Begbie’s Back: An interview with Irvine Welsh
Begbie is back, with the April publication of The Blade Artist and Danny Boyle's sequel to Trainspotting filming in May. Ahead of his promotional tour, we get an exclusive early insight from Irvine Welsh into the life of everybody's favourite psycho.
You ken me, I'm no' the type of cunt that goes looking for fuckin' bother, like, but at the end of the day Irvine Welsh is over ten minutes late for this interview and… ah, all’s well, here he comes now, swaggering into the bar, ‘casual like’, ready to discuss his new Begbie book, The Blade Artist. It’s just gone past midday and almost Christmas. A beer would certainly not be frowned upon. The Trainspotting author instantly rejects the idea though, opting only for the table water already laid out. He’s slightly fatigued you see, having been pulled happily back and forth between football, family dos and bevy sessions over the last week or so – something he explains is par for the course on these regular return visits to his native Scotland, from Chicago, the city he now calls home.
We share a handshake and small talk, yet introductions are unnecessary for the iconic Francis Begbie; his creation, his monster. This member of the Leith radge royalty has entered popular culture and common language, almost now an adjective. He has menaced the pages of Welsh’s work in novels Trainspotting (1993), Porno (2002) and Skagboys (2012); also cameoing in Glue (2001) and shorter pieces, including the Big Issue Christmas story in 2013 which sparked the original concept for The Blade Artist. He was of course made flesh so memorably in the screen adaptation; Robert Carlyle adopting a psychotic, Joe Pesci powder-keg style for ferocious and highly quotable scenes. Danny Boyle’s sequel finally begins filming this May and Welsh is making positive noises today in respect of scriptwriter John Hodge’s new screenplay.
Begbie: after Trainspotting
When we catch up with Franco in the new novel, he’s living as a reformed ex-con in California. A successful sculptor of brutalised celebrity busts, working under the close pseudonym Jim Francis. It was a necessary transformation Welsh felt, when picking up his story. ‘For the Little Beggar Boy it’s death or life imprisonment,’ muses Sick Boy in Porno, Trainspotting’s print follow-up. “…and there’s nothing really dramatic about those two things,” Welsh suggests today. “So he had to have some kind of major epiphany, a change in his behaviour which made him an interesting character again. That gave him a new lease of life.” His rehabilitation is severely tested when dragged back to Edinburgh to deal with the murder (and, possibly the murderer) of his estranged son. And so, a brooding expectation of violence hangs over The Blade Artist. Will the old gunslinger pick up his iron? “Yeah.” Welsh agrees, laughing. “Gary Cooper, High Noon kinda thing, like?
“It’s like anything,” he continues. “When people get a reputation for something it’s very hard for them to be perceived in a different way. There’s also that pride element there. They think, this is what I am, I’ve worked hard for it, it’s become my self-identity. So it’s also hard for them to let go of that.” He talks of ex-nutters he knew around town, now duly reformed into family men. The inherent struggle within that transformation. “I think it takes a massive shift in ego to get there.
“[Previous novel] A Decent Ride was all slapstick humour and laughter, so I wanted this one to be much more dramatic,” he explains, when conversation moves onto The Blade Artist’s fast-paced, whodunit format. But it’s a thriller in the mode of Tarantino making war films or westerns; hiding grand themes within genre. “What I was wanting to do was not make him that stereotyped guy,” Welsh suggests when [real life reformed gangster] Jimmy Boyle’s name is brought up. “…the hard man who becomes an artist... I wanted to make him somebody who actually really still liked violence and had learned to play a game, to hide in plain sight.
“Now we’re understanding the psychotic nature of politicians who can send people to war and send people to die, and bomb villages and schools and pretend it’s for some kind of greater good… what constitutes sociopathic behaviour is changing, we’re realising it’s something that people can embrace or take on, or be kind of corrupted by as well.” And in a similar vein, the new novel fills out the early environment that moulded the boy Begbie into the psychopath. The nurture side of the coin. “If he’d grown up in a rich wealthy family he might have got into politics and business and done it all that way.” Welsh argues. “But he didn’t have these choices and there was the whole physical aspect that was very, very apparent in his early socialisation.”
Related to Trainspotting:
Perhaps this all explains why The Blade Artist is shorter than previous offerings. “I thought I don’t want to be in his head for too long,” the author confesses, listing the tormented characters of Bruce Robertson (Filth) and Roy Strang (Maribou Stork Nightmares) as additions to this dark assembly. Begbie’s violently psychotic mind is one Welsh has inhabited, intermittently, since the 1993 publication of his breakthrough novel, and masterpiece. Trainspotting is a work which now exists in the wake of its own reputation. At times it rides that wave, occasionally it’s pulled under.
