Irvine Welsh on Dead Men's Trousers

We meet Irvine Welsh to discuss the existential crisis of the workforce, the destruction of youth culture and the battleground of health policy as he releases his latest, Dead Man's Trousers

Feature by Heather McDaid | 27 Mar 2018

Renton. Begbie. Sick Boy. Spud. Twenty five years ago, the foursome began their journey into the cult classics with the publication of Trainspotting in 1993; a quarter of a century on, they’re back together yet again in Dead Men’s Trousers, but one won’t make it out alive.

As we chat in a bustling CCA in Glasgow, Irvine Welsh is in the middle of his book tour to promote what he says will be the last time we see the gang on the page. He’s (not so) fresh from a special launch event in Leith put on by Neu! Reekie! and Edinburgh International Book Festival. “It was all my mates basically,” he laughs. “So it was all fun and games.”

Dead Men’s Trousers wasn’t something he’d always planned to do, checking back in on his most prolific creations decades down the line, but it was while holed up in Edinburgh with the T2 crew, mulling over the changes in the city and where the characters would be that got him thinking further ahead. “Sometimes the book chooses you,” he says. “If you’re a genre writer, you come up with ideas and plan something. When you tend to work towards the subconscious as I do, the material chooses you really. Being immersed and talking about these characters, being part of that team when you’re talking about what the characters would be doing, that forces you into that place. I also had The Blade Artist, which finished on that note where those two guys [Renton and Begbie] met again, these two guys that hated each other – I was curious to know myself what happened next.”

What happened next is a twisted attempt at redemption. Trainspotting, to Irvine, was about friends and betrayal, “also about a broader kind of betrayal – betrayal of the working classes, the industrial working classes thrown out to dry, betrayal of organisations by the Labour Party who abandoned social democracy and switched to neoliberalism, all these kind of themes were in the back of it. Porno was about revenge. Life’s about those deep friendships and betrayals, about animosities and revenge, not having anything to do with somebody, and you get to that point when you think well, we actually had a lot of good times, and we are friends despite everything even if you don’t see much of each other. I’ve lived long enough to see that taking place, so I wanted to capture that.

“They’re still playing games with each other. They’re still very competitive and that’s the thing – they’ve had 30 years of neoliberalism, it’s distorted the moral emotional compass because now you feel, that Sick Boy thing, you can either be a cunt or a mug, there’s no real choice. Am I a total bastard? Or am I an absolute mug? I think we’re permanently torn there and I think that’s the thing I was trying to play with throughout the book.”

There are forces in life that can bring together the most disparate of friends; one of them is football. 2016’s Scottish Cup final to be precise, where their beloved Hibs defied the odds and won. It was an atmosphere that no other win could compare to, past or future, Welsh thinks, and one the characters had to witness. “We could have won the European Cup and nothing would feel like that. We had this relationship with the Scottish Cup, supposed to be programmed about failure. They’d come so close with many great teams in the past – the famous five, Eddie Turnbull’s team and all that – it was almost like this lineage of disappointment in the Cup had been handed down.

“We thought we’d never win it. It was Hibs’ ex-captain, Pat Stanton, who said, ‘Hibs will win it when you least expect them to.’ It was like a catharsis for a whole community. It came at the perfect time for me writing that book because I thought, what could possibly bring these guys together?”

Change seems to be a recurring theme when it comes to Dead Men’s Trousers. It began with the changes in the characters, in Edinburgh – even in Hibs’ luck, which is no small feat. But if Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy and Spud began life on the page today, and not in the 90s, how would they be different?

“We’re moving into this longform change to a world without paid work,” muses Irvine. “Machines are going to replace us, technology is replacing us, so we have this existential crisis – what do we do in a world where there is no paid work? Working class people were asking that question in the 80s and people were getting fucked on drugs and trying to work it out. It was, again, an existential puzzle that people had to solve as well as a practical one, that kind of question of ‘What are we here for? What value do we have?’ in a society that says you have no value and that you’re redundant in every way.

“Now, middle class people and even very rich people, privileged people are facing that same crisis because it’s like middle class people now – everything is a scam against them, about getting their parent’s resources. The military industrial complex – war isn’t profitable any more, health is massively profitable, so what you want do to is you want to keep people alive, keep them sick but keep them alive, that’s what the whole American health policy is about. They’ve got a longer run at clearing off people’s resources before they go to their offspring, at getting their capital through the pharmacy stuff that they need to keep going after they’ve stuffed them with all this poisoned food, so they need other drugs to counteract other poisons that they’re ingesting. These are the battlegrounds now.

“I think the characters would probably be a bit less from a certain class of society – they’d probably be young, they’d probably be in this dilemma: should I go to college, or do an internship for this crapshoot that might get a job at the end of it, or I might be stuck doing retail which I could do anyway. The dynamic is really interesting. It would be very hard to write a book like Trainspotting now.”

The reverence of Trainspotting’s cultural impact has reared its head particularly of late thanks to a recent Guardian interview with Will Self. He states that the novel is “doomed to become a marginal cultural form” and that the last water-cooler moment he can think of surrounding a novel was Trainspotting. It’s caused quite the debate.

“That was very kind of him to say, but I think it’s probably true,” he laughs. “I know I would say that, and it is kind of Will to say that, but I cannot think of a book that has culturally captured a thing quite like that since then. Now, when you see these claims made for books, it’s very much marketing and it’ll come and it’ll go, but it’s not really gained traction. It’s very hard for a book to do that – there is no culture now.

“Youth culture has all but been destroyed. It’s a media thing. The only thing I can think of that’s been happening is the grime culture in East and South London – since acid house, football casuals, there’s not been a widespread youth culture in Britain, a unifying youth culture. That’s partly due to the way everything is subsumed into media and into the internet and it doesn’t have a place to incubate and grow.

“I think it’s very hard to have a novel or a book that says ‘this is actually happening’, everybody knows about it but nobody in the media, in the mainstream culture is engaging with it in any way. You could do that in the Trainspotting era, but you can’t really do that now. Everybody knows. As soon as something gets any traction, everybody knows about it and it’s almost ruined. It doesn’t get time to make its own kind of mores.”

Whether it was truly the last water-cooler moment for literature, it’s undeniable that Trainspotting’s impact has continued for a quarter of a century; the next step in the journey is finding out who will make it through to its next celebratory landmark.

Dead Men's Trousers is out now from Jonathan Cape