Irvine Welsh returns to Leith to talk about his latest work and Edinburgh International Book Festival appearance
Irvine Welsh’s trainers pad over the huge red star in the foyer floor of Leith Theatre, the 64-year-old fresh from a nearby boxing gym, shaven-headed, in trackie bottoms and hoodie and surprisingly tall. He’s back in Leith on home turf, and as we enter the vast empty main hall says:
“Saw Mott the Hoople here when I was about 12 years old. Snuck in with a mate and it was mental.”
It’s a convenient rendezvous for this former Young Dude, just around the corner from the tenement flat in Prince Regent Street that was his first family home before a move along the road to Muirhouse, the Edinburgh housing scheme that shaped him and his writing.
We’re here to talk about his latest work, a novella entitled In Real Life for the second volume of his The Seal Club collaboration with Alan Warner and John King, The View from Poacher’s Hill, and their Edinburgh International Book Festival appearance, and in keeping with the venue location, music in a variety of forms accompanies and fills our conversation.
There’s a radio banging out beats as workies up on the balcony continue with the renovations of the grand old theatre and as Welsh disappears for a photograph Donna Summer’s floor filler I Feel Love bounces around the auditorium. And as well as being an internationally renowned bestselling author - his debut novel Trainspotting celebrates its 30th birthday this year - Welsh is massively into music.
Besides his love of DJ-ing - he’s already declared a sprung floor in the smaller hall as being suitable for one of his raves - his record label Jack Said What is about to release a single and he is working on Trainspotting, the Musical, which kicks off in the West End next February and heads out on tour, definitely heading for Scotland, hopefully heading for Leith. As we talk, he often reaches for his phone to let me hear bits of the music he’s talking about.
But first, In Real Life, the follow on to his previous Seal Club novella, The Providers, which captured a Begbie family Christmas in which peace and goodwill are in short supply. In it Welsh ushers in a whole new cast of characters, beginning with 16-year-old Lita, standing at the bus stop, larger than life and full of possibilities.
Welsh hasn’t seen the finished book yet and picks up my review copy up from the table. What does he think?
“It’s great, aye, it looks fabulous.”
Does he get a thrill when he sees a book, in real life, to take the title of the novella?
“Yeah. It always feels as if it’s somebody else’s. When I see them in the shops I feel ‘god, I cannae have written all these, surely.’
How many is it now?
“I don’t even know.” He smiles.
So can he describe In Real Life for us without giving too much away?
“It’s basically about a group of young people in a housing scheme who spend too much time online and as a result the world is kinda changing around them and they have to make adjustments to handle it. And real life becomes a very threatening place in a lot of ways because I think it is for most of us now, even though the bigger jeopardy is actually online.
The View from Poacher’s Hill book title comes from the spoken word opening track of David Bowie’s 1974 Diamond Dogs album, Future Legend, in which gangs of youths rampage in a dystopian urban world.
“And in the death/ As the last few corpses lay rotting on the slimy thoroughfare/ The shutters lifted in inches in Temperance Building/ High on Poacher's Hill/ And red, mutant eyes gaze down on Hunger City”
“We just got obsessed with Bowie’s Diamond Dogs so decided to call it that. I think everybody feels a bit detached from everything now, there is no real underground, no real mainstream and we decided we were up on Poacher’s Hill just looking down on what was going on.”
“I was thinking what do working class kids in the schemes do these days? It seems like this is a horrible dystopian world we’ve created when older people feel sorry for younger people and it shouldn’t be like that. Youth should be a great thing and a great time but it just feels such a bleak landscape for people now. There’s not the economic prospects of work, there’s no street culture, everything is just fed down through a kind of global media and it seems to me to be like real life seems to not be a very fruitful place, so you can see how people retreat into an imaginative space and get the dopamine hits from gaming. And what does the virtual life, the internet, screen-intense life, offer you as compensation?”
While Begbie and the Trainspotting characters are still out there with Welsh reporting that The Blade Artist is being adapted for TV (with Jenni Fagan writing the scripts), Welsh was inspired to find fresh blood.
Was it liberating to have new characters?
“It was great, it was fabulous,” He laughs. “And I actually got them to work and they were interesting to me.”
I ask Welsh if he knows anyone like his Lita character and her crew in real life and he recounts an encounter that inspired the story.
“I was on the number 8 bus and heard these two lassies in front of me having this conversation. The great thing about it was I got a song and part of a novella out of them. Just the patter between them was brilliant. Everybody else on the bus was horrified,” he laughs. “This kind of really big girl and her skinny pal, really loud and completely lost in their own vibe. They became Lita and her pal.”
