Irvine Welsh: Trainspotting – The Early Years
It’s a big year for Irvine Welsh – Filth is being filmed with James McAvoy, a film taken from, and titled, Ecstasy, is being released in the UK. But biggest of all is the release of Skagboys, a prequel to Trainspotting, with an Edinburgh launch event sponsored by us! Let's ask him about it
Skagboys is a fantastic read – think of it as a first half of Trainspotting, in terms of plot, yes, but also, in terms of quality. When Trainspotting was released – way back, in 1993 – certain material wasn’t included, for reasons of pacing or simply because it didn’t fit. A good deal of it was set before the events in Trainspotting, and this material formed the basis of a prequel. “There was about 100,000 words there,” Welsh tells me “which is the length of a novel. I probably chopped out about 20,000 and added another 150,000. Roughly. But it's too organic a process to be sure. Let's just say that the old material informed the new”.
The resulting tale follows Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy, Spud et al from around 1984 onwards. When Alan Bissett wrote a foreword to his debut novel Boyracers, he told me he’d had a curious double nostalgia – to the time he was writing it, and to the time he wrote about in it. When I ask Welsh if he can relate to this, he says “Very much. You have to recall the book for continuity purposes, but at the same time get into the time you're writing about. Loads of stuff about the 80s that I thought I'd forgotten or had probably deliberately repressed came up. I tend to live in the present and don't have a great memory, until I start writing. Then all that stuff comes back.” Some of his personal memories of the 80s in general surprised him. “You think, that couldn't have been me, it must have been Deano Rafferty or Jimmy Lugton or Des Wilson or Sandy McNair or some other fucker. You rationalise.”
An 80s setting means that Scotland, and the UK as a whole, is changing economically, and many people are being left behind. Early in the book Renton is involved in direct political action when he joins the picket lines during the miners’ strike. “That was new,” Welsh says. “I had written about Orgreave before, but never used it. It just seemed like sense to put Renton in that story.” Significantly, a back injury Renton receives at the hands of a police officer causes him continuing pain, which is part of why he starts using heroin. It’s far from the only reason – his personality plays a part, amongst other things – but a symbolic connection to the national political situation is clearly made.
Welsh delves into the politics of drug use more overtly in Skagboys as well. The book is structured in a similar, if not identical way to Trainspotting – there’s more of a focus on central characters, and whilst the Junk Dilemmas sections familiar from the earlier book begin here, there are also Notes on an Epidemic which deal with the growth of drug use, and the subsequent spread of AIDS. “Everyone who had any connection with that scene anecdotally knows that heroin originally came locally from breaches in security of pharmaceutical manufacturers,” says the author. “The product was pure. When the brown shit from Pakistan and Afghanistan started to hit the streets, nobody knew what it was. That was international trade.” In Notes on an Epidemic 3 Welsh writes that 'Conspiracy theorists point out that this glut of heroin importation occurred shortly after the widespread rioting of 1981.' However, when I ask Welsh how sympathetic he is to this proposition, he says, “I can't be arsed with conspiracy theories. They become an end in themselves and a form of mental illness. I get too bored with them. Capitalism in itself is set up to benefit the rich. Why bother wasting energy conspiring when the economic system, government and apparatus of the state is all set up for you anyway?”
All the political insight in the world wouldn’t make a book work if the writing wasn’t up to standard. But it is. It really, really is. All of the political background supports a riveting story of how a number of characters became the characters we’re familiar with. They’re not quite familiar enough here, however, that they become predictable – Begbie singing, and well, at a New Year’s party is just one moment that surprised this reader. Welsh says that in writing them, “You have to let them surprise you. If they don't surprise you they won't surprise anybody else. Then you look back and think: fuck! Where did that come from? What will my mum say?” Pass. It’s hard to say just how difficult it is to achieve that kind of reaction though, and the amount of work Irvine Welsh actually does shouldn’t be underestimated – Skagboys is obviously the result of some thorough graft. He says, “You get into each character’s head. It's like everything else in writing, just a matter of plugging away until it reads as it should, or until you go mental.” He’s mentioned in previous interviews that he uses a 'Where they stay; Who they lay; What they play' maxim in writing for characters, creating a playlist of music that each character would listen to as part of this. “I liked most of my characters' music, except Bruce in Filth,” he says, “with his pomp rock and soft rock. But music tends to be a disease of association and I even started to like his stuff.”
Writing may also be a disease of association. Welsh is very interesting when discussing influences, and he’s often discussed an affinity for the likes of George Eliot and Jane Austen. One of the epigraphs to Skagboys is by Herman Melville, and he’s recently mentioned the influence of Evelyn Waugh on his writing. When I mention this, Welsh says “I can definitely see it directly in Waugh. If you take the social milieu apart, there is a lot about male friendship, rivalry, and schadenfreude that influenced me.” With others, he’s more general – “A lot of Austen's work was about being, in some ways, an outsider, which the best literature usually is.” Scottish/English Lit students, take note.
Another of Welsh’s enthusiasms is football, and specifically Hibernian FC. And so I had to ask what his favourite game from the period Skagboys is set in was. This, as it turns out, is a difficult question. “It's very hard to conceive of there being such a thing around the Bertie Auld/First phase of Alex Miller era. I remember a game at Tynecastle at the Gorgie Road end. We were all pretty high and my pal George was splashing pish from the terracing against the back of our mate Mickey's leg. Mickey caught him and it was getting tense til Willie Irvine equalised for Hibs then love was restored to the terracing.” Scottish fitba, ye cannae beat it.
Skagboys will be launched in Edinburgh with a Bookslam event in The Caves on 20 April. Which we’re sponsoring. What’s happening at it? Let’s ask the man himself: “I haven't got a fucking clue what's going on,” Irvine Welsh says. “I just show up at these things and do what they want. If they want me to read, I'll do it. If they want me talk about the book, I'll do it. If they just want me to drink a few beers and swap some jokes with old buddies, I'm happy to do that.” A pretty admirable attitude, to be honest. Anything you won’t do? “I'll even clean the toilets out but I'm not selling any snide TV boxes. Now that I'm working in television, I can no longer condone that sort of behaviour.” Good man.