Discussing Savile, skag and Scottish independence with the author of <i>Filth</i> and <i>Trainspotting</I>.
Irvine Welsh portrait, by Rankin
Sure, there were those trailblazers who came before. Keith Richards. Thomas De Quincey. Zammo. But really it was Trainspotting that introduced the British public – sat tight on their DFS sofas and growing fat on a combination of Viennetta and Noel Edmonds – to smack. Fortunately, Danny Boyle did such a great job at translating Irvine Welsh's novel to the screen that the film defined a generation. Unfortunately, arriving at a time when British people didn't know very much about drugs, it meant that I spent a great deal of time in my teens trying to explain to my mum that a bit of crap hash wouldn't make overdosing in squalid bedsits and not realising that my baby had just died regular parts of day-to-day life.
Another film adaptation of an Irvine Welsh book landed earlier this month. Filth, directed by Jon S Baird and starring James McAvoy (who reputedly drank half a bottle of whiskey each night in preparation for the role) has been lauded by critics and is in line to have made £3.6 million at UK box offices by the end of this weekend.
Where Baird’s approach undoubtedly differs from Boyle’s – the production value is more slick and cinematic, the tone is almost always hyperreal – it's still possesses the type of charismatic nastiness that would give Richard Curtis PTSD. Like Begbie throwing that pint glass over his shoulder and hitting those cry-babies on the head, Filth is the kind of film that will leave you shaken, cold and crying out for your mummy.
“James [McAvoy] sent me a photo of a guy dressed for Halloween as main character Bruce Robertson,” Welsh told me proudly over the phone earlier this week. “With the two fingers in the air and the beers and the coat and all that. I like to create these cultural moments, not just good books or a good movie that people are going to go and see and forget about.”
Now working and living in Chicago, Leith’s finest and the author of six celebrated novels, four short story collections (including 1994's unbeatable The Acid House) and a succession of scripts, was clearly excited by the film’s success and happy to share his thoughts on Savile, skag and Scottish independence.
VICE: You never set out to be a writer. Do you think that’s why you’re able to speak to such a wide audience?
Irvine Welsh: Writers can become too knowledge based. If you’re constantly reading the classics, you’re going to try to write something to emulate that, and it’s never going to be as good. But if you’re more socially engaged and you try to keep active and go out, meeting people, talking to people and travelling on public transport… all these things, I think, are important.
Do you still do all of those things?
Yeah, I do all that in Chicago. It’s important also to hang out with people who are a bit of a pain in the ass and all that, but are interesting rather than comfortable. As you get older you want comfortable, and there’s something in me that rebels against comfortable.
I was watching Candyman last night for Halloween, which is set in Chicago…
I really like that movie! It’s set in Cabrini Green, which has been torn down now. It was one of the big black ghettos on the north side. The racial segregation in this city continues at a pace, and they’ve torn it down and relocated all the families onto the South Side. I hate the ethnic polarisation in America. You can’t help but see it. Where I live in Chicago is a very white neighbourhood. And Chicago is one of the most multi-ethnic cities in America, but it’s not really – it’s like wedges of different ethnicities stuck together. There’s a great map online that shows America by ethnicity. If you pull up Chicago, you will see this enormous divide. I mean, South Africa during apartheid probably wasn’t as divided as this.
You’ve always been a political writer. Skagboys presents heroin addiction as a consequence of the decline in industry in the north of the UK. Is that something you saw firsthand?
Yeah. If there is no employment, no educational opportunities, no career opportunities, no sporting or leisure facilities, what else is there but drugs? They’re going to win by default. That’s never talked about, never addressed – how drugs won by default through the absence of anything else.
People need dramatic highs…
They need highs, which the drug gives, but also the whole culture around the drug, which is kind of the compelling drama people need. People don’t realise it, but the workplace provides drama – finishing a project, bonding, the highs and lows of promotions and disciplinaries, office affairs. Workplaces are packed with different narratives, which we need in our lives. If you’re not getting them in a workplace you’re getting them on the street in the underground economy – drug dealing, gangs, weapons, police.
It starts off with a kid, just hanging out with his mates having a bit of fun, then there’s nowhere to siphon off that energy. It just goes straight into the underground economy and into gangsterism; it becomes a straight career path.
Where does the pornography in your work fit into all this? Because it was a big theme in both Porno and Filth.
Once again, it’s to do with the feeling of alienation and the need for compelling drama. Modern consumerism has created this strange zoo for us that we don’t quite fit into. It’s like the polar bear wandering around in the same pattern, back and forth. It’s obviously disturbed because it’s not in its right environment, and we are as well. We’re all looking for schadenfreude – so much pornography is about humiliation. The same with these so-called talent shows, like X Factor and all of that, and with online bullying – it’s all part of a culture that lost sight of itself.
It’s been said that you based the necrophiliac paedophile Freddy Royle (from Lorraine Goes to Livingston, a novella published in 1996) on Jimmy Savile. Is that true?
Yeah, I’d heard some stories from people who work in the hospitals about Savile and I didn’t take them too seriously, because you know everyone thought Savile was weird and a bit creepy. I remember my dad watching Top of the Pops and saying, "There’s something wrong with that guy." And I’d say, "Well, you say that about everybody who's got long hair and dresses a bit funny." But, like, "Nah, nah, nah," he’d say, "it’s way beyond that." A lot of people just seemed to sense something. I thought maybe he was just a great British eccentric and all that. Alan McGee talks about meeting Savile in his autobiography and getting a strange feeling off him.
