s whether he still takes loads of drugs, but I do anyway. He does. He has loads of drug stories. There’s the one about getting high on a boat with some San Francisco tech-bros, the one where he took crystal meth with a bunch of red-necks while he was researching a TV show (“I thought I was going to get murdered in a hill-billy toilet”), the one about his lawyer friend who micro-doses LSD all week (“I can see a future like Mad Men, but instead of pouring a whisky, it’s a micro-dose of acid”).
But his favourite drug right now, one that plays a central part in Dead Men’s Trousers, is DMT. Derived from tree bark and associated with shamanistic rituals, it’s a hallucinogen that used to be known as the “businessman’s trip” owing to its short, intense effects. The characters in Dead Men’s Trousers all have revelations after huffing it, and their experience is very much based on Welsh’s own. Like his characters, he describes taking three giant lungfuls of smoke…
“One minute you’re sitting on a couch, the next little gnomes are escorting you around and you’re flying up the side of a mountain. You leave and go to a different place entirely. You go back in time to before you were born or forward to after you’ve died, and you get the feeling like you knew all this stuff before but had forgotten it.”
Did he have a religious experience?
“I was a confirmed atheist until I took it but now I kind of feel there may be something more…”
It’s an upbeat note on which to end a lunch that had largely revolved largely around the collapse of Western civilisation. There’s something appropriate, perhaps even inevitable, that Welsh’s meandering path through life should culminate with drug-induced spirituality.
Outside, the snow is already churning to black slush. He pulls out a woolly hat, folds himself forward and sets out into the blizzard. Tomorrow he’ll be back in the Miami sun, tinkering with the new novel, working on the TV show, waiting for the world to burn.