He imitates their loud, relentless voices then reaches for his phone and plays the song they also inspired.
The phrase ‘you dare to look in my eyes’ is repeated to a backing beat that builds and fills the room.
“It’s them. She was saying ‘he couldnae look in my eyes!, he couldn’t even look in my f***ing eyes! When I was trying tae talk to um you know? And I’m saying ‘I’m no going oot wi ye any mair’ and he goes ‘how no? How no?’
“So I put it into a song.”
Entitled How No?
“It’s a disco song - I started a record label last year and we’ll be bringing this out. It’s an Italian disco techno number.”
Because along with punk and acid house and techno, Welsh also has a soft spot for disco. It’s a pity he missed Donna Summer on the radio while he was upstairs getting his photo taken.
“No, I heard it. I Feel Love.” He smiles.
So with a 16-year-old female as one of the central characters, was that a leap for him to write?
“I was definitely Lita and the others. They have to all be part of you in some way. The characters are all much younger than me, even the older ones,” he laughs.
“It was great to write characters from different eras and have them come alive. You never quite know yourself, because the subconscious tends to do the heavy lifting when you’re writing fiction, but I just thought this is great because these two lassies were just so loud. I don’t even think they were intoxicated or drunk anything, just so into their own vibe and not giving a f*** about anybody else on this bus. It was brilliant. I thought, the world they have, that’s their world, it’s so important to them. They are the stars of their own movie and I wanted to really bring that to the character.”
Does Welsh get the bus a lot in Edinburgh?
“Yeah, because I don’t drive, so I’m always on public transport.”
With a flat in Edinburgh, a place in London and one in Miami, Welsh jumps between the three but is Edinburgh still home?
“Yeah. It is always like home. I love it and kind of have to be here for a large part of the time, but it’s not enough just to be here as well, you know. I need to be other places too.”
With season two of Crime about to air [Crime Season 2 premieres Thursday, 14 September on ITVX], is Welsh pleased with the how the first season turned out?
“Well Dougray [Scott] got the international Emmy for best actor so it’s kind of job done. It was a passion role for him and he smashed it.
“The idea was to start off with a traditional crime thriller thing and move it into an existential thriller about the characters. Start off with The Bill or Taggart and move towards True Detective. We’ve got that currency now, and I think the second season is even richer and builds on the first. The other characters come into it more - Drummond has issues to resolve, they all do, it’s a ship of fools - and the mystery is tied much more into Lennox’s back story of what he’s been through.”
Can he give us a hint about what’s in story in season two?
“Lennox is diving deeper into the family dynamics that have caused him to be so f***d up and the incident in the tunnel, but also most of it is the plot of The Long Knives book which came out last year. Somebody is killing and mutilating powerful men who may be abusers, seeking retribution and justice in their own way and Lennox is torn, because he’s got to investigate but has sympathies with the people he’s trying to apprehend. He’s questioning the role of the state and his role as a cop.”
With Trainspotting celebrating its 30th anniversary and still going strong, and two new editions published this year, why does he think it still resonates?
“Because it’s about a transition to a world without paid work, and we’re all going through that anxiety. Capitalism has always been seen as the answer to scarcity and now we can technologically create abundance we’re forcing ourselves into a world of scarcity because we don’t know how to work without the driving mechanism of profit. We don’t know how to organise society. We don’t have the emotional, intellectual, spiritual tools for a socialist and anarchist future so we’re trying to eke out the embers of capitalism and it’s very difficult for us to do that because the technology and accelerationism of our age is so rapacious.
“Capitalism, socialism, all these things are the products of the industrial revolution and we’re now de-industrialised, so they’re gone.”
So would he say he has a bleak view of the future?
The bright blue eyes smile. “No, I don’t.”
Is he an optimist in his daily life?
“Yeah, I am very upbeat. And I can afford to be because I live quite well. The best revenge is living well as they say.
“I believe we’re messing around trying to commit ourselves to some kind of psychological bondage, but all of that will just fade away at some point. We will grow into our future. I think humans always do.”
Welsh writes about the people trapped by forces beyond their control and it’s now the children of the Trainspotting generation, excluded whether in his native Edinburgh or London, where he sees a landscape of higher property prices in town centres in which families and young people can’t afford to live.
