When I heard the sound of glass breaking, my first feeling wasn’t shock, or even sadness at the tragic loss of so much great whisky. The words I mouthed to nobody in particular after I watched the bottle of Highland Park 18-year-old Scotch slip from Irvine Welsh’s grasp and crash on the sidewalk were, “At least it wasn’t the 25.” I felt almost no emotion at all. It was as if its fate was written.
Welsh, the Edinburgh-born author whose latest book—Skagboys, a prequel to his classic 1993 novel, Trainspotting—was released today, had just left the office and was headed to a black Town Car waiting for him out front. I loved reading Skagboys as I loved reading Trainspotting nearly two decades earlier. I found both to be amazingly detailed and true-feeling stories of growing up, getting in trouble, looking for kicks, and trying to find some meaning in life, and I was thrilled to talk to Welsh about his work. So I’d arranged to meet with him in BlackBook’s second-floor conference room, which overlooks 19th Street. Since I also write about liquor, I thought it would be fun to combine the interview with a spirits tasting. Highland Park, the northernmost mainland distillery in Scotland, had sent me two bottles to taste, and I couldn’t think of a better drinking partner than Welsh, one of Scotland’s top contemporary writers. He struck me as a man who would appreciate a wee dram after a day of media engagements.
And so we started with Highland Park 18-year-old ($120). “Highland Park is my favorite,” Welsh told me. It’s one of my favorites too. In fact, the most expensive whisky I’ve ever had was Highland Park 50-year-old. The 18 is smooth, soft, and mildly sweet. After a half-hour, we moved on to the Highland Park 25, of which I only had a small sample bottle, owing to its $400 price tag. We sipped and talked, nothing crazy, nothing sloppy. “Oh I like that one,” he said, gesturing to his empty tumbler on the conference room table. (It’s a remarkable pour, a heavenly aroma followed by luxurious vanilla and caramel flavors and a finish that goes on forever.)
At the conclusion of our interview, I gave Welsh the nearly-full bottle of Highland Park 18, which I put back into its box, to take with him, along with a couple of magazines. As I tidied up the conference room, I glanced out the window, curious to see what kind of car he got into. The next 10 seconds seemed to unfold in slow motion. The driver, seeing Welsh and his publicist emerging from the building, got out and walked around the back of the car toward the right rear door, presumably to open it. Welsh arrived slightly before him, magazines and bottle tucked under his left arm. He made a move to open the door, the box tilted slightly downward, the metal lid popped off, the bottle slid out, and the angels claimed more than their share of his whisky. I couldn’t hear what he said, but Welsh’s body language portrayed both disappointment and resignation to this fate. You just can’t un-ring that bell. But here’s how we got there.
Hi Irvine. It’s great to meet you. One of the things I do at BlackBook is review spirits, so I thought I could combine this interview with a Scotch tasting. I have this big bottle of Highland Park 18-Year-Old to start with, and a smaller sample bottle of Highland Park 25, which we’ll try next. I know you have to do a reading at Barnes & Noble tonight so we won’t get so crazy that you slur your speech and people don’t understand you.
Nobody will understand me anyway. When guys say "my wife doesn’t understand me" it’s usually the cliche they break out when they want to have an affair. But I live it. [Welsh’s wife is from Chicago.]
I was in on vacation in Edinburgh week before last.
We were probably there at the same time . . . Oh look at this. Highland Park is my favorite. It’s the northernmost mainland distillery in Scotland.
We’ll start with the 18-year-old … When we were in Edinburgh we went to the Scotch Whisky Experience, which was touristy and fun. They explain the different whisky-producing regions of Scotland and how the flavors differ.
Slainte mhath! This is great. It’s incredibly smooth. One of the places to go the next time you’re in Edinburgh, go down to Leith to the Scottish Malt Whiskey Society. They have tastings there and it’s a beautiful little old stone building, right in the old part of Leith. You’ve got big housing projects on one side and the old town’s on the other side, and you’ve got this pretty incongruous old building, with the crusty guys. They do the tour, you can sit there and just taste. And they’ve got a bar there that’s very luxurious.
We went to Kitchin restaurant in Leith.