“I think what’s happened is that now the book has become something else,” Welsh says. “It’s become the film and the play and now the formal follow-up to [the screen adaptation]. I think Porno and Skagboys have become subsumed into the whole Trainspotting thing as well, people don’t think of them as separate books. It’s become something a lot bigger than I intended it to be.
“One of the enduring things about Trainspotting and its characters, the enduring thing about Fight Club, the enduring thing about American Psycho, in some ways I think these three were the real novels in the 90s that have stood the test of time, because they were really about the transition from one type of society to another.”
And this moves us to the crux of the novel, laying bare a general misunderstanding – that it’s simply a drug book. “To me, drugs are indicative of the transition to a non-working economy,” Welsh says. And this reveals some truth in the comments of the literary critic Sam Leith, that he is much more interested in teleology than sociology – cause and purpose. “If there’s nothing else, drugs will fill in the gap. They’re just a filler basically… but they do provide compelling drama for youth and for people who get through work in offices and factory life.”
The world has turned however since the social conditions Trainspotting chronicled, when Thatcherism drained working class self-worth, and some refilled the resulting emptiness with hard drugs. “As the next part of that transition you’re seeing the failure of the economy for middle class people,” Welsh suggests today. “In ten years’ time people are going to stop going to universities because there’s no jobs for them, and why should they pay the universities and the banks all this money?”
Irvine Welsh on Scotland in 2016
Cut back to August 2015. Alex Salmond is interviewing Paul Mason – author of PostCapitalism: A Guide to our Future – on the Edinburgh International Book Festival stage. Welsh is spotted in the crowd and handpicked by the former First Minister to begin the audience Q&A. Those same topics discussed that day are feeding into much of our conversation today: of food banks for the erstwhile working classes, while the middle classes have all they've saved stripped away by kids on unpaid internships, unable to leave home until they’re 40. “People of my generation and the generation younger, they’re wedded into this idea that somehow there’s going to be a return to this post-war thing again, back to the status quo… we’ll have a strong but benign central state authority who’ll ration goods fairly; but it’s never going to happen.” Many of the titanic societal shifts Mason predicts are accepted by Welsh today with a wry smile and a shrug: an unravelling economy, parallel currencies, neoliberalism crumbling into the sea. “I see this as a very exciting time to be alive basically, because these transitions are deep and they’re systemic… I’m quite optimistic.”
But some changes may be a step too far. It only takes a wander around his old stomping ground Leith to discover that gentrification is fast eradicating the old Trainspotting landscape, meaning many Welsh books now stand as period pieces. Even The Volley has perished, the bar where Begbie once played pool, ‘like Paul fuckin' Newman by the way.’ “The Volunteer now, yeah…” Welsh laments. Begbie probably less so. While in Porno, he rails at the introduction of Asian eateries; their confusing neckwear implications – ‘Fuckin’ tie café? What the fuck is this cunt on aboot?’ – as a nouveau cosmopolitan sculptor in The Blade Artist, he looks upon his former fiefdom in disdain. “I wanted him not to like where he’d came from… because he was always the Leith patriot,” Welsh says. “He’s always like, ‘If it’s no' Leith, fuck it!’ And now he’s like, ‘Fuck Leith!’” The real-life Chicago writer in disagreement with the fictional Californian sculptor. “He’s very down on Edinburgh, which is not what I feel. I feel very positive when I come back.”
A few days before our conversation, The Scotsman ruffle feathers with a politically motivated provocation piece: labelling Scotland’s independence supporting artists as useful idiots, naïvely complicit in Government cuts to creative funding. Welsh, a vocal YES supporter, is unaware of the feature as we speak, but answers more generally on the subject. “You have to speak the truth to power. That’s in some ways a job of the artist… You have to because nobody else is really. Politicians now, and their apologists in the media, they’re all a cabal basically saying the same thing. It’s funny that in some ways the artists… they’ve always had this mantle of opposition foisted on them.”
