Irvine Welsh On Corbyn and a New Type of Scottish Independence

We spoke to the 'Trainspotting' writer about the state of the world.

by Oscar Rickett
08 June 2017, 12:03pm

Irvine Welsh

In T2 Trainspotting – this year's oddly-titled but really pretty good film sequel to the era-defining Trainspotting – there's a scene in which Robert Carlyle's Begbie finally catches Ewan McGregor's Renton, who ran off with his (and Spud and Sick Boy's) money 20 years earlier. Begbie, who's on the run having escaped from prison, isn't in a good way. He assumes that the smooth and healthy-looking Renton is in better shape, and tells him as much:

"Twenty years, eh? You done alright. And why not? World's alright for smart cunts. Plenty of opportunities for smart cunts. But what about me? What about men like me? What do I get? All I can take with bare hands? All I can get with my fists?"

What Begbie says here is at the heart of what the film and the novel Trainspotting are about. It's at the heart of T2 and Porno, Irvine Welsh's follow-up novel to Trainspotting, on which T2 is loosely based. Begbie is right: the world doesn't work for people like him any more. The jobs continue to go. The industries continue to leave. The factories continue to close.

But Begbie's analysis is only halfway there, because the world is now harder for some of the smart cunts too, and Renton – who's lost his white-collar job in Amsterdam – knows it.

Irvine Welsh lives a good life these days. He's been in America for seven years and divides his time between Chicago and Miami. I've spoken to him before (he once told me George Osborne was a "fucking twat"), but even if I hadn't, the voice that greets me over the line from Florida would be instantly familiar. He's a great talker and his accent hasn't turned trans-Atlantic.

Unlike many authors who wrote books that once seemed to define the moment they were written in, Welsh remains an incredibly prescient thinker. The failures of our economic, social and democratic systems are all too clear to him, and what he wrote about all those years ago in Trainspotting remains painfully relevant.

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T2, scripted by John Hodge and directed by Danny Boyle (both men did the original Trainspotting), doesn't fall into the trap of trying to relive yesterday's hype either. It's not a film that looks like it's been made by a bunch of middle-aged guys who still want to be cool.

In fact, one of its main strengths is that it plays on that desire, finding pathos and satire in the emotions and situations of men for whom life has not gone to plan – if there ever was a plan. It is an exploration of nostalgia, a hymn to things that are lost and to a world that has changed. The opening chords to Born Slippy – the Underworld hit that was one of the defining tunes of Trainspotting – recur through T2. It's almost too much when they do; too much sadness, too much memory.

"I think it was a very brave thing to do," Welsh says, "to look at the myths you've generated yourself and then go and take them on. The author also links the exploration of nostalgia in T2 to director Danny Boyle's opening ceremony for the London Olympics:

"It's touching on that kind of nostalgia: we've lost the great British nationalised industries, the one World Cup and two World Wars; we're losing the NHS, the welfare system, and there's an impetus towards authority and democracy, so it's almost like a requiem mass for things we've lost. There's that strange mixture of pride and sadness in T2 that was in the Olympics ceremony."

In the spirit of looking back, the enduring popularity and relevance of Welsh's novel is, he says, down to two things. The first is the characters. "They are archetypes," he says. "Everyone identifies with these characters to a greater or lesser extent."

Begbie in 'T2 Trainspotting'

The second thing, for Welsh, is "about a transition to a world without work". The Leith and Muirhouse of the author's childhood and teenage years in Edinburgh were still places in which work was available. Then the work began to leave and the drugs began to arrive, filling the vacuum. The transition Welsh talks of "happened first in the 1980s, with the industrial working classes, which is the world the people in Trainspotting come from".

But it didn't stop there. "If it was just a transitory phenomenon," Welsh says, "with jobs being shared and technology killing jobs and the old industrial communities being devastated, then it would have died a death. But it continued right through the middle classes and the professions and it's not stopping."

