21 Jul 2018

Irvine Welsh - Dead Men's Trousers and the Trainspotting generation

From Saturday Morning, 10:07 am on 21 July 2018

Irvine Welsh shot to fame when his novel Trainspotting about a group of young heroin addicts from his old neighbourhood in Leith came out in 1993.

He became even more famous when Danny Boyle's film adaptation was released in 1996.

Irvine Welsh

Irvine Welsh Photo: supplied

The sequel T2 was also made by Danny Boyle, writer John Hodge and Irvine Welsh, and that was a hit as well when it came out last year. 

His latest book Dead Men's Trousers, is a further installment from the lives of the original quartet of characters from Trainspotting. – Mark “Rent Boy” Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie.

Welsh says his most well-known characters keep giving him stories.

“You build up characters and you’ve got them and they’re like tools you can use for other jobs. They’re quite well-observed characters, there’s a lot of detail on them that tends to beget more stories.

“I work from character rather than from plot, and I use characters to develop story lines.”

Dead Men's Trousers looks at male friendship in middle years. Welsh acknowledges that though he may not have mellowed, he’s a more sentimental man now than he was in his 30s.

“We’re all looking for love, we’re all moving towards it. The greatest thing in the world that you can do is give or receive love - it should be powering our behaviour, unfortunately what happens is the people who seek power get their cheap buzz and catharsis from that power and it never satisfies them.

“Their ambition is to make everybody else as miserable as they are - the rest of us should be looking to love and aspiring to love.”

Welsh says old forms of relationships are breaking down in a post-capitalist world.

“We’re not only moving on from the kind of relationships we established in capitalism, we're moving on from relationships we established in feudalism as well. For the first time we’re no longer tethered to fields or factories.

“There’s no real basis for the division of labour, and there’s no real basis for the whole elitist and sexist construction of society now.”

We are all - the powerful and wealthy 1 percent included - living in revolutionary times, he says.

“When you have all the wealth of the planet concentrated, the wealth becomes meaningless - not only to the people in general, it becomes meaningless to the 1 percent too.

“If you’ve got a house stuffed full of valuable paintings what kind of value does it really have when there’s nobody else can bid for it? It has no value in the broader society.”

Welsh believes society is facing a choice between free expression or more authoritarianism.

“We’re in revolutionary times, it’s not a left or a right thing anymore, we’re confronted with the choice between freedom and authoritarian governments.

“Do we play sport and write poetry and make love in the fields or do we need to be controlled? Do we need structure? Do we need to be talked down to?”

Now in his 60s, Welsh says today’s 20-somethings have been robbed of their chance to be wild.

“They live at home with their parents because they can’t afford to get on the property ladder, they’re not given a chance to rebel and go nuts and go crazy and there’s no real culture to sustain that now.”

He says that parents drop off their teenage children when he does readings at bookshops and theatres, and take off across the road to the pub.

“A lot of young people in their teens and early 20s are quite infantilised now. They live at home with their parents who come down and leave them in the bookshop or the theatre and say 'this is Irvine Welsh, just sit and listen to him'.”

“I’m kind of like, this adult-fiction teen babysitter. It’s all teenagers that come to the readings now. You get older and older and the crowd gets younger and younger.”

The generation that Welsh first wrote about, the so-called trainspotting generation - males in their mid-to-late 40s - are dying at higher rates than other groups in the UK.

Trainspotting 1996 Danny Boyle, Ewan McGregor, It is forbidden to reproduce the photograph out of context of the promotion of the film. Restricted to Editorial Use.

Photo: AFP / Archives du 7e Art / Channel Four Films / Figment Films / Liam Longman

Heroin users who survived ODs and HIV infections in the '80s and '90s are in failing health now, he says.

“A lot of people who smoked heroin off foil, rather than injected it, are getting a horrible asbestosis sort of thing.

“There is a longitudinal thing, the ramifications of treating your health badly when you’re young. You never really know what’s in the post as a result of your past misdemeanours.”

Indeed, one of his famous four dies in Dead Men's Trousers, which Welsh says is a nod to reality.

“It would have been unfeasible for all these guys to survive, living the way they do.”