And that's what made you base Freddy on him?
I’d heard all these rumours that Savile was a necrophiliac and a serial sex abuser. I just thought they were over-the-top rumours, fisherman's tales that get spread around. But rumours are always interesting, so I thought I'd base this character on the rumours I'd heard about Savile, not really believing at the time that they were true. Now I can believe it, obviously. But as a writer I wasn’t that concerned if it was true or not. I was just interested in the idea of someone putting up this massive front of quite bland positivity, you know? He had that bland, presenter's positivity.
He was hiding in plain sight.
Yeah, and it was also interesting to me that he was too big to take down. Savile reputedly spent 14 New Year's Eves with Thatcher at [the UK Prime Minister's country house retreat] Chequers. Well, her father was reputedly a sex pest and all that. Not saying there was anything between them, but obviously because of that dynamic she must have felt very comfortable with him and not really seen that sinister side. When you’re right in the heart of the British establishment, it makes it very hard for some nurse, who's burst in on him shagging a corpse in a morgue, to go to their senior and report him. Much easier to just turn the other way.
So are you writing the Savile film?
[Laughs] No! That was a joke. My point was that James [McAvoy] is such a powerful and empathetic actor that he could almost play Jimmy Savile and make people fall for him. It was a trite joke on my part.
Yeah, they might want to hold off on making that one for a while.
Yeah, like forever.
The final scene from Trainspotting. It's a spoiler, obviously.
Do you believe people can be born evil?
I think people can be born with a lack of empathy, with some mental deficiencies. But by and large I think it's steps that lead to it. Being born under adverse circumstances, being brutalised by other people and not being in a position to make the right moral choices because of the brutality that’s been put on you… it can push people down that road. We have a cut-off point, which is adulthood, where we say, "Look, you’re an adult now, we do expect you to make moral choices." I think, as a society, we’re right to have that cut-off point. We have to, really, otherwise we would forgive everything.
I’ve been writing the intro to [the new edition of] Anthony Burgess' A Clockwork Orange. Kubrick based the film on the American edition of the book, which omitted the last chapter, which was very British, very pragmatic. Whereas the American one was very clear: there’s good and there’s evil.
Yeah. Do you think characters like Begbie from Trainspotting resonate with today’s audiences more than, say, Mark or Spud; that the perceived threat of the waster in the 90s has now morphed into rioters and violent protest groups?
Yes, but I think there’s a lot of apathy. The waster today just sits in the house, on the couch, playing video games. It’s somebody’s kid who's maybe dropped out of college or has graduated and is just sitting around. They could be almost 30 and they’re invisible because, unlike Mark and Spud, they have no social life. The visible waster, bouncing along the street from pub to pub, has gone.
So many of the pubs in Leith have been shut down. You don’t see old guy pubs now. They can’t afford to go to the pub, so they’re sitting in the house – going to the supermarket then back to their house because it's cheaper.
We’ve just got these weird, hybrid pub-bar-club-restaurant things instead.
Yeah. There’s a bar in Leith that’s been everything. It’s been a Moroccan themed bar and a Swedish disco bar. Now it's, like, a gastro pub. Things now, unless they have an established niche, have a very short life.
Are you for Scottish Independence?
I think it’s something that's part and parcel of the whole opposition to 30 years of neoliberalism. The UK, this imperialist, hegemonic state, is not able to deliver the expectation of Scotland as a social-democratic, Northern European state. So it’s aligned to all that – the end of the British Empire and industry and all the things that held these constituent nations of Britain together.
The end of the welfare state, the end of the NHS – the result isn’t just the campaign for Scottish independence, but also the resurgence in pride for the St George’s cross. The EDL, the BNP and UKIP are all a result of this. Politically, it has been very on the right. But Danny Boyle’s Olympic ceremony was another expression of it: a call for an aspirational, multicultural England.
Why did you move to Chicago?
Family reasons, really. My wife’s from here, we’d lived in London and Dublin. We always had a place here and came back a lot. I’d been doing more work here in America.
Are you still able to write about the subjects that used to interest you now?
Well, I’ve got a place in Miami and Crime is set there. And my next book, coming out in May, is also set in Miami. The narrators are both American. Miami inspires me more than Chicago. [Chicago] is an old city with a lot of traditions, whereas Miami is a city of immigrants, so my voice is as relevant as anyone who’s just come in off the boat. I feel excited by my engagement with this vortex and it's just so different to anywhere I’ve ever been – it's tropical and it’s got so much madness going on.
Do you ever regret choosing life? Do you ever miss just getting really fucked up and not worrying about all the stuff you have to worry about nowadays?
Every age has certain imperatives. If I took a line of coke 15 years ago the buzz would make me think, 'I wanna go out and do something crazy.' Now I'd be saying, 'Fuck, I won’t be able to sleep, I’m going to feel terrible in the morning." I’m not even a big drinker these days. You spend so much of your life getting fucked up; it almost feels like a high to be sober. As you get older, you think, 'I haven’t got that many days left to go chucking two of them away.'
But in terms of writing, the formative years will always be the most interesting to me. Those years, they set us up for the rest of our life.
Follow Nathalie on Twitter: @NROlah
The official Filth website is at: http://www.filthmovie.co.uk/