Crossing the classes
In 1993, Irvine Welsh became a literary and youth culture celebrity with Trainspotting, a book about nihilistic drug-addicts living in the worst part of Thatcher-era Scotland. Now he's a rich man living in Ranelagh. He talks to John Byrne. Photograph by William Hederman
'Ireland always ends up with shit drugs that nobody else wants," says Irvine Welsh of the country that has been his home for the past 14 months. "I've never had a fucking decent pill or a decent line of coke in Ireland ever – and that's going back years and years."
But the author of Trainspotting, the 1993 hit novel about a gang of poor, drug-taking losers living in the worst part of Thatcher-era Scotland, did not come here to sample our sub-standard narcotics. His girlfriend came to Dublin to study in UCD and he moved with her. How is he finding it?
"I've really been enjoying it. In the last four years I've lived in London, Edinburgh, Chicago, San Francisco, and now Dublin. It takes a while to get into any place and I'm just getting into it now.
"The thing about Ireland is that there's this kind of goldrush feel about it when people go out drinking. It's like people have just come out of an 800-year recession and don't know when it's going to end, so fuck it, we have money to spend so lets get more and more Guinness in, lets get red meat from the butcher every day, and not just one day a week. There's that kind of thing going on, or it feels like it."
Welsh has relatives from Donegal, and has been visiting Ireland for the past two decades. He's noticed a lot of change.
"You go out and people are very young here," he says. "Ten years ago these people would have been exported to America or Australia or Birmingham. But now, they're staying here. I think it's a fucking great thing for the country. I remember coming here about 20 years ago and the place was fucked compared to what it is now. Sometimes it felt like Calcutta. Now, it just feels so... European compared to most British cities. It's even more like that in Cork. Cork used to be like Mussleburgh [a small, run-down town outside Edinburgh], but now it's like New Orleans – before the hurricane. A big, fat town with drinking and dancing and partying on the street. There is a lot of shit going on here."
Apart from the drink culture, Welsh – a keen sports fan who was once arrested at a match of his beloved Hibernians soccer team – also enjoys GAA (he singles out Tyrone's Eoin Mulligan for special praise) and admires writers such as Patrick McCabe, Roddy Doyle, Joseph O'Connor and Dermot Bolger.
There is a famous quote in Trainspotting in which the narrator states: "Some people hate the English, but I don't. They're just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers." What does that say about the Irish?
"There are a lot of similarities in the history between the two countries," he says, laughing. "But there are a lot of differences. Scotland wasn't colonised the same way Ireland was. The English Kings were never really able to conquer Scotland in the same way, so we were just colonised. Scotland is unique – it's the last colony of the British empire."
Irvine Welsh was born in 1958 in the working class town of Leith, just outside Edinburgh. He moved to Muirhouse as a child, another fairly desolate place, dominated by public housing schemes. But, although he was a heroin-addict at one stage, the "junkie-turned-author" image was a simplistic myth, peddled by an overexcited media when he first became public property.
"I did all sorts of things," he says. "I worked on building sites, had clerical jobs, in hospitals, as a kitchen porter. I did junior management, just the usual kind of thing that people do in their 20s when they're treading water and don't know what they want to do. I also have an MBA."
Many people might be surprised to hear that.
"That's the thing. You're never one thing or the other. That's the thing in journalism, particularly feature journalism, in my experience. You've got two hours to get the essence of a person, you kind of decide, this is what they are, but you miss the contrary evidence. It's difficult to tell people, I'm an ex-junkie, but I've also got and MBA and I've also had a few well-paid jobs for years as well, and then I wrote this book..."
His working-class upbringing left him with strong political views. He detests the yuppification of his home town, Leith.
"I'm more left-wing almost than anybody I know, although it's very difficult to define the term. I grew up in Scotland in the 1970s and 1980s. I believe in social equality and social justice and all that kind of stuff. But it's hard to know what that makes you these days. Does it make you a socialist, a libertarian, an anarchist or what? It's very difficult to say. There is no real mass movement for the kind of change I want to see. Most of the political parties seem to be aiming to work out how best to manage the market economy. I'd like to see, and what most people of my generation and background would like to see, is more of a social agenda, more redistribution of wealth, more taxation of the rich, wealth tax. You know all those kind of things which are almost taboo in this day and age."
As an Irish resident, Welsh, now a very wealthy man, doesn't have to pay any taxes on his earnings under the artists tax exemption scheme – there is not much redistribution of wealth going on there.
