Irvine Welsh, ‘the fountain pen of Punk’, has had a busy few months on the world literary circuit. From Trinidad for the Caribbean leg of the Edinburgh World Writers’ conference at bocaslitfest, he went on to Cannes to promote the forthcoming film release based on his novel ‘Filth’, and starring James McAvoy. Recently he was in Wales for Hay Book Festival and in London, where I catch up with him before his gig for Stoke Newington Literary Festival
One of Scotland’s most widely renowned authors, Welsh has defined and lucid opinions on the many areas with which literary events engage, from Imperialist notions in world writing to the political agenda in the UK today, and the perils of taught creative writing that lacks guts and insight into real lives.
Once a Hackney resident, vibrant portraits of Stoke Newington, London Fields and Dalston are framed within the pages of his novels ‘Trainspotting’ and ‘Skagboys’. Welsh’s appearance at Stoke Newington Literary Festival strikes an interesting juxtaposition between the borough’s dual facades of rising property prices with trendy post codes, and the scenes of an underlife depicted in his fiction. Low literacy rates in Hackney remain a huge issue for the community, with the inevitable impact on children’s futures, successful life outcomes, and their creativity. Stoke Newington Literary Festival strives to raise not just awareness of these issues, but also a sense of responsibility to the community. With an inclusive mission, workshops in schools, local authors billed alongside the superstars, there is not only a spirit of fun but a keen sense of purpose. At his sell out event in the Town Hall, Welsh is supported by poet/musician Jan Noble (Caesareans, Monkey Island) performing ‘Tide’ a moving evocation in verse of the River Thames, with double bass accompaniment from Nick Marsh. Writer Salena Godden is second up reading from her novel ‘Springfield Road’, and delivering poetic musings on ‘e-mail’ and sibling rivalry. She chuckles about nights out on whiskey with Welsh, and his friend fellow author John Niven. (Kill Your Friends)
He is an imposing but calm figure. He has the swagger of literary success, but carries it with the height of shrewd measure. Softly spoken he raises a wry smile in conversation. Particularly when I suggest that he bucks the dour Scot stereotype infusing black humour into his novels. I quickly understand that being in Stoke Newington is more than a promotional opportunity for Welsh – sure he’s here in Europe to promote the film release of ‘Filth’, and with the publication of ‘Skagboys’ in paperback. But in Hackney Welsh is amongst friends, since arriving he’s been out with his mates, back in his favourite local boozers and, at this evening’s gig in the town hall the front row is certain to be filled with his pals. Although he left the borough some years ago, lived in Dublin for a time and has now moved to America, it’s only a few months since he was last here. He emphasises that he sees the UK as home although he enjoys the freedom of anonymity in the US
Welsh is keenly aware that despite the changes in Stoke Newington, the 1980’s subject matter of ‘Skagboys’, the affliction of Thatcherism, loss of opportunity and hope, resonate only too powerfully today for many citizens of Hackney facing a bleak economic horizon, and the savage effects of cuts. In ‘Skagboys’ Renton observes:
‘London’s an expensive habit, and pretty much a pointless yin unless ye huv dosh; if ye live in somewhere like Dalston or Stokie or Tottenham or the East End, it’s mair like steyin in Middlesborough or Nottingham. The economics ay the postcode prison make the West End good life just as inaccessible.’
There is a strange irony that he will entertain an audience of Stoke Newington’s well heeled fans of a certain generation, when his themes centre so powerfully amongst the excluded. But Welsh stresses with a sense of pride, that he encounters an ever younger readership for his work. The punk association works for his contemporaries whilst his themes continue to appeal to young people.
I sense that, where some initial responses to his first major success ‘Trainspotting’ branded him a laddish writer, he’s satisfied with his female characterisations in ‘Skagboys’. Welsh has truly couched out his characters backgrounds and created powerful portraits and voices; as a prequel, we already know the outcome, and it’s as if he has time to give them substance and history. Going beyond ‘Skagboys’, his next project is a lesbian noir thriller set in Miami, with a musical landscape of eighties Goth and Hip Hop. Welsh describes Miami as a place he feels qualified to write about, full of people who’ve arrived from somewhere else, ‘when you shake America the dregs fall into Miami’. As for the characters’ musical tastes he’s humorous about this not being preferred listening, but necessary research to truly get into their psyches. I’m hooked already on reading this.
I ask how it feels to see a novel crafted into screenplay and emerge an altogether different beast. Welsh succinctly describes the difference between ‘Trainspotting’ the novel as the bigger story, whereas the film condenses it to: Renton coming off heroin. Questioning him about his conscious sense that his future work will most probably be developed into film and the temptation to try to ready one’s words for that outcome, he stresses the need to put the film process to one side and allow his characters in writing to grow. He’s firmly pragmatic about handing control over to the screen process. However, later in conversation with John Niven there’s more of a shared sense between the two that it can be a frustrating experience. Welsh concedes that where in the literary world he’s been his own manager and agent, in Hollywood that simply does not wash.
We’re just getting into literacy, Hackney’s poverty and Stoke Newington Literary Festival’s aims, all of which spark him into new directions, when we’re politely interrupted by The Quietus – justly so as I’m eating into their time. However I haven’t yet got through all my questions. As Welsh identifies himself as having a foot in Hackney I’ll save them for a future opportunity – for now it’s Quietus interruptus.
A version of this article was first published on n16mag.com