He deals with the messenger more directly in the text of the new novel – while Begbie battles his violent temptations, the author aims third person shots at a certain Edinburgh based broadsheet: ‘… the paper has decanted from its showcase, custom-built headquarters by the Scottish Parliament to a broom cupboard out at Orchard Brae. Sure enough, it has the shabby, beaten, depressive tone and content of a publication on its last legs.’ A mention of these words elicits the day’s heartiest gust of laughter. “Ha! It’s amazing that it’s still alive.” He chuckles. “I mean I know how it’s still alive, just because people buy the Evening News for Hibs/Hearts and they subsidise The Scotsman and Scotland on Sunday… its politics have barely changed from the 1950s.” If, as Welsh feels, such mainstream media channels are increasingly irrelevant in the modern political debate, the alternative is obvious. “Social media,” Welsh, the serial tweeter suggests. “It’s much more full of ideas. If your only idea is to say, 'Awww, we’re better together, we’re part of this union, it’s good.’ If that’s all you can really say, then you’re not going to excite a whole new generation.”
The literary press has aimed their own attacks at the author, often pigeon-holing his work as statically and parochially Scottish working class. The prescribed opinion is that he’s worked in ever decreasing circles since his debut – a partial truth perhaps, yet far from a constant or simplistic trend. If an artist’s only responsibility is to their masterpiece, it seems unfair to blame Welsh for hitting his own straight off the bat. He’s also keen to point out that any accusations of limited horizons lie contrary to his life experience. “I think it’s been to my advantage that I’ve lived all over.” He says. “I’ve lived most of my adult life in London, I lived in America for 7 years now, lived in Dublin for 5 years, lived in Holland for 2 years.”
Returning to Edinburgh
Welsh left school at 16, then moved on from an electrical apprenticeship after being severely electrocuted while fixing a television. He followed the punk dream of the late 70s, moving to London to play in bands: grotty bedsits, multiple menial jobs, eventual theft and scams. And of course the now well-documented drug addiction. His financial break could just have easily been a neck break: falling out the top deck of a bus during a traffic accident and receiving two grand compensation. He invested the money in a mortgage, turning over the flat and turning profit on it and then more throughout the 80s property boom – the smug face of the Thatcherite system he condemns in so much of his writing. Welsh returned to Edinburgh in the late 80s for a regular pay packet, put himself through an MBA, started writing, and for the sake of this potted history the rest can be recounted through the many books he’s now published to great acclaim and with sales figures many thousands of times over Trainspotting’s paltry original print run of 3000. It’s a backdrop more varied and complex than some credit him or his writing.
“I’m much more cosmopolitan than some fucker who’s taken off to London for six months and thinks they’re mister swinging big dick because they’ve eaten in some ethnic restaurant or something like that,” he says today. “I’m a lot more cosmopolitan and internationalist than most of the people who in other ways try and criticise me for that.” These criticisms often originate from class issues he feels. The up market, West End cellar bar we now inhabit has slim street level windows, behind where the author sits. A catwalk of feet stride past; formal heels and brogues. Edinburgh is geographically small, so while we’re a stone’s throw from the housing scheme Welsh grew up in on the north side, it's often perceived as a cultural leap. “It’s funny,” he says, “because [author] Philip Kerr; we were born basically at the same time, grew up around three miles away from each other, we left Edinburgh the very same year to go to London. We did a British Council gig in Guadalajara a couple of weeks ago and he’s always described as ‘British writer Philip Kerr’ and I’m described as ‘Scottish writer Irvine Welsh.’” Then, with a smile, he thrusts the knife. “Partly cause he’s a Jambo as well, likes.”
We bring things to a close today by enquiring about the future for his Trainspotting brood. “We’ll see how they get on,” he says in conclusion. “When they come back on screen as well… as much as I try not to be influenced by screen and stage stuff and live in the world I’m with, John’s [Hodge] done some very interesting things with the screenplay so it’s added to the whole thing and it’s teaching me a bit more about the characters as well.”
It’s fun to imagine their twilight years, raising merry hell in an old folk’s home perhaps. Sick Boy charming nurses, Spud gobbling down meds. “I think there might be one more big story left in them, I’m not sure.” Welsh contemplates. “We live in such crazy times that people’s ego and narcissism won’t let them get old in a way that they used to, they basically go on until they drop.”
The Blade Artist is out 7 Apr in hardback
Irvine Welsh speaks at Huddersfield Literature Festival (3 April), Manchester Dancehouse (3 April), Preston UCLAN (4 April), Glasgow Aye Write (5 Apr), St Andrews Town Hall (6 Apr) and Albert Halls in Stirling (6 Apr); Welsh also appears in conversation with Robert Carlyle at Usher Hall, Edinburgh on 10 April.
For tickets and more information about the UK tour, visit: http://www.penguin.co.uk/articles/events/2016/apr/irvine-welsh-2016-uk-tour