Yeah, it’s good. Tom Kitchin’s place on the shore. That whole strip is amazing. When I was growing up, those bars were all sailors and prostitutes. There’d be fights. One of them had a leopard in a cage, so if people would get drunk and put their arms in they were likely to lose them. It was a bit like a Star Wars bar. Now that street where Tom Kitchin’s place is has one of the highest number of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe. And right down to the shore there’s these beautiful old pubs that have been transformed into high-end dining places.
So it’s not a run-down Skagboys area anymore?
Well, not that part, which was the original run-down area. That was where all the hardcore junkies used to go. What happened was you had the gentrification and you had all these old mills and factories down there being chopped up and made into apartments, which is fair enough, because there was nothing there. Then the people who moved there would call the police to get rid of the prostitutes and junkies. The police pushed everything up to Junction Street, farther and farther. You have a lot of social tension there now. Now that side is more and more run down. You have mothers pushing their prams and trying to get to the stairs and junkies lying there blocking the way.
I enjoyed Skagboys, and now I’m seeing references to it everywhere. On the flight back from Scotland they showed The Iron Lady, that movie about Margaret Thatcher, and there’s a scene with protesting coal miners rioting with police, and the police really smashing people up, just like the opening of Skagboys. There’s history in there.
Think about what happened a couple of days ago. The Hillsborough thing. South Yorkshire police, basically, because they did this job for Thatcher, they got away with it. What happened was that Liverpool played Nottingham Forest [at neutral Hillsborough Stadium in Sheffield on April 15, 1989], and there was a crush and 96 people died. Instead of admitting that security was bad and wrong, with the government officials’ help, the police basically smeared the dead. Fabricated evidence. It was one of the biggest coverups in British history, and was finally exposed a couple of days ago. The Prime Minister had to apologize to the families after 23 years. That kind of thing came about because the South Yorkshire police were given license by Thatcher, after they crushed the miners, to do what they wanted. So they vilified that whole city as a place of chaotic, deranged, savage heathens. Now it’s been exposed as a house of cards. So they’ve finally got justice, after all these people have been campaigning for it. One of the prominent people in the campaign is Pete Hooten, who was the lead singer of the band The Farm. Pete’s been one of the lead guys in the Hillsborough Justice Committee for years.
I wonder if that conviction would have gone through in America.
Because America is such a big, diffuse country, it’s different. When cops get away with things here, it’s always kind of a local, municipal corruption thing. It’s not like a massive central government thing. Since Britain is a smaller country you do have that.
What was the idea for writing a prequel to Trainspotting?
I had some material. When I wrote Trainspotting I had 100,000 words at the start and 100,000 words at the end that I had just chopped. I didn’t know when to stop. Otherwise it would have kept going on and on and on. I thought, what is the story here? The story is I want to be in their world. So the preamble to getting to their world, and the bit that kept going on and on, I just chopped the middle out and sent the book away, just to get rid of it, basically. I didn’t really expect Trainspotting to be published, I didn’t expect all this to happen from it.
What did you do with it?
I had these two sections, one at the end and one at the start. The section at the end was no problem. I just cannibalized some of the stories and put it into some short stories. The first 100,000 words I didn’t know what to do with, so I basically forgot about it and left it. Then I started getting older and thinking about what it was like, looking back, and it was all kind of abstract. I bought a proper house in Chicago, and I started to unpack things that had been in boxes for ages. I had all these disks that I got reformatted in Word and all that and I found all this stuff. I thought, “This is actually really good.” I thought it was just going to be a preamble to get into all the characters. But it had all the voices.
But I thought it can’t be like a what’s-going-to-happen type book, because you know what’s going to happen. You’ve read Trainspotting, presumably, you know what’s going to happen. The way to do this is to make this into a why-did-it-happen rather than a what-happened kind of book. So the thematic investigation of the book is to look into how people got into that kind of thing. You’ve got to break into their subculture and look at the world through their eyes. You can’t look at them through the world’s eyes. You’re looking at society and all the big changes that were happening [in early ‘80s Britain] there in terms of mass unemployment and boredom and not having money, and all the drugs flowing in at exactly that time, filling that kind of void, giving people something to do, basically, to get involved in.
