Crime and Punishment - Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh's novels are admired by prisoners for their accurate portrayal of their world, so where better to discuss his new work than in Saughton jail? Books editor David Robinson joined the group

I'M WALKING behind the Famous Author. He's wearing trainers, a T-shirt, an expensive-looking grey-green leather jacket and is carrying a plastic bag. As I follow him, I'm thinking that the way people walk tells you something about them. The Famous Author walks like a fighter: self-confident, disciplined, head up. He doesn't walk like a 50-year-old, though in a couple of months he will be one.

We're making our way down an interminably long, windowless corridor, past a series of reinforced metal doors – him first, me second, a poet third and a photographer last. There's another single file of a dozen men coming the other way. They don't walk like the Famous Author, though most are half his age. They shuffle along, eyes mostly downcast, though a few look inquisitively at us.

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As we pass each other, one of them looks up. "How ya doin', Irvine?" he shouts out.

We've passed them already but Irvine Welsh turns round. "Fine thanks, pal," he calls back. And we carry on walking, our group and theirs. Ours out past a maze of huge fences topped with barbed wire into an overcast, muggy Edinburgh afternoon; theirs back to their cells in Saughton prison.

THE poet in our group is Tim Turnbull, and our going into Saughton was his idea – he is the writer-in-residence there. Long before that shouted greeting in the corridor, he knew all about Welsh's hero status among the prisoners. And as Welsh's new novel is called Crime, HMP Edinburgh – more usually known simply as Saughton – seemed a natural place to talk about it.

So that's what we're all doing, sitting round a table in a north-facing office, looking out through barred windows over the shambolic sprawl of prison roofs. There's a softly whirring fan in one corner, a globe in another and posters on the wall about the correct use of the apostrophe ("the cats' tails are black") and pictures of different breeds of dogs. This is the literacy room.

Trouble is, in the literacy room, Crime is taking quite a bit of punishment. The prisoners, it seems, don't like it. They want the old Irvine Welsh back, the patron saint of transgressive writers, the ones with the stories one of his own characters (in Glue) describes as "tales of excreta and ejecta – shite, pish and puke".

For the prisoners, the new novel is a let-down. It's mainly set in effing Florida, for feck's sake. Worse, no way does it even live up to its title. For "crime", read "paedophilia", and who wants to read about that? Worse still, its hero is a policeman, a Hearts supporter even. That mad, druggy, edgy Irvine Welsh – the man whose 1993 novel Trainspotting has been bought by a million people in Britain alone – that writer has edged himself out of the picture here, not completely, but far enough for the prisoners to feel slightly cheated. Because in Trainspotting, he alone of everyone who'd ever written a novel had got their world – stupid, doomed, daft, violent and drug-fuelled, admittedly – down on paper. They could recognise themselves in it. And they wanted it back.

I paraphrase, but only just. Colin (no surnames, no listing of crimes: that was the deal I signed up to) clearly admires Welsh's books. He otherwise wouldn't have slid his own short story across the table for the author to read. But he struggled with Crime. If it's going to be about paedophiles, why not keep the setting in Edinburgh? he asked. Why not bring back Begbie? Surely he must be due out soon? "Franco versus the capital's paedophile rings – now that would be some read!"

Simon, an impressively well-read Millwall supporter who runs the prison library, was also glad to meet Welsh. Just to be better informed about Lennox, the policeman who is Crime's main protagonist, he'd specially read Filth, in which Lennox first makes an appearance as sidekick to the repulsive Bruce Robertson. But Simon too found Crime hard going – so much so that "I put it down and ignored it for a few weeks, which is unlike me".

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But Welsh has some good news for the prisoners. He is, he reveals, going to write a prequel to Trainspotting, showing how the characters slipped from casual use of speed to full-blown smack addiction. A few years ago, he says, he wouldn't have been interested in revisiting old territory. "The older you get, though, the more you're interested in cause and effect, in relationships between the characters and their families," he explains.

That said, he had to set himself different kinds of challenges too. He set Crime partly in Florida because he wanted to write about someone who was facing a crisis far away from their friends and family; he knows the Sunshine State because he lives part of the year in Miami Beach. But part of the story would be in Edinburgh, because that's where Ray Lennox is traumatised by a child abduction and murder case which forces long-buried memories to the surface.

This book is, he says, different from anything he has written before. "The whole thing starts as completely f***ed up and then gets better – which is not what I usually do. Usually in my books things start completely f***ed up and then get worse."

The unasterisked version of this is to say that Crime is actually a redemptive book. Lennox may be a Hearts supporter ("I'd got no choice about that; that was what he was in Filth"), but he is the most sympathetic character Welsh has ever written. The usual parameters of Welsh's fiction – an obsession with "self-sabotage, with how we make things harder for ourselves" have been reversed: here, he's looking at whether and how victims of child abuse can help to heal themselves.

It's this theme that has, he says, made Crime "the hardest thing I've ever written". He's talked to child-abuse survivors' groups and handles the subject with uncommon sensitivity – so much so, in fact, that he gave up writing the book altogether when the Madeleine McCann story first broke. "Even approaching the subject tangentially seemed frivolous and stupid."

A moralist, then? Absolutely, but an idiosyncratic one. That's why in writing about Tianna, the ten-year-old abused girl in Florida whose life Lennox helps to put back on track, the one book he had in his sights was Nabokov's Lolita. "It annoys me the way he was lionised for that, because of what seems to me a high-minded middle-class aesthetic that says it's all right for you to be a nonce. Back then, people didn't realise the hurt and misery that child abuse causes. I wanted to write against that, a book that would be its polar opposite, showing the real hurt rather than the sexualisation of childhood."

That's why, he explains, the book's called Crime. There's an element of moral ambiguity about a lot of crime, he says. Some crimes are just misdemeanours, some just responses to the tearing apart of our social fabric and the creation of an underclass growing up without hope. "Whatever you say, there are cops who will drink to excess and snort cocaine at parties – journalists too, everyone – but we have to pretend that it's only this kind of damaged underclass we have to police and control." ("Aye," says Colin. "In Muirhouse, you'll get an Asbo these days just for hanging around outside the bookies.")

"But noncing – that's just crime in its purest form. And what I wanted to look at is how people who have been the victims of that can get out of the loop. There's a statistic that 70 per cent of abusers have been victims of crime themselves, but equally, a lot of people can transcend the pain and the hurt and, instead of passing it on, take responsibility for themselves and help others."

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And that's the hard question that floats above this conversation in a prison's literacy room. The talk will veer off that subject, to the difference in British and American drugs culture, the difficulties of film finance, politics, the long-mooted Trainspotting sequel, why Porno is hard to adapt for the big screen, and the lack of political will to end Britain's underclass.

Welsh is fascinating on all of these topics. He makes his audience think. And the conversation slowly swings back to the questions he had in mind when he first started writing his novel: Why can some people find redemption from their past lives and not others, no matter how great the harm they've caused or experienced? How much thought, will, empathy do you need? Is it, in fact, even possible?

These are big, cloudy questions. Maybe not everyone in the literacy room will ever be able to answer them. But asking them is, at least, a start.

• Crime, by Irvine Welsh, is out now, published by Jonathan Cape and priced 12.99

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