Irvine Welsh: Rude health

Irvine Welsh has just written his eighth book and is about to make his directorial debut. And he's in love. Hangovers aside, the high priest of profanity is in better shape than ever. Craig McLean meets him
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The Independent Culture

On the stage of a small black box of a theatre, there are giant bunkbeds, a giant table and chairs, and a giant telephone. The sign by the bedroom door says, "No Alcohol. No Guests. No Drugs. No Noise. No Guns." Four normal-sized actors, having entered to the sound of Grieg's In the Hall of the Mountain King, bounce off the locked door, and off the neuroses of each other.

They are big people pretending to be little people - Munchkins in fact - and soon there will be heated talk of the Lollipop Guild, the Lullaby League and who gets to be Mayor of Munchkinland. There will also be swigs of Jim Beam, hits of opium, lots of swearing, anal intrusion and suicide.

Toto, I've got a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore. No, we're in the world of Irvine Welsh, where coarseness, sexual depravity, intoxicants and violence are par for the course. Where Ewan McGregor's Renton, as realised by Danny Boyle's film of Welsh's 1993 debut Trainspotting, will defecate his methadone suppositories then dive headfirst into a hideous toilet pan to retrieve them. We don't do ruby slippers round here.

We are also in the Exit Theatre in San Francisco, venue for the world premier of Babylon Heights, a play co-written by Welsh and Dean Cavanagh, a Bradford-based writer. It takes as its starting point the rumours of offstage drunken mayhem among the dwarves cast to play the Munchkins in The Wizard Of Oz - rumours that Judy Garland later propagated.

Certainly, the Munchkins were put up in a dingy flophouse in Culver City in 1938. Cavanagh - who first entered the netherworld of Oz after Googling the film to help his daughter with a school project - says they were paid less than the dog: "Toto" got $120 a week, the dwarves $60. One of their number, the British actor Charles Merryweather, supposedly committed suicide. Of the many legends surrounding the film, one has it that you can see his body hanging in the woods in the scene where Dorothy and Scarecrow first encounter the Tin Man. Babylon Heights imagines what might have led to this alleged tragedy.

"It's a good metaphor," says Welsh. "They are the little guys in Depression America. They are completely voiceless, dehumanised."

Hence, the author says, the choice of San Francisco for the play's opening. It's a comment on the exploitative nature of Hollywood, so it felt right to premier Babylon Heights not in the belly of the beast itself, Los Angeles, but within spitting/sneering distance, in a f city with a love/hate relationship with its Californian neighbour.

There were more prosaic reasons too. Welsh was keen for he and Cavanagh's play to have its "laboratory" period away from the "Groucho Club luvvies" of London, he sniffs over a beer in the pokey theatre's makeshift bar. Ever a man in eager touch with the demi-monde, he likes the fact that the Exit Theatre is in the Tenderloin, one of the few genuinely seedy parts of funky San Fran. And, having lived here a couple of years back, Welsh has friends who could help stage the play: the Scottish landlord of local pub the Edinburgh Castle is promoting the play.

The following morning, Irvine Welsh is sitting by the pool of the Phoenix Hotel, a groovy Fifties-style gaff beloved of touring rock bands. What did he think of Babylon Heights' first night?

"You just hear aw the flaws. You're sayin' every fuckin' line as they're sayin' it." He's looking forward to going again tonight, when Fight Club author and his occasional bookshop-readings partner Chuck Palahniuk will be attending, "and just sittin' back and fuckin' enjoyin' it. They've got the first night oot the way and it'll just go fae strength to strength."

(Note: from hereonin, Welsh's nasal Edinburgh mumble and vigorous effing and blinding will be anglicised and prettified. Readers should assume that every sentence comes in heavily accented Trainspotting-argot studded with enthusiastic swearing.)

Certainly Babylon Heights is very talky, and too long. Lines like "if I wanted to get personal I'd compare dick sizes with The Scarecrow" sound like crude gimmickry aimed at cheap laughs. The shift to graphic depravity and tragedy is sudden, and comes at the expense of Welsh's hopes for a metaphor on how Hollywood - the Establishment - exploits the little people.

But as he says, it's early days, and San Francisco is meant to be a laboratory. He's confident that by the time Babylon Heights begins its run in Dublin next month - where Welsh currently lives, and where he workshopped early drafts of the script - "it'll just come alive a lot more ..."