"This is the thing," he says. "I'm a beneficiary. This is where your own political view of the world and your personal opportunism don't match up. It's like that kind of thing. Personally for me it's a great thing. It's something you can justify more for Irish writers rather than for people like me, or Michelle Houllebeq, or DBC Pierre – people like that. It makes me want to start to write about Ireland. This is a society that I live in, and I want to try and understand it. I'm an artist who's living here, and I want to make some kind of contribution. If it gets a lot of people thinking like that, then maybe it has some kind of value, for outsiders."
Ronnie Wood of the Rolling Stones has been resident here for many years but we don't hear too many songs from the Stones about Ireland.
"What does he do now that the Shelbourne bar has closed down? Where does he drink? I seen him in there a couple of times. I thought he was a fixture in there," he says. "But I think a cap on the exemption would be fair. I find it fucking nauseating when Bono goes, 'we promised two per cent of the Irish taxpayers' money'... How much fucking tax do you pay? You've got to shut your fucking mouth about these things."
Bono does pay some tax, on t-shirts and other merchandising.
"Oh! That's terrible!" he says mockingly. "There must be a loophole they can avail of. Get on to Bertie. That's terrible that they have to pay tax on t-shirts. Just terrible."
Welsh's books since Trainspotting have covered similar dark material. Drug culture features strongly (Ecstasy, the Acid House), as well as sexual abuse, incest, rape murder and pornography (his most recent book, Porno, published in 2002, features the same characters from Trainspotting, except instead of taking heroin, they're now making porn). It's not really the kind of thing the mainstream goes for – US Presidential candidate Bob Dole publicly condemned Trainspotting for glorifying heroin use, inadvertently increasing Welsh's cachet.
"I don't set out to offend anybody, he says. "It's quite a selfish thing, writing, I write for myself, I'm trying to get a reaction from myself. It's not a conscious thing that I'm trying to offend middle-England or anything. I think, what is this fucking repressed, bourgeois part of myself that I'm trying to get in touch with, that I'm trying to annoy, that I'm trying to get a reaction from."
Welsh, who is in his mid-40s, is now an haute-cuisine critic for the Guardian newspaper (Shanahans on St Stephen's Green is his favourite Irish restaurant). He has sold around two million books, now lives in one of the poshest parts of Dublin, and lists French cinema, fine wine and international travel among his main interests.
Surely he is no longer qualified to write about gritty urban living?
"It's probably true, in a sense," he says. "As you get older, your concerns change. In the writing game, it would kind of become silly... you know, the drug culture thing. But it would have been pretentious of me to write about modern urban life and not write about drugs. It's like writing a book about the highlands and not describing the scenery. It's just part of the unremarkable landscape. I never consciously decided to write about drugs."
Although still a very big draw, some have criticised his books for mining a narrow creative seam. There have been hints that his new book, due out next year, might see a change of direction. Ian Banks, another trendy Scottish author with whom Welsh is often associated, said recently: "It can get boring having to be edgy and hip all the time. Sometimes you want to do other things. So I think it is good for Irvine Welsh if he wants to do something a bit more mainstream. I wouldn't take it that this is a new direction for perpetuity. It might only last for one book. I would be surprised if Irvine writes himself into a corner, he is too smart for that."
"I don't know if it is more mainstream – I find it hard to say," he says. "I wrote Porno in 2002, and I find it difficult even to get enough distance from that to work out where it sits in relation to my other stuff. So I still don't really have much of a perspective on that." (He won't say anything concrete about the new book, other than it's about a man who finds his long-lost father working as a gay chef in San Francisco).
Finally, after more than a decade as one of Scotland's most controversial novelists, does he feel he's been accepted by his home country?
"I've had a bit of negative reaction from some of the media in Scotland and the official bodies – you know, tourist boards and that. 'You're giving the place a bad name' kind of stuff.
I don't think I've ever had somebody come up to me and say, fuck you, you cunt, kind of thing. One wee guy said to me in a bookshop, 'I've robbed every one of your books'. And I says to him, 'well go ahead mate, it doesn't bother me'. And it's actually better because it can't be returned, so I was like, by all means, carry on."p
Irvine Welsh, journalist Nell McCafferty and Evil Cradling author Brian Keenan are some of the writers attending the annual Impressions Writers Festival in Clonmel from Thursday 20 – Sunday 23 October, which is organised by the South Tipperary Arts Centre. Further information: firstname.lastname@example.org or 052 27877