“It’s absolutely bizarre, but it is basically young people waiting for their parents to die so they can get their assets. That’s the future. Brett Easton Ellis and I are doing an audio book in America about that generation war, about the youth who decide to kill off older people that have all the assets. The young people must be getting impatient, going ‘f***, just gies it, you don’t appreciate it, you’re a moaning faced old get, just give us it, ken.”
So is Choose Life still a valid mantra?
“I hope it always is because if you fundamentally believe in humanity you have to believe in youth, and when you talk to young people, they are ‘this is shit, there’s f*** all for us but it’s still good to be young, f*** you, you old bastards. So I think there’s always going to be that core of possibility.
“If I’m going back 40-odd years, sitting on a mattress in Hackney, getting bombed on drugs and staring at walls on a stained mattress in a crappy bedsit, there’s no quality of life in that at all, but I’d rather be that person there than I would be this person now, because there’s so much possibility and so much adventure.
“You think well, you’ve got all the nice travel and hotels and restaurants, but I’d much rather be back then, to have all that ahead, to be able to think ‘wow, this is great, this is such an adventure’.
“It is. It’s nuts. But it’s true.”
Seriously, he’d rather be that person than the published author, film/TV and record producing successful, healthy, financially secure person he is at 64?
“Yeah, I’d much rather be that person than me.”
For the potential?
“And excitement. You’ve got the licence to do anything you like. You can sit in the pub all day, do loads of drugs, come back from a rave and stagger around and people will say ‘look at that f***ing daft young person, good on you pal’. You try to do that when you’re older and they say ‘sad old bastard, grow the f*** up’, so everything becomes a bit sadder.
“I still DJ, but I have to tell everybody I’m here to DJ, not here to dance and be sleazy.”
Does he have to make sure he arrives carrying some equipment to justify his arrival at a club?
“Well you can’t now cos it’s all the USB cards,” he laughs.
Trainspotting the Musical, produced by Phil McIntyre, will be launching in London’s West End next February then tour, and Welsh is currently working on the music with songwriting partner Steve McGuinness. Alongside original soundtrack bookends Lust for Life and Born Slippy they’ve written more than a dozen new tracks.
“They’re all genres a Trainspotting audience would have experienced - blues, disco, country and western one, rock ‘n’ roll, techno, northern soul and we’ve got a couple of classic cheesy Musical power ballads as well,” he says before playing the disco track.
“It’s kind of Chic,” he says. “Hear that Nile Rodgers style guitar? And Chic always start with the chorus.”
Finally, before he heads off back to the bus stop, can he tell us something we don’t know about him?
“I’m not sure but I’ve got two documentaries coming out about me - one in the Edinburgh International Film Festival about me and the Trainspotting phenomenon [Choose Irvine Welsh] and the other, out next spring, where they’re following me around for a year and I’ve always thought my life’s quite boring, but they’ve got me messing around in Miami, raving in Ibiza, going to clubs in Berlin, DJ-ing in festivals, writing and going to DMT clinics in Toronto and taking large doses of the drug and talking to counsellors and therapists about it and um…” He pauses then says: “Probably people will think I’m more romantic than they imagine when they see it.”
He’s obviously a romantic. Married three times, most recently last year. People don’t do that unless they’re…
“Dramatic,” he says. “You’ve got to make a big grandiose statement about these things.”
Also, people may not know he used to have a cat called Eisenhower back in America.
“A big fat ginger cat. My ex has got him now. He used to kind of basically run the house. I miss him,” he says.
Has he ever written anything that made him think where did that come from, that’s a bit odd?
“Yeah, them all, like, you know. I always have that test. It’s like I always have to feel really terrible about something before I know it’s any good. I always have that thing ‘what’s my mum going to think of this?’ ‘What’s my wife going to think of this?
“And if I don’t have that feeling of utter, ‘f***! I’m really putting myself out for a massive kind of social embarrassment and all that’, I start to feel terrible. I’ve got to have that edge to everything that I do.”
John King, Alan Warner & Irvine Welsh: Comedies of No Manners Sat 12 Aug 7.30-8.30pm Baillie Gifford West Court, Edinburgh International Book Festival. www.edbookfest.co.uk
The Seal Club, The View from Poacher’s Hill is published by London Books, paperback, £10.99, on 12 August 2023.
The Long Knives by Irvine Welsh, second of the Crime series, is published in paperback on 24 August 2023.
Crime, Season 2, premieres Thursday, 14 September 2023 on ITVX.
With Thanks to Leith Theatre: Venue and film location, Leith Theatre 28-30 Ferry Road, Leith, EH6 4AE. www.leiththeatretrust.co.uk (@leiththeatre)