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Irvine Welsh, Glorious Old Bastard and Writer of Books, Still Loves a Good Dick Joke

We talked about Scottish independence (good), dancing frat boys (bad), and the value of starting arguments.

by Mike Doherty
Jun 8 2015, 10:00pm

Irvine Welsh in Toronto. Photo via Twitter.

This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

Twenty-two years after his debut novel, Trainspotting, shocked and delighted the world with its tales of Edinburgh junkies, Irvine Welsh is still cooking up controversy. His new novel, A Decent Ride, featuring cab driver and serial shagger Juice Terry—who returns from Glue (2001) and the Trainspotting sequel, Porno (2002)—includes necrophilia, murder by bodily fluids, and chapters narrated by Terry's penis.

Reviewers have found it a love-it-or-loathe-it proposition, and Welsh thinks this is "perfect." Over bangers 'n' mash and a pint of local lager in Toronto at the Football Factory—named after his friend John King's 1996 novel about hooliganism—he talked about Scottish independence (good), dancing frat boys (bad), FHRITP ("horrible"), and the value of starting arguments.

VICE: More than any of your novels, A Decent Ride is framed as a comedy.
Irvine Welsh: Usually I'm about dark drama with pitch-black comedy to relieve the tension and keep people invested in the drama. This one is much more the other way around, introducing darker, dramatic themes through comedy. I thought the [UK] election would be quite divisive for Scotland, so I wanted [the book] to be a piss-take—where people could just laugh at ourselves and the ludicrousness of being alive in this world.

Was Juice Terry nagging at you to write a novel about him?
Yeah, the characters in Trainspotting, Filth [1998, and filmed last year], and Glue resonate—I always write little pieces about them, and sometimes they develop into something bigger. I still have an apartment in Edinburgh, but I haven't lived there consistently for about 20 years, and I thought that with the referendum [in September on Scottish independence], there's a whole new kind of Scotland developing. Juice Terry was my tour guide. I wanted somebody who was really single-minded, and Terry's like the classic "No" voter: "I'm happy in my world. I've got my shagging, and I've got my driving." And then suddenly his life falls apart; he's opened up by a cataclysmic event, and he has to engage with it. He has to reorder himself, to take more interest in his family, his kids, his mother, his community, his male friendships, in things like golf and reading, and he'd eventually be writing poems if this was kept up. It's to mirror that cultural shakedown—we're pulled out of our complacency by things happening around us that we really don't quite grasp.

There are hidden depths to him, aren't there? Because he's able to slide easily into reading literature like Moby-Dick.
Yeah, he's not a stupid guy; he's willfully ignorant, like a lot of people. A bit of knowledge is a very painful thing, because it makes you aware of society in general and your place in it. That's basically why a lot of poor or working-class people are right-wing, because when you realize your status is pretty disadvantaged, that puts a burden of responsibility on you to change the world, and a lot people feel that burden is too much. It's something I can't criticize because I've done it myself so many times; if you're working nine-to-five, you're ground down by the end of the day. You want to put your feet up to watch fucking shite on TV like Pop Idol. You don't want to go out to local political meetings; you want to go to football on Saturday and fuckin' sing songs and let off steam. Sometimes things happen that shake you out of that world. To me, the Scottish independence [movement] was like punk or acid house—people got energized at a grassroots level and focused on a renewal of democracy and self-definition: Who are we? What kind of relationships do we aspire to that are going to make our lives better? Once these uncomfortable questions are asked, they can't really be unasked.

Is it harder for you to speak about these issues given that you live in Chicago now?
You experience exile in a very different way nowadays, because you've got the internet. I had a big argument with my mate Jimmy; he said, "Why do you tell people to vote yes on Twitter? You're never fuckin' there!" I said, "Look, I'm there more than you, you fat cunt, 'cause all you do is you sit in front of your fuckin' TV!" He's got his big flatscreen; he never goes out of the house. If you count his front room as Scotland, he's there more than me, but when I'm there for three months of the year, I'm out and about, talking to people. If you're engaged, you're operating on a different level.

On Twitter, you mentioned how you felt journalists in the US and the UK lack the "balls" to take on "waffling, entitled power chuggers."
[Jeremy] Paxman is brilliant; he just gets ripped into everybody. But generally print journalism is so concentrated in the hands of multinational billionaires that it has a negative effect on what people can do and say. They've cornered themselves into irrelevance; also with technology, people just aren't buying newspapers, are they? I honestly believe that if the broadcast media like the BBC stopped the "What do papers say?" shows, people wouldn't even know the papers exist. It's like the broadcast media are sponsoring the continuation of newspapers.

A lot of arts coverage now is so celebrity-driven.
Yeah, it's also sponsorships. In Scotland, there are so many great visual artists, writers, and musicians [because] nobody gives a fuck about sponsoring anything. When I'm out in LA with my agents or with my managers down in Miami, every single night is a fucking brand ambassador's party for this or that. It's light and bright, and there's beautiful people around and photo opportunities, but it's fucking rubbish. They're forcing this glamness into mainstream culture. There is in certain places the beginning of an underground, outside of that big metropolitan glare.

You used to DJ house music. Have you done so recently?
I'm too old, man. Old people shouldn't fuckin' DJ.... I've got a pal who's got a club in Chicago; I some days go in and DJ with him, but now I think you have to be able to pull an all-nighter to DJ. These fuckin' 50-something legs can't carry me across the dance floor for 12 hours without chemicals, and I can't take loads of chemicals now.

