Scottish Books - Irvine Welsh, Alan Bissett and Ewan Morrison
- Doug Johnstone
- 9 July 2009
Irvine Welsh inspired a generation of young Scottish writers and showed there was literature to be found in the lives of the Scottish underdog. Two of the leading lights of that next generation are Alan Bissett and Ewan Morrison. Both authors boast third novels and follow hot on the heels of Welsh’s trailblazing. The List thought it would be a cracking idea to gather the three together to chew over pop culture, sex, the state of Scottish literature and more besides
Publishers are currently gnashing teeth and wailing about the recession, what state do you think the industry is in?
Alan Bissett: ‘It’s funny, whenever publishers go somewhere they stay in like Malmaison or something, so they’ve no money to promote your book, but always have a room in a posh hotel.’
Irvine Welsh: ‘Apparently in New York they’ve just sacked half the editors, and that’ll happen in London soon, I think.’
AB: ‘So who does the job of the editors then?’
Ewan Morrison: ‘No one, probably.
AB: ‘But you look at the role editors play in the development of writers, like at Jonathan Cape in the nineties with Robin Robertson, a whole group of people that grew around him, like Irvine.’
IW: ‘There was a sense then that a writer was taken on for the long game, they’d assist in your development.’
AB: ‘Now they’ve probably got an accountant breathing down their necks after a couple of years.’
IW: ‘I remember with Trainspotting, they had this big debate about whether to print 500 or 1,000 for the first run. There was no promotion or point-of-sale stuff at all.’
AB: ‘If publishers stop taking on new fiction, you wonder if there will be a reaction from below. If these opportunities dry up, maybe writers will just do it themselves. That’s what happened with Rebel Inc [counter-culture publisher and literary magazine founded by Kevin Williamson in 1992, the first to publish Welsh’s work]. Rebel Inc was a hothouse for new, edgy writing, and live events too.’
There seems to have been an increase in live literature events and cross-discipline club nights mixing stand-up, literature, music and other performance. Is that the way forward?
AB: ‘That’s the best way of doing it, I never turn down a reading, it’s the only way of getting out there and promoting the stuff yourself.’
IW: ‘In the Chicago fiction scene, people are starting to do it themselves, there’s a tremendous vibe over there, and I think it’s the same in Glasgow, the creative writing course there has galvanised people.’
AB: ‘People go on the course and presume they’ll be a published novelist at the end, and when they’re not, they’ve got this support network of other writers to help get things done. Discombobulate is a thing I’ve been involved with in Glasgow, and it’s just a bunch of writers putting on performance literature nights. It’s in the Arches, getting really strong audiences, and that verbal tradition in Scotland is still quite strong.’
EM: ‘The Discombobulate format is important, it’s different from the bar structure in Edinburgh. I was at a reading in Edinburgh last week and it was like a bar audience, no one paid any attention, you have to make it more of a theatrical thing.’
IW: ‘When the first Rebel Inc things happened, people weren’t used to hearing people reading, and there would be jakeys sitting with bottles shouting at you. Eventually people got used to it and got interested, and they’d shout down other folk making cunts of themselves.’
All your work is peppered with pop-culture references, is that inevitable in this day and age?
EM: ‘Because we’re living in a culture which is completely saturated, your books are inevitably going to be influenced by that stuff. When I was a student, I’d walk around thinking I was in Withnail and I, or say things like, “Watch out for that cunt, he looks a bit like Begbie”. Your worldview is completely coloured by all the culture in you.’
IW: ‘Ewan’s book is all about the limits of that post-modernist thing, when does it become ridiculous? One of the books I really enjoyed over the last five years was James Meek’s The People’s Act of Love, and I realised I loved it because it’s historical, so it didn’t have any of those cultural references in it. I’ve been a guilty party for doing that all the time in my writing, but I realised I’d got a bit sick of it. If you set a book in the present time, you can’t avoid those cultural references.’
AB: ‘But if you’re smart enough, there’s an interesting tension between that consumerism-saturated culture and authentic feeling and emotion, the reality beneath, and that’s where Ewan’s coming from. In Menage, the characters get so involved in this art scene in London in the nineties, but underneath it they’re all in pain. Ewan looks at the possibilities for real feeling when you’re just surrounded by commerce.’
