Raving with an MBA

Andy Beckett meets Irvine Welsh, bad-boy writer with a secretly respectable past
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The Independent Culture
IN AUGUST 1993 a silvery volume with a cover of grinning skulls slipped out into the sleepy late-summer book market. Trainspotting was a novel about the living dead: Edinburgh heroin addicts, gaunt young men, their lives drug-tethered and emptied, HIV their only prospect. But its characters were alive, laughing, posturing, fighting, their words a vernacular torrent of jokes, rants, threats, and curses as dense and vivid as an Elizabethan comedy. Readers shot through Trainspotting's 350 pages in a day or two, then told their friends.

Twenty months later, 50,000 copies are circulating. Two hectoring, hilarious stage productions in Glasgow and London are packed. The makers of Shallow Grave are shooting a film. And the author, a big Leith lad with beady eyes and a quick mouth called Irvine Welsh, is riding a publicity wave that's reaching club fanzines and pub conversations and young people who don't read novels. He writes about a Britain they recognise - of drugs and dance music and transience - and he is being marketed with dayglo covers and collaborations with DJs. Meanwhile, last year's sharp short story follow-up, The Acid House, gets a Channel 4 adaptation this year, and this week Welsh's labyrinthine new novel, The Marabou Stork Nightmares emerged.

People are rushing to claim Welsh as the underclass novelist, the rave novelist, the latest Scottish hard man. He fits their expectations expertly, telling The Scotsman he's "the literary equivalent of the casuals", talking to i-D about "going to clubs and getting off my tits". He polemicises in soft, clipped sentences about his writing's energy ("perpetual action goes with rave culture"), his characters' universality ("people recognise the vitality"), and the gaping hole where novels about council estates should be. He's as convincing as his books.

Less sure is his insistence that they are literature for people "excluded from the system". How many of his readers have groped for heroin suppositories in a blocked toilet, or even seen a Scottish housing scheme? "Welsh's writing is a bit of rough," says Scottish critic Ian Bell, who grew up amid concrete and vandalism too. "His readers don't have to live the lives of his characters, but they can do it for a weekend by reading his book." Ex-i-D editor Matthew Collin sees "the element of cultural slumming", but qualifies it: "Drugs are no longer subcultural. They're mass culture... so even if you're middle-class you come into contact with the kind of people in Irvine's books."

Underpinning both sides of this debate is the assumption that Welsh has lived his books. But the truth of his background is more subtle. "It's always assumed that it must be autobiography because you're a working- class writer," he says. "It's assumed you cannae create characters, you cannae create fantastical situations. That's absolute nonsense ... I've never actually put anybody in one of my books that I know."

Welsh grew up on the Muirhouse housing scheme outside Edinburgh in the '60s and '70s (he's 36). "You'd get covered in dog shit when you were playing football," he says. But "to me it was a happy place ... We used to play some really imaginative and fantastical games, believing that there was this underground city under the scheme." At 16 he started as an apprentice TV repairman ("boring"), and then, as Punk broke, fled for London. He played in bad bands, worked on building sites - so far, so streetwise - and got a job with Hackney Council. That bit is awkward for the Welsh myth. So are his years buying and selling bedsits during the '80s boom, which earned him £50,000. Back in Edinburgh, he set up computers for the council's housing department, which maintained the residential apartheid described in The Marabou Stork Nightmares. The hooligan novelist even took an MBA at Heriott Watt.

When Trainspotting came out, Welsh "kind of colluded with the image that was being created." He would ask journalists not to write about his Edinburgh job. After a while he "got so sick of the wasted junkie stereotype" he started mentioning his MBA - "but people never picked up on it because it doesn't fit". While reviewers were thrilling to the dissolute bad times of his books, the Irvine Welsh of self-improvement and business opportunities flew under the critical radar.

Central to each of Welsh's books is a character who is slightly more energetic and observant than the others. "I think you have to have that," he says, "Otherwise the book will just become a series of negative points of view." Is this character Welsh? He denies it, but continues: "I've always been quite positive about things. Seeing negativity and despair makes me feel: `I don't want that in my life, but I want to understand it.' " Welsh has lived at an undefined distance from the violence and domestic squalor that courses through his books, but his "empathy" with them has given him a writing career, and the tension between enduring and escaping desperation is the narrative hinge: at the end of Trainspotting the protagonist flees to Amsterdam with his mates' money.

Even as Trainspotting's grisly realism was making his reputation, Welsh was busily tearing his next book, The Acid House, away from his stylistic roots. The title story was the best: a football casual called Coco Bryce, tripping on acid in a park, is struck by lightning as a yuppie gives birth outside her house; his and the baby's brains swap places, and Bryce coos in hospital while the mini-hooligan baby torments its parents. Welsh was linking Muirhouse to the wider world; the flights of fancy succeeded as comedy and polemic. And he was evading expectations: "Welsh is writing stuff that Kelman wouldn't think of," says Bell.

This rebellion is clearer still in The Marabou Stork Nightmares. Another casual, Roy Strang, lies vegetating in a hospital bed. Nurses probe him for signs of life, but his mind has retreated. He lives on a ledge halfway down a deep imaginative well, alternating between glances up at his hopeless situation and spells down at the bottom, where he fantasises about being a white hunter in Africa, on the trail of the wantonly destructive Marabou Stork, symbol of his own brutal masculinity.

It's an ambitious book, with Strang's levels of consciousness written in different typefaces, the divisions blurring as invading memories make him lose control. Welsh wants to show that anyone can have "deep and fantastical inner life". His own Marabou Stork fantasy came to him in the pub: "I was talking to some guys from the casuals... on the next table was a couple of guys watching this documentary about predatory birds... One of them was talking about how he wished he'd gone to South Africa..." Welsh wrote the book in a month. "I don't want that kind of stuff flying around in my head for any length of time," he says. Now he's writing a trio of drug- induced romances and a novel about a transvestite policeman.

Last autumn Welsh moved to Amsterdam. His books shiver with distaste for Scottish domesticity, or as Strang puts it, "a Barratt box with a bird and a brat". In Amsterdam Welsh has a sparse flat with his English wife and, you suspect, less contact with his Muirhouse pals. His cropped hair is receding now. He writes undisturbed by anything louder than the postman delivering £8,000 royalty cheques and the lapping of the canal below. I'm not sure he'll be staying long.

8 `The Marabou Stork Nightmares' , Cape £9.99

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