Welsh talks about the world we are living in now as going through a long transition out of capitalism into a conceptualism. We live in a world of things we cannot see or feel, a world in which intellectual services have replaced identifiable work. Welsh talks of plagues that ushered in changes in society in the past and says that he sees drugs today in a similar way, albeit as "some kind of long form epidemic".

"The reason Trainspotting has resonated is that, in some ways, young and middle-aged people now have the same set of problems: they don't know how they are going to make money, they don't know what they are going to do," Welsh tells me. "You see generations of the same family living at home… There's a whole infantilisation of our culture."

What used to define us is crumbling, and now, Welsh says, "We're busking, with those norms of behaviour gone." Drugs, of course, became an answer to that terrible question: what do you do?

Spud, Sick Boy and Renton in 'T2 Trainspotting'

But there is something else about what is happening in a world in which ready-made answers about what you can do with your life are harder to come by. "It makes the political and business elite much more anxious," Welsh says, "because if you can't offer people employment, offer them money, how are you going to get them to listen to your bullshit? You become irrelevant, you become redundant."

For the author himself, drugs were only ever a temporary answer. Having grown up in a family where you were expected to learn a trade, Welsh got an apprenticeship as a TV mechanic. But there was a problem. "Apprenticeships were collapsing, trades were collapsing. So I went to university. I never aspired to go; I was the first in my family to go. It was a pragmatic thing."

The idea of doing a white-collar job didn't appeal. "I always wanted to express myself artistically," he says. "I thought it would be music or painting, because those were the things I was really into as a kid, and I was very frustrated because I wasn't good at either of them. I got into writing by accident, just by keeping journals." Those journals detailed, in part, "the kind of drug addiction I was experiencing, that I wanted to make sense of".

"Labour throwing its lot in with neo-liberalism was one of the terrible mistakes of the Blair era."

We're talking a couple of days after the suicide bombing in Manchester, and Welsh notes the symbiosis between authoritarian governments and terrorists.

"They basically have the same goal," he says. "Any incident like the one in Manchester strengthens their hands at the expense of citizens, because authoritarian governments respond by clamping down with more security and surveillance, and terrorists know they can amp it up again to get a greater response… It's a crisis that's being engineered by terrorists and governments together, not in the sense of real collusion between them, just that their interests coincide and their interests are to frighten and then contain the population as a whole."

Welsh's hope is for a revival of democracy in the British Isles. "I'm not so much a supporter of Scottish independence as I am of post-imperial Britain," he says, before outlining a vision of a progressive English-speaking federation made up of a united Ireland, independent Wales, England and Scotland together as part of Europe, with the old trappings of English class power – the monarchy, the aristocracy and much more – done away with.

Welsh sees something to like in Jeremy Corbyn, who he says "was massively demonised to an absolutely unprecedented degree, and it's almost like the media jumped the gun. They shot their wad and now it's like, May's ineptitude has been revealed and Corbyn doesn't seem so bad any more. It's a decent manifesto that's addressing real issues. It's more modernised; it's not the 70s rerun people expected."

The crucial thing for the Scottish author is that Corbyn's Labour has said goodbye to neo-liberalism, the competitive, market-driven ideology that has defined our society since Margaret Thatcher. "Labour throwing its lot in with neo-liberalism was one of the terrible mistakes of the Blair era," he says, before saying that one of the "big tragedies of the Labour party was the death of John Smith, who I think had a much stronger moral compass than Tony Blair. He wouldn't have thrown his lot in with the City and would have tried to stake out a pretty dull but quite consistent territory of social democracy."

As we wrap up our conversation, those themes of Trainspotting and its offspring seem to loom ever larger in our society. The loss of work, the way drugs provide an escape and an identity, the ravaging of the capitalist economy by neo-liberalism, restless youth and the depressed middle-aged. "We have to keep finding creative and democratic solutions to a very difficult transition,| Welsh says, and then he's gone.


'T2 Trainspotting' is out now on Digital and on DVD, Blu-Ray and 4K Ultra HD.

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Jeremy Corbyn
Scottish Independence
irvine welsh
labour party