EM: ‘It’s like the Iggy Pop stuff in Trainspotting, it becomes a mode of talking about themselves without actually saying what they think. The more cultural references you take in, it empties yourself out. In Menage, the three main characters are barely one person between them. They video everything they do, but as soon as they turn the camera off, they can’t really function.’
AB: ‘Remember In Bed with Madonna? She was seeing Warren Beatty at the time, and he said to her, “you don’t exist off camera”. For him to make that observation is quite something. She’s just a series of identities, the ultimate post-modern icon.’
EM: ‘Isn’t it funny how Ken Loach has suddenly acknowledged the existence of media in the world? Before, you never saw music, film or television in his films, as if they didn’t exist, now he’s got this meta-fictional thing using Cantona as a fairy godmother, it’s a real change for him. You can say the same thing about all James Kelman’s work as about Loach’s earlier work.’
AB: ‘I was wondering when we’d get to this, me and Ewan could spend all day arguing about Kelman.’
EM: ‘You rarely hear reference to music or film or television or anything in his work, it’s almost as if he’s blanked them out of his reality.’
AB: ‘I’ve always wondered why that is with Kelman.’
IW: ‘I think we should call him now and ask him.’ [They all laugh at what Kelman might think.]
How much of what you write is a reaction to what’s gone before?
IW: ‘To an extent you’re always reacting against what’s gone before, trying to establish your own identity. With Kelman and Alasdair Gray, you see how they were reacting against that Kailyard tradition. With Rebel Inc, we were reacting against them. In their fiction, they had those seventies ideas that there was still a socialist aspirational element to society, a radical working class. We were looking at how people had adapted to the new order.’
EM: ‘In The Rosewell Incident [a Welsh short story], you’ve got a brilliant couple of paragraphs that are like a sociological analysis of why schemies party.’
IW: ‘Our fiction wasn’t about challenging the state, the state had won, you just had to find a way to live with it. What happens next? Do we lie down in our ghettos or do we get out and fucking party and try to live?’
EM: ‘You were actually showing characters who had adapted to a world without any real goals, that was an innovation. Kelman and McIlvanney had characters representative of the working class and their potential. Your characters had no morals or ethics, that was just how they lived, and that was a real eye opener.’
With that in mind, how do you think writers will tackle the current economic and political climate?
AB: ‘It will be interesting to see how people write about the recession, whether that will radicalise Scottish writers again. And it won’t just be the working class, because this recession is fucking up the middle classes as well.’
IW: ‘The rich have been able to squeeze the bottom forty percent for so long, but now there’s nothing left to squeeze, so who knows what will happen?’
AB: ‘Plus, there’s a whole generation behind us who have grown up online, and that really must completely change things. You can see that in the way writers deal with porn. Both Irvine and Ewan have written about that, and now there’s going to be a whole generation of kids growing up with hardcore porn in the home. For me, it was finding a magazine in the woods.’
EM: ‘The internet is even going to change the way people construct sentences. I heard someone recently talking about the formation of the synapses of the brain, they develop differently in computer-literate kids.’
What place do you think morality has in literature?
IW: ‘I think writing a novel is an intrinsically moral act, I don’t think you can avoid it.’
AB: ‘It’s difficult to write an amoral book, cos at some point you have to decide on the fate of your characters. With books like Trainspotting and American Psycho, the writers didn’t judge their characters, but they did show at the end that these characters are trapped in hell, so even if there’s no judgement in the story, the reader still sees that they’re damned.’
IW: ‘It doesn’t matter how much evil behaviour you show, as long as you show the consequences.’
EM: ‘I was wondering what Alan’s book would be like if nothing bad happened to Charlie, if he just went on being a serial shagger. There’s definitely a moral perspective in the conclusion to that book.’
IW: ‘I think it’s about psychology rather than morals, if you fuck over everyone, you’re going to get it back at you somehow.’
AB: ‘Sometimes you worry about people not getting it, though. I mean, it’s clear that Michael Douglas’s character in Wall Street is the bad guy, and yet there was a whole generation of bankers who saw him as a hero. Same goes for Begbie, he was a poster on student walls.’
IW: ‘There is an attractiveness in those evil characters. We all subconsciously want to break the rules, so someone who does that becomes quite an empowering figure, not necessarily for good reasons.’
