Edinburgh International Book Festival
Charlotte Square Gardens
August 29th, 2015
Irvine Welsh is doing pretty well for himself. His books have sold by the millions, he’s got a few film adaptations under his belt, and people are still clamouring to hear from him a good twenty years since the film version of Trainspotting was released to critical acclaim. Best of all, he can basically publish whatever he wants. Say what he wants. Do what he wants.
So, Welsh is writing, still. The same old filth. The same geezers. The same anthropomorphised asides (this time a penis instead of a Tapeworm).
Welsh’s most recent publication, A Decent Ride, re-hashes “Juice” Terry Lawson, who has previously appeared in Porno and Glue, following the bumbling character through a series of depraved and lunatic mishaps involving copious amounts of penis and misogyny (at one point, the penis speaks).
It’s not everyone’s cup of tea. But, the fact of the matter is: this is what Welsh has written. And that’s what he came to the Edinburgh International Book Festival to sell. As much as we’d all like to think Literary Festivals are about celebrating the artistry of the living canon, they’re also a sepia-toned marketing scheme concocted by publishing houses and literary agents. Which is fine, because, well, how else was the young American chap in the first row going to have the chance to proposition Welsh for a beer? (Welsh said no). We live in a late capitalist orgy of smut and masochism and Game of Thrones. A friend at Random House told me the other day that in the age of the kindle and digital sales, erotic fiction is King. Of course Welsh is writing another second rate version of Trainspotting. That’s where his dosh comes from. That’s what the people want.
And there’s nothing wrong with that. Since the dawn of time, writers have toed the line between entertainment and artistry … poetry and sex … unmitigated expression of the innermost desires… and porn. (Let’s be real, Shakespeare himself was a bit of a pervert; any good Eng Lit grad knows John Wilmot Earl of Rochester’s infamous Senor Dildo. And let’s not forget about Fanny Hill.) None of that lot were writing to flutter the eyelashes of the delicate literati. They needed to make themselves – and their minders – a bloody living.
Yes, Welsh is just one in a long line of bawdy wordsmiths, talented enough to grab the attention of the masses, and masochistic enough to keep on going. I expect most of the people at his talk were either blinded enough by the brilliance of Trainspotting not to notice the short-comings of his latest book, or just as depraved. Either way, they were in for a treat.
To start the evening off, Mr Welsh read to us from A Decent Ride. The reading lasted a little longer than I’d have liked, and the ride was not at all decent. Welsh probably knows what’s left of his appeal is confined to giggling pseudo-teenagers wallowing in a scots-tinged sewer of dick jokes and excrement. There was enough misogyny to satiate an army of football hooligans. But, to be fair, there were also some hilarious bits. Welsh’s greatest strength is the immediacy of his characters, the voices drenched in mania, the utter depravity of his (all too human) crooks. It was, I admit, really fun to hear Welsh-as-ventriloquist. He is a talented performer. I mean, I was too busy writing “awkward misogyny?!?!” in my notebook/ cringing to really relax and let the wave of debauchery wash over me. But I heard the beer-soaked blokes in front of me having a good chuckle.
From there, the second half of the hour consisted of a series of awkward questions chaired by Viv Groskrop (whose attempts at a Scottish accent went down like nails on a chalkboard). Groskrop quizzed Welsh on his attitude to writing (Welsh tells us he writes because no one will employ him to do anything else), the development of his latest novel (he says he only realized half way through that his protagonist was basically Terry Lawson in disguise); and his biography (grew up in Leith, moved to London, and now lives in the US). The most interesting thing I learned from the night was one of Welsh’s ideas about age – the early twenties, he says, are the best age to write about because they’re so charged – “you either fucking love, or fucking hate everything”.
Well, I’m afraid I must be getting old because this early-twenties-year-old experienced neither of the above sentiments throughout the night. I admire Trainspotting, I do. In fact my feelings about the book do verge on the “fucking love” end of the Irvine Welsh scale of early-twenties mawkishness. But when Welsh started talking politics, I realized what a pity it was that he wasn’t writing better stuff.
Why, I wondered, was this award-winning novelist choosing to re-hash his Trainspotting and Porno grandeur again and again, rather than exploring the ideas he had about austerity, the government, and Scottish independence? Or, if those simply weren’t areas he wanted to write about, why wasn’t Welsh following the Phillip Roth-ian vein of mostly autobiographical tragi-comedy he’s so suited for? (Roth’s Sabbath’s Theater and American Pastoral are brilliant examples of an established author doing what he does best (again and again) with fresh and surprising twists). Why, I wondered, in a desperate spate of antiquated literary wistfulness, isn’t Welsh fresher?
My theory is this: he doesn’t need to be. He’s rolling in dosh. His publishers know his name commands a hefty sales figure. And he’s filling rooms at Book Festivals with young twenty something blokes who’ve seen Trainspotting and fucking love him. That’s that.
Oh, and the night?
Definitely a sell-out. Irvine Welsh is, well, He’s successful. You all know what it takes to become a rich white man in this day and age. But, let’s face it, he’s Irvine F*cking Welsh. Ewan McGregor and James McAvoy have starred in his films. He takes literary depravity, and fucks it up the ass. He makes William Burroughs look like Enid Blyton. He’s an entertainer (that’s the word I was looking for). He gets his literary cock out for the lads. So, if that’s what you’re into, then I’m sure there’ll be another chance for you to lap it up.
It’s not the worst ride I ever had, but it’s definitely not the best.
Reviewer : Charlotte Morgan