In his seven previous books, and now his third play, Irvine Welsh has exposed the underbelly of things familiar and notionally comfortable. The Wizard of Oz. The Edinburgh of Festival fame. Club culture. Pub life. The workplace. Now, in his new novel, the 47-year-old writer, has another mainstream institution in his sights: foodies.

The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is about two environmental health officers working for the local council in Edinburgh. Part of their beat involves inspecting restaurants. Danny Skinner is good at his job, but even better at drinking. He's trying to find out about the dad he never knew, and about his own troubled relationships - with girls and with booze. He thinks he can do this by studying the cod-sexual musings of a local chef-cum-TV-personality, who has written a book called The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs.

Skinner discovers that said corpulent chef is a true epicurean, devoted to all manner of sensual pleasures. You are what you shag. Is Welsh taking a potshot at celebrity chef culture, the posho metropolitan pornography of food?

"Yeah, to an extent," he says, but doesn't bite. Instead he goes on, "It's weird - I actually think that one of the few sensible things that's happened in our culture is that chefs have become celebrities. They should be. We have this amazing relationship with food, it's so important to us in our culture. But 10, 15 years ago, before Jamie Oliver and Gordon Ramsay and Gary Rhodes, chefs were right down ... not the food chain, but the catering industry was so low-status. I think it's more important to have a celebrity chef than a celebrity actor. They're much more useful."

The other inspector is new boy Brian Kibby. Unlike his popular, gregarious colleague Skinner, Kibby is a teetotal virgin nerd who loves model trains. His dad has just died. Their job, and their respective father-issues, draw Skinner and Kibby together. To the point where their lives become intertwined, literally - each becomes the other's nemesis. Skinner comes to hate Kibby so much that he casts some sort of hex over him.

The germ of the idea came "years and years ago, when me and a pal were on this big drink and drugs bender," Welsh recalls with a chuckle. "And we had this fantasy: wouldn't it be great if you could give someone else your hangover?"

The other jumping off point was his own career path. Before bursting on to the cultural scene with Trainspotting in 1993, setting off a literary youthquake in the process, the pill-popping bad boy novelist was a respected and senior training officer with Edinburgh District Council. (He's put a disclaimer in The Bedroom Secrets ... that the working practices in this fictional book are just that, fiction.)

"When I was working at the Council, I saw the guys that get the promotions and the guys that are left hanging back. There's an intensely competitive bitterness that people have in the employment market with each other." He remembers "the way that it can actually warp and take people over. The idea of putting a spell on somebody, it's almost like taking somebody hostage in a way. Hating somebody is quite a responsible act. You have to manage that."

After the sprawling Glue and the occasionally stilted Trainspotting sequel Porno, The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs is Welsh back on cracking, page-turning, stomach-churning, gut-busting form. You'll whiz through it, in a good way.

It bears healthy comparison with his masterpiece, Marabou Stork Nightmares. The 1995 novel was overshadowed by the overwhelming, multi-media cult of Trainspotting - the stage adaptation of which lives on, most recently at Hackney Empire in London. But its mix of fantasy (a coma patient's damaged brain takes him on a Boys' Own stork-hunting odyssey) and harsh reality (gang rape) made for a blistering narrative that brilliantly entwined social realism and magical realism.

The Bedroom Secrets ... repeats that feat, as the bizarre bond and visceral hatred between Kibby and Skinner manifests itself in ever more pungent ways. f

"The more real and authentic it feels, if you do something out of kilter, it has much, much more of an impact. Rather than setting it up as a magic box of tricks."

But Welsh is reluctant to get too high-falutin' with discussion of The Novel and His Craft. He briefly concedes that the empathetic, pan-generational feel of the book - it's about fathers and sons rather than his familiar stew of peer groups - is partly a factor of his approaching the age of 50. But he stresses that any narrative ambitiousness in the story is rather about class, which is more familiar terrain. Working class guys who are "aspirationally middle class, who have bought into the system ..."

And as for the echoes of previous literary classics, Welsh is quick to dispel any notion that he might have become a Serious Novelist. Perish the thought that he has eyes set on acceptance by those "Groucho luvvies" in poncy London. The reason for The Bedroom Secrets's artistic coherence is much more rock'n'roll - and icky - than that.

