Interview: Irvine Welsh, ‘Every election is in some ways a rerun of the Independence Referendum’
The author of A Decent Ride talks all things Scotland, from indy ref to Hurricane Bawbag
‘When you see where you come from from abroad, it just seems so much more exotic’, says Irvine Welsh, over a patchy phone line from Chicago. He’s reflecting on Scotland, his home country, and the place we’ve been discussing in detail ever since he asked me about the weather in Edinburgh.
‘I always thought of Scotland as being a mundane place’, he explains, ‘I’ve travelled all over the world for the last 20 years and lived in different places in different countries. When you look back, you think this is actually not mundane at all. This is actually the most weird, crazy, eccentric fucking place I’ve ever been. You see all the craziness of the culture and you think, my god, if only we knew how special and unique we are.’
Fans of Welsh’s novels may find it hard to believe that the author ever thought of Scotland as a mundane place, considering how much of his work is set there – Filth, Porno, Glue and of course, the infamous Trainspotting. Though his last novel, The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins was set in the US, where the author currently lives, he has once again returned to his Scottish roots in his latest work, A Decent Ride, which follows cab driver Terry ‘Juice’ Lawson around the streets of Edinburgh during Hurricane Bawbag.
Most people who were in Edinburgh during December 2011 will remember Bawbag for its strong winds and the even stronger sense of anticipation that came with it. Though it was considered to be the worst storm in years, with winds reaching up to 165mph, the red-alert warning issued by the Met Office meant that the country was on guard, and though there were widespread power outages and traffic disruptions, the UK managed to recover.
Many people felt that the storm wasn’t as bad as it could have been; a sentiment Welsh encapsulates in A Decent Ride. ‘I wanted to write about something that was perceived to be kind of cataclysmic, like a hurricane: the first hurricane to hit Scotland in 100 years, that actually didn’t turn out to be like that’, Welsh explains. Though the novel does feature a weather-battered Edinburgh in the background, the main focus is its anti-hero protagonist, Terry, because ‘it’s much more interesting to view this character who [is] obsessed with his own stuff, as most of us are.’
As we all know, Hurricane Bawbag isn’t the only big event to blow through Scotland recently, and it doesn’t take long for us to navigate our way towards the whirlwind that was the Scottish Independence Referendum. ‘I didn't want to write about that because I couldn't be bothered waiting to see what would happen’, he says honestly.
‘My whole take on the independence thing was that it’s probably inevitable and would probably be better in the long run, but it’s not gonna be some kind of land of milk and honey, and all the problems in life were gonna be over. Equally, it’s not gonna be this huge cataclysmic disaster.’
His opinion on the matter is balanced, and when asked what he would say to those on both sides of the debate who do take one extreme view, he has a clear, simple answer: ‘Basically, I would just say “you’re wankers”. Life isn’t like that. Everybody knows that life isn’t like that … the political arrangements, they make differences, but they don’t make the huge sweeping kind of differences that people think they can make.’
It’s obvious speaking to Welsh that this is an issue that he is passionate about discussing, and one that is by no means resolved. The topic of Bawbag is blown under the table quickly, and we get into a full-force discussion on the indy ref in no time. ‘I was pro-independence because I see it as a way of modernising an antiquated, medieval kind of way … I think that splitting the UK up into its constituent parts is the best thing that can happen to it, it needs to breathe.
‘If it had been a Yes vote, it would have been all about euphoria and parties and dancing in the street, followed by the hangover of the lawyers coming in and having to negotiate – all the mundane problems which is kind of exciting and kind of not really, as life goes on.’
Though the country had a result on the 19 September 2014, for many the issue is far from resolved, and Welsh believes that the No vote will continue to have political ramifications. ‘I thought at the time that the worst result for the UK establishment would have been a narrow No vote, because it left things unresolved’, he explains. ‘It means that every election is some ways a rerun of the independence referendum, and also has the potential to ignite different forms of protest in England. It has the potential to ignite the call for devolution in different English regions. There’s gonna be a reaction to it.’
As well as the vote’s seemingly inevitable political reaction, Welsh argues that creative works have emerged from a ‘new Scotland’. ‘You look at all the great visual artists coming out of Scotland in the last few years, you look at all the great bands and music that’s coming out, look at all the writers that are coming out, there’s been a massive surge of creativity’, he says. ‘That’s not about nation though, it’s about people seeing a new state and they’re excited by it and they’re expressing themselves creatively. That’s the new Scotland that’s emerging before everyone’s eyes, even if people aren’t prompting independence or completely convinced of independence, they’re actually sort of, almost by osmosis, caught up in the whole thing.’
Considering this surge, it’s interesting to know how Welsh’s own creative works have been received in the past – whether people believe that he is telling their story, or simply selling them out. ‘When Trainspotting came out and sold its first 1,000 copies, all my pals were going, “Brilliant, great”. Then it sells 10,000 copies and, “Ah it’s great, getting recognition”, then it went on to 100,000 copies, and it’s, “Ah, you’ve fucking sold out”. And then it’s a million copies, it’s like, “Fucking bastard”. And you can understand that, people feel that something of theirs is taken away from them, it’s natural.’
But though Welsh’s characters are familiar, he is keen to emphasise the distinction between the characters from the country’s people. ‘I don’t think [the characters] do represent Scotland and its people, I don’t think that’s the purpose. They’re only meant to represent themselves and their story. I think Scotland’s a house of many rooms, I don’t think you can have one character and one piece of fiction trying to represent a diverse country.’
As for the latest novel, Edinburgh boy Juice – who some might remember from Glue – is in the spotlight. ‘It’s more of a comedic tone’, Welsh explains, 'but in some ways it’s almost the darkest novel I’ve written too. I mean, there’s things like incest, necrophilia, digging up corpses, exploding corpses, and stuff like that. These things are much darker in some ways than my supposedly darker novels. But because it’s done in a comedic tone you don’t really see it until afterwards.
‘It’s a book that people can pick up and say “Fuck!”. It’s quite shocking, it’s quite funny ... Anything that’s comedic draws people in, because people like to have a laugh.’
If you fancy a laugh, A Decent Ride is out on Thu 16 Apr.
A Decent Ride is published by Jonathan Cape.