A lot of dance music now is actually for people who don't dance. If you go to see Calvin Harris or David Guetta playing a proper house club, they'll play amazing music for dance music aficionados, but in Vegas, it's a frat boy set. It's all fuckin' breaks, man—you can't build up any dance rhythm. A piece of tune will come in that people recognize; they'll [clap for] about three seconds and then, boom! Another bang! Bang! Bang! It's for people whose attention span is fucked; they can't just glide into the music. They've got to be distracted from remembering they're on the dance floor. The frat boys that go to the clubs in Vegas are the new versions of the housewives that listened to easy-listening radio. They want a certain thing, and it can't be out of their comfort zone.

In contrast to this, I understand you've taken up boxing.
Yeah, if you're at a desk all day, you've got to do something to keep fit. It's been a big part of my life for years. I do a lot of padwork; I don't do in the ring sparring with an opponent now. Your hand-speed goes, and if you're there with younger guys... So to me, it is just fitness, but I do like the whole culture around it.

What did you think of Pacquiao versus Mayweather?
Everybody knew it was going to be a shit fight and Mayweather was going to win, and they watched it anyway. Two fighters past their best, one whose ages quicker than the other's, but you have to watch it because for years, you've been sold this whole idea that they're going to fight. Your psychotic little internet timeline isn't complete until you've gone to that point. I think we should just shut down the internet for a year and see how people function—that would be fuckin' great. And ban mobile phones for a year.

Watch: Las Vegas, Floyd Mayweather, and Surrendering to the Con

Have you tried cutting yourself off?
I'm going to do it a bit this summer. I've started switching the phone off for long periods. If someone doesn't phone or text you, you get all that psychotic worry: "What's happened to my wife and family—are they OK?" It's bullshit. How did we get to feel that way? It becomes this terrible form of social control—you get addicted.

The worst elements of the web impinge on our daily lives: Recently in Toronto we had a scandal where a female newscaster confronted some men after having "Fuck her right in the pussy" shouted at her—straight out of an internet meme.
It's that horrible trend in the patriarchy to silence women. If you look at Twitter, for example, why should bright, interesting women be silenced by fucking idiots who've got nothing to say, and who are going to be found dead in their mother's basement in six months anyway? It's easier to shut somebody down if you feel you've got some kind of status over her. It has to be stopped. Can you imagine if women's voices were excluded from the internet? Then smart guys who want to intellectualize stuff get shouted down, and so what you've got is fuckin' idiots basically shouting football slogans at each other. How entertaining is that going to be after five minutes? Not only because it's morally wrong; even worse, because it's aesthetically crap—it's just fucking boring.

And how unthinking it is—you're parroting someone else. It's not original.
How many times can you say that before it stops to be funny? One guy comes in and does that to a woman commentator; the very first time, it would be fuckin' hilarious. It's demeaning to the woman, but this guy has genuinely transgressed—he's been really sexist and chauvinistic about it, but at least he's done something quite rebellious and original. All these fucking idiots doing the same thing, it becomes completely different. The same as if a guy's commentating, and a woman comes in, saying, "Rip his fuckin' nuts off!" The first time, people would piss themselves on the internet, but the second women come in constantly doing that, it becomes an attack on men. This is an attack on women, and it should be seen in that way.

You made your reputation early on as a "shocking" writer, and since then you've divided the critics—as with A Decent Ride.
It's perfect. It's a divided society, so art and literature should mirror that division. I'm not about consensus at all. Get people discussing and arguing about stuff. When people say, "This is a great book," or "This is a shit book," you've got to start talking about all the cultural values that underpin that, and that's when you get a real literary discussion going.

Are you trying to push people's buttons?
No, I'm not, really; I'm trying to get a reaction from myself, because we're all a cluster of different emotions, so you're always in conflict with yourself, trying to find harmony... I'm exploring that internal conflict. So when I get negative reactions as well as positive ones, it's grist to the mill, because I'm feeling all this stuff too, in some ways. I'm not entirely comfortable with what I'm doing, so that makes me feel great about it.

The chapters from the point of view of Terry's penis bring to mind the talking tapeworm in Filth.
The tapeworm is Bruce Robinson's conscience, but in this one, the penis is Terry's distilled id and ego, and Terry becomes the superego, in Freudian terms. He's trying to go, "No, I'm on higher pursuits now." "Fuck off!" He's the real voice of Juice Terry as a cock.

You've gone back into typographical experimentation, where the words create the shape of the object talking.
It's always fun to do that sort of thing.... When you go to the toilet, everyone wants to draw a big fuckin' spurting cock and hairy balls on the fucking wall. You never get beyond that. I get to do it in the book.

Have you been reading any Canadian books?
Yeah, Craig Davidson's one of my favorite Canadian writers; he's brilliant. The Fighter is one of the best-ever boxing novels. It really captures the gym life, and it's a great parable of different conceptions of masculinity. Canada's always punched above its weight in fiction. Alice Munro, I don't know how she manages to write a short story that dense—it's just fuckin' unbelievable. When you read a collection, you feel like you've read about a dozen novels.

How was the Canadian-made film of your novella Ecstasy [directed by Rob Heydon in 2011] received in the UK?
It was great until the accents started to come in—some of the smaller walk-on parts. I went to one cinema, and the first time one person sounds like Groundskeeper Willie, people think, "Oh, fair enough." The second time, everybody starts laughing, and that was a problem, because the core market was Scotland. So it didn't do as well as we thought it would do, but it's still a good film; it's got a lot of heart.

Since moving to Chicago, you've become a hockey fan. Any prediction for the Stanley Cup?
I think it's going to be a victory for the Hawks against the Tampa Bay sex offenders—the logo's a kind of white van. These games are never cut and dried, but I can't see the Hawks losing this one at all.

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