EM: ‘I like the idea of actions that don’t have consequences in books, but it maybe asks a lot of the reader. I mean, we live in a time where people do get away with shit all the time, why not represent that?’
How do you feel about criticism in reviews?
IW: ‘I don’t read reviews. So many reviewers are failed writers, it’s as if the review is constructed through the lens of their own disappointment.’
AB: ‘You sometimes get ideological criticism, like, this isn’t how literature should be, therefore it’s a bad book. You do wonder sometimes if there’s a class agenda in these things, maybe I’m just being paranoid. In the wake of Trainspotting, anyone who had seen Braveheart was getting signed up cos it was trendy, in the same way that different ethnicities have been signed up in waves, like Asian writers in the wake of Brick Lane…’
IW: ‘And Roddy Doyle and Ireland as well. It’s a kind of new colonialism.’
EM: ‘It goes back to this idea of what’s acceptable in literature.’
AB: ‘My first two books were written in dialect and people go, oh you write like that because you can’t use English. I hate that, what do you think I grew up writing in?’
IW: ‘Before Trainspotting took off, I used to think Kelman going on about the class snobbery of the English was paranoid nonsense, then I went down there and I was faced with all that shite, I was basically a performing monkey.’
AB: ‘I got called that at a book launch down in London. There were loads of drunken booksellers, I went out to make a call, came back in, they’re all pished, and this public schoolboy guy, rugby shirt, was like “Oh, the monkey’s come back”. I was like excuse me? And he said “Perform for us, monkey”. I was really insulted, but if you get stuck in, then you’re living up to the stereotype of what a Scottish writer is.’
In many ways, Trainspotting has come to embody the spirit of the nineties, and all that Britpop madness. How does it feel now, looking back at that time?
AB: ‘Between the end of communism and 9/11, it feels now like quite an innocent time, narcissistic and coked up and egotistical, but innocent too.’
IW: ‘Everyone thought this is it, the whole of society is fucked, we might as well party. I feel like Britpop was the swansong of British culture, it was a summary of everything that had gone before, a last gasp before globalisation took over, a final party.’
AB: ‘It was a decade that feels founded on illusions now. At the time it was, “Hurray, the eighties are over, the Tories are out”, but everyone was living on credit, and what’s happening now was almost inevitable.’
EM: ‘It was all summed up by that Damien Hirst skull, the most expensive artwork ever sold. It’s the crowning glory at the end of that whole scene.’
AB: ‘It looks great, though.’
EM: ‘Where does art and culture go from there? That’s the full stop. It makes that era look like one of excess and selfishness and capitalism for its own reward.’
So where do we go from here?
AB: ‘The Tories will get in at the next election, Scotland won’t stand for that and we’ll move towards independence. Then we’re in a completely different era, living in an independent bankrupt nation.’
IW: ‘I have the feeling it’s going to be English nationalism that wrecks the union rather than anything else.’
AB: ‘The march of the BNP is a frightening thing. It’s not left versus right anymore.’
IW: ‘It’s just different shades of right.’
EM: ‘What is the left? What does that even mean anymore?’
IW: ‘I think the recession is going to go on for a long time, a lot longer than people are saying.’
EM: ‘We’ll see the decline of the American empire, so globalisation will look like a fantasy we had in the nineties. We’re all going to fragment into regionalism, small nations will consolidate their identity more.’
You’re all clearly interested in politics, but not overtly political in your writing. Is it the job of writers to be political?
AB: ‘I met John Swinney at something, and part of me was thinking I should lend the SNP my support, but I was also thinking writers shouldn’t be involved in party politics.’
IW: ‘When Trainspotting took off, every single political party wanted to wine and dine me, and I was very wary. Any artist getting mixed up in political parties, it’s always going to end in tears for the artist.’
Irvine, weren’t you asked to do Celebrity Big Brother at some point?
IW: ‘Yeah, I was asked to do that, the one that Bez won. I was asked to do I’m A Celebrity as well, in the jungle. I wasn’t tempted, but my wife wanted to spend the time in a six star hotel in Australia. I think it wrecked John Lydon’s head. Now he’s advertising butter, once you get on that slippery slope, you start doing anything to keep your profile up.’
With that in mind, is there such a thing as ‘selling out’ anymore?
