When I first read Irvine Welsh in the nineties, he utterly electrified me. I cleaned out my savings on his novels and short stories: there was nothing better to spend cash on. A combination of smarts, biting prose and tar-black humour is a dangerous thing: distilled into print it’s utterly addictive.
I still haven’t entirely shaken off my Welsh habit. And I don’t want to.
So when I heard that Irvine himself was going to be speaking at the Wheeler Centre, I was always going to be there. With a pen, two books to get signed and a chilled bottle of gin and tonic cunningly disguised as Spring Valley Water, I made my merry way to Little Lonsdale Street and settled in for the show.
And the man himself did not disappoint. The evening opened with a reading from his collection of short stories Reheated Cabbage, and Welsh’s performance was as captivating, hilarious and foul-mouthed as you could possibly hope for. His brogue was as authentic as the smell of heather, the peaty savour of a single malt and the crushing horror of a Glasgow kiss.
Welsh’s interlocutor for the evening, Alan Brough, mercifully asked few (and generally intelligent) questions, electing rather to let the main man speak. Brough did at one point read a passage from one of the stories in Reheated Cabbage – a tactical error to say the least, given that Welsh himself was right there.
Welsh’s general opinions seem to fall very much in line with his fiction, unsurprisingly: a curious mixture of cheerful anarchism and a conservatism inspired by bad experiences.
The spectre of knife crime in the UK was an early talking point, and Welsh’s explanation was that ‘We’re all existentialists… [who want] excitement and compelling drama’ in our lives. The implication being, of course, that when life in generally dull and purposeless, even violence will supply the want. If you were to dress that up in fluffier language, it wouldn’t surprise you to hear it from an earnest social worker. More movingly, Welsh noted that in certain areas of Scotland there are ‘no graduation ceremonies… it’s all funerals.’
On the subject of writing, Welsh was at his most amusing, I thought. ‘It’s a daft thing to do,’ he said, ‘I mean you’re sitting in a room with these people who don’t exist.’ He also noted that he doesn’t ‘really have a healthy relationship with writing’. Asked why, he said ‘I do kind of write ’till I drop, in a way.’
A neat little explanation of his ‘writing matrix’ followed: of a character he always first decides ‘Where they stay, who they lay and what they play’ – or, where they are, who they’re shagging and what music they listen to. Thinking back to his work, it’s immediately evident that that’s exactly how the characters are formed: nice to hear a writer with an insight into their writing, rather than the usual witterings about waiting for inspiration or exploring.
I managed to get in one question when the microphones began to circulate through the audience: ‘As a writer who produces some pretty extreme fiction, I’d imagine you get some pretty extreme responses from fans: could you tell us your favourite?’
‘I’ve got too many of them,’ was the first response, before Welsh said: ‘One guy threatened to shoot me in New York…’ Not bad. But there was a better one to come. Welsh was once approached by a young Scot in a bookshop who said ‘I’ve got every one of your books, man… I’ve fuckin’ stolen every one of them!’
Although the Wheeler Centre’s programs are spectacularly exciting and I’ll be heading back there often, I wish they had put a bit more thought into their venue. The ‘auditorium’ is in fact a glorified hallway: far too long, thin and acoustically dodgy. The lack of tiered seating is also an issue – if you’re not a rangy, lanky specimen like me I’d imagine visibility would be a real issue.
Still: an hour of Irvine Welsh in conversation, two of his books now signed by his fair hand in my possession: and the event itself free.
Hard to complain about that.
Ah wis well chuffed.