Irvine Welsh on his days of debauchery, living in Dublin, and criticism of his new novel
Irvine Welsh drew from his drug-fuelled youth to pen one of the most successful novels of the 1990s, but, he says, a recent lapse aside, his days of debauchery are behind him
It feels good to be back in Dublin, Irvine Welsh tells me. For a start, it holds happy memories for him: he lived in Rathmines for a few contented years, having been brought over here when his wife began postgraduate work at Trinity College, and made off like a bandit when he sold his place there at the height of the boom. "It worked out so well, in fact, that I felt slightly guilty; I sensed that the woman who bought it was really pushing herself to the limit in terms of what she could afford. Two months later, it was worth about a third of the price."
And having just run the gauntlet of English interviewers and some decidedly mixed reviews for his new novel, A Decent Ride, it's heartening, he tells me, to be somewhere his writing is not seen exclusively through the distorting prism of class judgements. The book sees the return of some characters from former novels, principally the oversexed taxi driver of Glue and a walk-on from Trainspotting's Sick Boy. Welsh says he went back to the characters because he hadn't written about Scotland in a while, and, with the Scottish referendum happening as he wrote, it seemed apposite to do so. But the book has thrown up some of the usual criticisms of Welsh's writing, which seem to centre partly around the suspicion that as someone who has made his home in America for the last two decades - The Guardian calls him "a leisured Chicagoan" - his depictions of the Caledonian underclass now have some element of pastiche about them.
"If you're from the working class and writing about working-class characters, you're either too working class or you're not working class enough", he responds. "It's kind of weird, I think, to call the legitimacy of art into question based on the social class of the person creating that art. 'Authenticity' is such a stupid word to use in terms of fiction anyway, because fiction is all lies. There was no way for me to stay the same. How working class can you actually be if you're a successful writer travelling the world promoting a book? There are a lot of writers who say 'I've got to stay in my own street', to 'keep it real' in that way. I didn't even feel like that when I was 17 and I could barely sign my name on a dole slip; I always wanted to get out of there and see the world. Living in America, I see in sharper focus the British obsession with class, and how it colours their view of writing."
There are few working-class critics working in the British media, he points out, and he thinks the sniffiness he sometimes encounters in reviews reflects a kind of middle-class self-loathing. "That comes because everything that once made the working class great - football and music - has been under attack for the last 30 years in Britain. Those things have been co-opted, sanitised and made middle class. It's the exact same process of appropriation that goes on across the world ; anything that the poor have that is of value will eventually be stolen by the rich. I heard Noel Gallagher talking recently about how rock 'n' roll used to be a working-class thing, but is no longer. He's right: That is capitalism in action. Trainspotting, for example, went from being my book, to being Ewan McGregor's star vehicle, to being Danny Boyle's film, and ended up as Richard Branson's train advert. From art to advertising in a few easy steps: it's inevitable, you can't really expect anything else given that's the way society is set up."
He says all of this with a shrugging acceptance and no discernible bitterness. He also tells me that contained in some of the criticism of him is the idea that there was something wrong with his getting rich from his debut novel, and he'll never feel bad about that. It's almost a quarter of a century now since he drafted Trainspotting from his old diaries while studying for an MBA in Edinburgh, and watched it become a publishing supernova, gleefully packing in a day job as a council worker. Its cast of heroin addicts was inspired by his own life.
He grew up on a housing scheme in Edinburgh where his mother was a waitress and his father a carpet salesman. He left school early but remained a lifelong autodidact. "I was taught by family, close friends, the kids of the street. My dad was a carpet salesman. There is that bullshit of the University of Life, but there is some truth to it. I found it very difficult to sit still 9 to 5. I didn't want to get up every f**king day of the week. I went out and lived life and it proved to be great for my writing."
He began taking heroin in his teens. "Drugs were a way of fleeing from the everyday, and a type of experimentation. We smoked it, injected it, everything. I was breaking a social sanction. It wasn't at all prevalent among my friends. There was one guy who took heroin, a kind of Sick Boy character, and we had a kind of parallel life. We took [heroin] but it felt very compartmentalised. I didn't think that people noticed, but then maybe that's the lie you tell yourself, you think nobody notices you falling apart."
There came a fateful summer, he says, when everything came crashing down. "When something gets out of control you still have to feed it, so that's when you get into all sorts of scams and shoplifting and thievery, and it just wasn't fun any more. It was too much hard work. When you're young, you kind of believe that you're the exception to the rule and you can rise above something that has wrecked the lives of other people. You think you've been given a special power."
He never did "12-step programmes or any of that" and he says that recovery, like literary criticism, depends somewhat on class. "Drug-taking is always contextual. You do get people who take drugs at the weekend, and if it gets out of hand you can go and get it taken care of - assuming you're middle class - and talk to someone about your parents' divorce or your childhood traumas, or whatever. But if you come from a background where there's no prospects, then drugs become everything, they are the basis for your life, the basis for your economy. Youth also needs a compelling narrative. It needs drama. And, for all the damage drugs cause, they do also give that."
He says he hasn't taken anything for a while and taking drugs would leave him feeling "kind of shabby", but last year in Edinburgh he had a big night out that just carried on, a sort of reunion of about 30 old friends. "We were in clubs, houses, bars, and we seemed to have this collective insanity that gripped us."
So he got high again? "Everybody was having everything and I didn't want to feel left out. There were people you wouldn't expect doing things like that, nice mothers. It was like one big collective menopausal week off the leash. I felt terrible afterwards. I was back over doing the book tour recently and someone reminded me of it. We were like, 'What the f**k happened there?'"
In Chicago, there is a vibrant literary scene, he says, but it lacks the debauchery of his youth. "Americans don't even really drink. People will meet and go to see a movie or a show or we'll go for a meal. There is always something else other than sitting in a bar, maybe that's a sign of ageing." He doesn't feel any great urge to set a novel there any more than he did in Dublin. "There are so many great writers in both cities who can write in the real voice of the city. No matter how hard I tried I would never be able to write about Dublin, like, say, Roddy Doyle."
He says the excitement built into his life now, the literary challenges, the travel, have filled the void that was once taken by drugs. He's often depicted as a reformed punk, and tells me he is happily monogamous - he recently got married, for the second time, to an American woman, 22 years younger than him, who studied at Trinity College while they lived here.
As we sip our tea, I remember A Decent Ride's opening quote, from Aldous Huxley: "An intellectual is a person who has discovered something more interesting than sex", so does that make Welsh an intellectual? "Not yet, but I'm looking!" he laughs. "But what the quote means is that we may be these cerebral creatures but we still have the basic drives for food, shelter, shagging. And the tension between the two, that's something I explore in my writing." But not in his life? "One of the beautiful things about ageing is that you can live up to those ideals you aspired to in your youth. It's a relief to leave all the wildness behind."
'A Decent Ride' by Irvine Welsh is published by Random House priced €12.99
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