Looking at the psychology of the individuals, looking at how somebody like Spud, for example, he’s got nothing to do. He’s got no qualifications or education. There’s no work that he can get, so he basically feels redundant in every way once he gets sacked from his job. So for him it’s just this idea of compelling adventure. Being part of a gang and part of a drug scene and having something to think about and orientate himself around. Which is an archetypal kind of thing, kind of a victim-of-society. Things change and you don’t have the skill set to adapt.
And with the Allison character, it’s about somebody reacting to bereavement. Being forced, because she’s basically now the woman of the house, she’s almost expected to kind of become the mother to her younger siblings, but she’s a party girl about town, she’s just not cut out for it. So that kind of pressure on her takes its toll and leads her somewhere else. And Renton and Sick Boy, to me, it’s not just this rebel persona, they’ve both got the existential anger and the rage about the world because it’s not like they want it to be. But also that folie à deux thing, the symbiotic relationship between them is very important. Probably neither of them would have been a heroin addict if they haven’t met each other. It’s almost that partner-in-crime thing.
Every group of guys I know has a Francis Begbie, somebody who’s going to get you in trouble.
Yeah, it’s kind of that contained explosion. With people like him you’ve got to have the mindset that, I can’t be tentative, I’ve got to be gracious, if I’m tentative it will make him worse. To survive I’ve got to roll with this.
Even though Begbie’s a drinker, he doesn’t reject his friends for being junkies. And I like the idea in the book that heroin doesn’t like alcohol. Heroin wants to be the only drug in your life.
That’s the kind of resentment that Begbie has against the other guys. They get involved in this party that he can’t join.
He chooses not to.
He wants to hit people, he doesn’t want to be stuck staring at walls. He wants to be out there and punching people and alcohol is a great drug to go with for that. Later on in things I’ve written about him, I’ve had him get heavily into cocaine, because that’s the drinking aid with alcohol that enables that kind of violence and arrogance. But he wouldn’t touch heroin for all sorts of reasons. He wouldn’t touch ecstacy.
And Mark Renton’s disabled younger brother Wee Davie, Mark doesn’t outwardly feel bad for him but you know something is happening inside.
He’s obviously upset and moved by him in ways he doesn’t understand. Until he starts to work through it and rationalize it it’s going to affect him. And then there’s Sick Boy, who’s all about hating his father and how he’s never going to be like him, yet they’re two peas in a pod. Sick Boy’s really a composite of three different people I knew back in Edinburgh. I remember, this girl one time was saying “I’ve got this friend, you’d really like her, you should go out sometime, she’s cool, she’s good-looking.” And my friend says “Does she have a decent job?” “Yes, she does.” “Does she have a lot of friends?” “Yes, she comes from a decent family.” “Then I’m not interested. Her self-esteem is too high. Give me something to work with. Give me a divorce, a history of some kind.”
How much of your work is autobiographical? Were you ever on heroin?
Yeah, yeah. It’s kind of strange. It’s hard to objectify your own experiences and put in any kind of framework. A lot of my old pals might say to me “You were a junkie for all of ten minutes, what the fuck are you doing writing that book?” And others might say “You were terrible, how did you ever get it together to write a book?” But I used heroin for a couple of years. There was really about a year I was very desperate. But I never felt like it was a permanent place for me to be. I wasn’t always in control, but I felt like I was learning things while I was doing it. When I felt like I wasn’t learning anything else I started to lose interest. Anybody can become a drug addict. Anybody can fall into that. I did because I thought it was cool, and I had a bereavement in the family that I had to come to terms with, a relationship breakdown with a first love that I had to come to terms with. But you have to have compelling reasons to stay. And these things are transient, you do get over them, and once I got over it there was nothing else fueling it. Nothing keeping it there. A lot of people from that era, they didn’t move on because there was nothing for them to move on to. It’s such a complicated thing. That’s what I was trying to get at through the characters was the complexity of it all. Not those simplistic nonsense like, “Oh, it’s because of Thatcher,” and like that. And it’s such a drug of association. You meet certain people at certain points of your life. If I had met another crowd of people I would have reacted much differently.