"I hesitate to say it's grown-up but what happened was, I went deaf. I was in Greenland writing a piece of travel journalism and I came back and couldn't hear. I thought it was just the plane." A doctor friend had a look - a quick syringing later and "Madame Tussaud's Michael Jackson came flying out of one ear! I couldn't believe the amount of wax!"

But because he hadn't been able to hear albums properly, "I wrote this when I wasn't listening to music. I'm always reading, but I think my references were much more self-consciously literary. Hogg's Justified Sinner, Stevenson's Jekyll and Hyde, Wilde's Picture of Dorian Gray most of all. I was thinking much more overtly bookish. I think that's probably come out [in the writing]."

Might the new book's accomplishment and his (as we shall see) productivity have something to do with Irvine Welsh's domestic circumstances? Previously he was in a relationship that he very successfully kept under wraps. It was (I think) longstanding and with someone from Edinburgh (where he keeps a flat in the New Town). He was also largely itinerant: over the past dozen years he has used his riches to travel the world, living at various times in Edinburgh, Amsterdam, Hamburg, Manchester, San Francisco, Orange County and Chicago.

But while teaching a creative writing class in Chicago he met a young American named Beth. They were married last July, and the 26-year-old is currently studying for a history degree at University College, Dublin - which goes some way to explaining why his two years in the city are the longest he's lived anywhere for a long time.

Tall and vivacious, Beth sits chatting with Dean Cavanagh by the Phoenix Hotel pool while Welsh and I talk. Welsh is now out and proud about his personal relationship.

"There's a great thing about being in love," he says when asked how marriage has affected him creatively. "Nothing really matters that much. Things that would have become a big life crisis, you just don't give a shit. The problems in the world become really minor. So there's that thing. You're grounded and you're more ... confident. If this sells a million or a 100,000 copies, honestly I couldn't give a fuck. I'm just happy to be doing it."

But you can say that from a position of some security because you have sold a lot of books.

"Aye, fair enough!" he laughs sheepishly. "That's part of the equation as well obviously."

Welsh will be 50 in little over two years. He's relieved that the hype that attended his Nineties work has died down, even though for many he will always be, as The Face dubbed him, "the poet laureate of the chemical generation".

He says that these days, after a big night he suffers for longer. "Hangovers and comedowns, I used to be able to write through them. I'd be out on the piss all night or doing pills or coke or whatever and I'd wake up the next day. I'd feel like shit but I'd be able to sit down at the word processor and bang it out. But now if I feel like that I have to lie in bed groaning and feeling sorry for myself and taking paracetamol."

So while he stills "tears the arse out of it" occasionally ("I'd go a bit nuts if I didn't get the odd blow out"), he's more often acting his age. His lanky body is still lean: he's kept up the running after completing the London Marathon five years ago, and does boxing training. He cooks. He watches films. And he writes, a lot.

He has a novella and short story collection in the pipeline, If you Liked School You'll Love Work. He is a partner in Four Way Pictures, alongside director Antonia Bird, actor Robert Carlyle and the film-writer Mark Cousins. His screenplay The Meat Trade - a modern day Burke and Hare - goes into production next January with Bird at the helm. He and frequent screenplay writing collaborator Cavanagh have a fist of projects at various stages, including a "black comedy drama" for Channel 4, an adaptation of the Welsh football hooligan book Soul Crew, and the recent video for Keane's "Atlantic".

The latter was also directed by Welsh, as a way of him getting some experience behind the camera. He needs it: he has written a screenplay of The Man Who Walks by fellow Scot and Dublin resident Alan Warner. Having recently attended the Cannes Film Festival to pony up funding, Welsh intends directing the adaptation himself. Why?

"I almost feel like a custodian of it now. I feel much more precious about Alan's book than I do with my own stuff. I almost feel he's entrusted me with it, and I don't want to let him down or fuck it up.

"It's a sort of do-able one for a novice director - a small cast and a small crew. You can basically be quite a fleet-footed wee guerrilla mob doing the shooting. But I would be delighted to step aside if I felt technically I wasn't ready for it.

"But," notes Welsh, dilgently keen to puncture the myth of arcane and noble artistic toil, "it's not fucking rocket science. It's just all preparation really." E

Irvine Welsh will be speaking at The Dancehouse Theatre, Manchester on 9 August, tickets 0161-839 1248. 'The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs' is published by Jonathan Cape on 3 August, £10.99. To buy the book for the special price of £9.99, inc p&p, call 08700 798 897

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