IW: ‘Everything artistic and cultural is so enmeshed with commercialism and consumerism, so the question’s redundant now really. It’s so much a part of the apparatus, art, entertainment and commerce are all intertwined now, so it’s almost impossible to posit the question.’
EM: ‘In the nineties me and my mates tried to work out how we could sell out, a deliberate, non-ironic plan. Everything was finished, so why not? But we never managed it.’
IW: ‘When Trainspotting sold 10,000 copies, all my mates thought it was great, 100,000 and they started moaning, a million and they moaned even more. Once something becomes big, the people who were into it at the start justifiably feel like something has been taken away from them.’
Like Billy Connolly, where people started turning against him when he got famous?
AB: ‘He’s a big hero of mine, long before Trainspotting I was listening to him telling stories.’
IW: ‘Me too. Kevin Williamson always says that Billy Connolly is far more influential than James Kelman for our generation.’
EM: ‘Funnier as well.’
IW: ‘In a lot of ways, Billy Connolly is probably the reason why James Kelman is so po-faced about his art, he doesn’t want to be misconstrued as a Glasgow comedian.’
AB: ‘He’s fighting against that idea that the Scottish voice is comic relief, it’s the performing monkey stuff again. I think folk hassled Connolly because he started doing routines about Elton John and Eric Clapton. But at the same time, he’s at that stage in his career, so to tell stories about the welding days would be ridiculous. I feel for him, he’s caught.’
IW: ‘He’s got a castle and a mansion in L.A., don’t shed too many tears for him.’
All three of you have written for film, television and theatre. How do you decide at the start of a project which format a story is going to take?
IW: ‘Sometimes if you write something down, it suggests itself more as a short film or a play than a book, you visualise it in that way immediately. It’s the storytelling that’s the essential element, how you tell the story varies, but that’s always at the heart of it.’
AB: ‘Are you not directing an Alan Warner movie?’
IW: ‘The finance is always a problem, I’ve got about half a dozen different film projects at various stages, it’s really frustrating, you’re almost there, then fucked, and on it goes.’
EW: ‘It’s almost impossible to get stuff financed and made in television and film.’
IW: ‘Channel Four and ITV are just about ready to drop.’
EM: ‘Yeah, they’re all in real trouble… oh look, there’s Kirsty Wark.’
[Bizarrely, just as we’re discussing the dire straits of the television industry, Kirsty Wark comes in and is shown to a nearby table. Later, when Welsh passes her on the way to the toilet, they chat and she tries to persuade him to move back to Scotland.]
Death of a Ladies’ Man and Menage feature a lot of sex, and Irvine, your work has never shied away from the topic. Why tackle that subject?
AB: ‘If you’re being true to the psychological reality of the characters, then you have to look at that side, you can’t just pan away.’
EM: ‘It’s hard to write about the present without writing about sex, because the culture has moved towards promiscuity and images of sex. The idea of sexual liberation has actually led to sexual oppression, we’re oppressed by too much sex now.’
AB: ‘The difficulty writing about sex and women is that there’s no coherent feminist response, you ask various women who consider themselves feminists, they’ve all got a different attitude to porn. You just have to write about it in a way that’s appropriate to your characters. Look at 1982, Janine [Alasdair Gray novel], that is the first Scottish book I can think of that deals with sex in that direct way.’
IW: ‘It’s a fucking great book.’
EM: ‘It’s a wank book, in that it’s his entire erotic fantasy while masturbating over the course of a drunken night.’
AB: ‘And then you go from that to Maribou Stork Nightmares [Welsh’s second novel, featuring a graphic gang rape scene], which is the dark side. That affected me more than Trainspotting, I think, because it’s so dark it stains your head. I’ve had discussions with women who have a problem with that book. But rape is a grotesque ugly obscene thing, why wouldn’t you want people to see and confront that? For me, Swung [Morrison’s debut novel, set amongst the Glasgow swinging scene] was a real revolution in the way sex has been written about in Scotland, because it’s largely a positive thing. The way Ewan writes about sex is the way Irvine wrote about rave culture, this mass consciousness, a communion that brings people together.’
IW: ‘A lot of swinging culture grew out of rave culture, that tactile coming down thing. I was coming back up here from London and my mates were all having shagging parties and filming them.’