For Mark Renton it’s almost a lifestyle choice.
Young people do strange things, and the older you get the more you forget that you were young yourself and did these strange things. You look at kids being willfully crazy and you ask “Why are you doing this?” but there’s a level of existential education going on, this just has to happen to me to make sense of what’s going on. Not even on an intellectual level but on an emotional level.
The rehab part seems very real, especially the Big Lie. You don’t want to get off heroin completely, you just want to manage your habit.
When you go to rehab, when you start off, not everybody wakes up with an epiphany like I’ve got to stop this, I’m never going to touch drugs again. Most people realize that their habit’s got their hand and what they want to do is detox. They just want a clean slate to start again, but feel rounded off so they can control it. Which is erroneous, but it’s quite natural that you would feel that way. If you’ve messed up something you think, I’m not going to make the same mistake again. I know my way around it this time. I still enjoy doing what I’m doing.
Maybe that is possible in places like Switzerland, where you can get your drugs in a clinic.
In places like that, and, if you’re very wealthy in the U.K., you’d almost be silly not to become a heroin addict for at least six months. Why would you not want to do that? If you’re not getting attention from your family, you’re pressured into making all these career choices, just take a hiatus, go for six months, you’ll get looked after, you’re going to get clean needles, nothing’s going to happen to your body, it’ll be the best gear. You’ll have a wonderful time. And you’ll get the best attention in detox, and come out, and back to work after your little hiatus.
And the strange things that men do together. The workers in the beginning, having their shitting contest?
It’s the dullness of factory work. There’s no real barriers, it’s almost a race to the bottom. If the foreman’s a sleazebag in the factory, everybody’s a sleazebag in the factory. That was based on a factory I worked in where that was a morning ritual. Everybody had to shit into a newspaper.
How long did this take to write? It’s more than 500 pages.
Because I had the 100,000 words first, I had to reread Trainspotting to get the film characters out of my head and put the book characters back in. Then I had to go through this again and work out how much of those 100,000 words I was going to use and how much I was going to jettison. It was a couple of years altogether.
Did you actually want to do something on an epic scale?
My original idea was to start off on a traditional model, like a Victorian novel, like a Dickens novel, or like John Irving would do nowadays. Write a lot of characters in and a lot of stories and think about how it’s going to be pulled together. Then, the second part, when they start to get into heroin, it becomes an episodic, chaotic kind of thing. Then give them a mission, like Trainspotting in the end, to pull it together. And I thought it has to have a bigger thematic feel. It has to be about a generation lost to industrialization. It starts off with a factory, trying to break into a factory, and the factory becomes a symbol as they try to stop the lorries from getting in. And at the end, it’s them trying to break into the heroin manufacturing plant. In the beginning they’re fighting for the right to work, fighting for employment and union solidarity. In the end they’re fighting for drugs.
And I was trying to keep Edinburgh the city as a character too. Edinburgh was the AIDS capital of Europe, and heroin could really happen there. These little vignettes throughout the book about the Scottish enlightenment, and the manufacture of the syringe and medical technology in Edinburgh and pharmaceutical manufacturing in Edinburgh. It was inevitable that the other side would happen too.
It’s always about men adrift. The women in the story have a little more perspective on life.
Because Scotland was like shipbuilding and mines and railways and stuff, it was always working class and tough guys who worked hard and got fucked up when they came home, and on weekends. It was all seen as a legitimate thing. You’ve earned it because you’ve done your work. But when there’s no more work to do, when the work culture left, the getting-fucked-up culture stayed. Women never had that thing to the same extent. But the next generation has seen a massive increase in the number of women addicts. Now you’ve got this big moral panic in Scotland about girl gangs, girls drinking much more heavily, doing more drugs.
Are people really pushing it that much harder, looking for the edge?
Until there’s opportunities for people to express themselves in different ways and do different things, people are always going to be questing until they find something that’s for them. In the west, there’s not enough work and not enough opportunity to go around. Nowadays, for people here in America, if they’re working, they’re pretty much fucked time-wise. You have to work loads and loads of hours. And other people haven’t got any work at all.