AB: ‘Even through the swathes of pornography, Ewan manages to write about sex in such an emotional way that it’s actually quite touching. There’s that scene in Menage with the two guys and the girl, what’s the term, spit-roasting? Is that an acceptable term? Even me asking that question shows how difficult this topic is. Anyway, the two blokes have their cocks in her, and her spine in the middle makes it one long continuation, it was beautiful the way Ewan wrote it. Strip everything away from these people and they had an emotional connection without constructs, I’ve never been able to make that breakthrough in describing sex.’
EM: ‘That scene, it’s almost animal or primal, it’s beyond their ideas of who they are.’
IW: ‘She becomes this conduit to their strange communion as well, it’s all connected.’
AB: ‘And the great thing is they’re not very heterosexual men.’
EM: ‘Yeah, there is ambiguity about that, later on they have to find out if they have anything between the two of them without her, when she’s not there.’
AB: ‘It’s very moving, which is great. It’s an easy thing cos of the saturation of porn to write about sex as if it’s numb. You know, that’s the Bret Easton Ellis angle, it’s all empty and meaningless.’
EM: ‘Just going back to feminism, feminism has become a parody of itself, where everything a woman does, including having hundreds of partners on camera, is empowering. It’s the culture of the self, if anything permissible in the name of self-exploration, then you can kill yourself in the name of empowerment.’
AB: ‘The older I get the more feminist I get, especially writing a character like Charlie from Ladies’ Man. He’s a guy who considers himself a feminist, but the reality of being a man is that our drives and desires and evolutionary journey mean we can only be so feminist. That was a really depressing realisation for me, actually.’
EM: ‘What I like about Charlie is that he’s shagging to fill the void. He thinks he believes in things – education, cultural authenticity, socialism – but he doesn’t practise what he preaches, there’s a huge gap. He’s a consumer in his sex life.’
So finally, in which direction do you see literature heading in the future?
AB: ‘A lot of writers are getting into performance and writing shows, people like A.L. Kennedy and Jackie Kay. The importance of voice has always been there in Scottish literature and I think that will be taken to the next level by moving almost into pure theatre.’
IW: ‘I go along with that, I think that people are always going to need stories, and the future of storytelling will encompass literary fiction, stand up, theatre, everything. And I think the ebook will change things a lot. Once everything becomes digital, there will be no money in it and then performance will come into it, writers will become more like performers. That’s the only way to make money, unless they scrimp around for grants or do teaching. It’ll be like musicians now making money from gigging, not album sales.’
EM: ‘I wouldn’t give up entirely on the mainstream publishing world, because the proliferation of thousands of voices on the internet is going to be a mess. The internet doesn’t breed dialogue and discourse, it breeds a kind of indifference, 300 small comments, no one actually reading anything big.’
AB: ‘Kevin Williamson said he couldn’t do Rebel Inc now, because there’s no market for magazines. But the impetus for that came from below, if you’ve got a scene where people are out there performing their work, then you can point people to downloads. The same thing will happen as the music world, there will be a paradigm shift.’
EM: ‘It’s going to go more towards localisation rather than globalisation, people focussing on their own smaller world view, and one of the good things from that is that writing becomes more community based, we have a scene in Glasgow, and that becomes consolidated. It becomes independent and local, which is great.’
AB: ‘It’s a form of devolution, people taking control of their own local area.’
IW: ‘You took the words right out of my mouth. That’s a good place to end, I think.’
And so we pay up and retire to The Elm Bar up the road. Over a few more drinks the tongues loosen, and we get arguments about punk versus rock versus rave, detailed discussion of acid comedowns, the merits of smoking soapbar versus skunk, some possibly libellous chat about certain American authors’ sexuality and some certainly libellous chat about various British broadsheet newspapers. Plus we toy with the idea of starting a rumour that Irvine Welsh is having an affair with Kirsty Wark. As all three authors receive texts from their wives and girlfriends wondering where the hell they’ve got to, The List makes its excuses and leaves, the future of Scottish literature in safe, if slightly tipsy, hands.
Menage by Ewan Morrison and Reheated Cabbage by Irvine Welsh are out now, both published by Jonathan Cape. Death of a Ladies’ Man by Alan Bissett is out 23 Jul, published by Hachette Scotland.