Irvine Welsh: 'Darts never died, there's always been a subculture'
'Trainspotting' author and arrows fan Irvine Welsh is known for chronicling the nation's underbelly. His new film looks at the seedier side of professional darts
Monday 26 January 2009
The novelist Irvine Welsh, though a well-known and devoted supporter of Hibernian FC, an allegiance he also gives to many of his characters, is not often featured in the sports pages. But on Saturday ITV 4 is screening Good Arrows, the first feature-length film Welsh has written, about the netherworld of professional darts, far removed from the comparative glamour of Alexandra Palace and Frimley Green. This offers the perfect excuse to have a drink with him and talk sport, albeit in the inappropriately swanky environs of Bond Street, central London. A natter with the man who gave us Trainspotting ought really to unfold in a pub underneath a crack den in a defiantly ungentrified part of Leith. At the very least, the drink should be Scotch.
Yet here is Welsh blowing the froth off his Starbucks hot chocolate, while reminiscing about his fondness for darts in the unreconstructed Jocky Wilson years. "Yeah, Jocky Wilson, Eric Bristow, John Lowe, Jim Bowen and Bullseye... I loved darts in the 1980s, but like a lot of people I lost interest in the '90s, when Keith Deller became the first milk-drinking world champion. I felt it was getting too PC, a bit pretentious, calling itself a sport. Darts isn't a sport, it's a pub game. It's great that there's this resurrection now, that it's back in the national consciousness, but actually it never really went away. There's always been this darts subculture."
Subcultures are very much Welsh's thing, of course, and there is a predictable vein of seediness running through Good Arrows, which indeed features what is surely an ITV first: a lead character getting high on jenkem, a recreational drug composed of gas from fermented human faeces. While Bond Street is plainly not the place to invite Welsh to expand on this particular theme, suffice to say that the jenkem-experimenting character, Andy Samson, is a former darts champion from Merthyr Tydfil desperately trying to recapture former glories in what is best described as a Spinal Tap-style mock documentary.
It is not, Welsh insists, a satire. "You can't satirise something that in many ways is already an over-the-top pantomime," he says. "It's more about the obsession with minor celebrity."
The tall, bald, tough-looking chronicler of Scotland's underbelly takes a genteel sip of hot chocolate. I invite him to elaborate on his contention that darts is not a sport. Does he not think that Phil "The Power" Taylor, 14-times world champion, bears comparison with such pre-eminent sporting figures as, for example, Tiger Woods and Michael Schumacher? "Well, motor sport and golf are interesting examples actually, because I would argue they are games as well, not sports. In sport, there's got to be some athleticism, some cardiovascular stuff."
Let's talk, then, about football, unequivocally a sport even by his strict definition. I mention the Celtic manager Gordon Strachan, who, recalling his childhood on the mean streets of Muirhouse, a working-class area of Edinburgh, once told me that he had grown up a few hundred yards from the "guy who wrote Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh".
Welsh, who at 50 is 18 months younger than Strachan, remembers it well. "Yeah, I played football against him when we were kids. He was a prodigy from a very early age, a great player, but very small, very slight. Even when he went to Dundee he was so small, you know, but then he seemed to bulk out. I suppose they gave him lots of protein. Then he went to Aberdeen and obviously his career took off. As a kid he was a big Hibs supporter, and he still is. He still goes to games with his wife, when Celtic aren't playing. They have a fish supper in Montgomery Street, then go to the game."
Can he evoke for me that childhood scene: jumpers for goalposts, that sort of thing? A wistful smile. "We lived in a block of maisonette flats in a council scheme, five blocks in a row with a little green patch between them. That's where we played when we were small kids, the parents supervising from the balconies and all that. Later we moved to the school playing fields, and yeah, it was that clichéd thing of jumpers for goalposts, playing until dark..."
Muirhouse was a strong Hibs-supporting neighbourhood, based less on religious differences – although Hibs traditionally attracted the Catholic support – than on geography and class. "Hearts always had lots more middle-class fans. It's always been said that attendances drop if Scotland are playing at Murrayfield on the same day."
Was rugby never a passion of his? "Never ever. I've only been to Murrayfield three times; once for Hibs v Barcelona, another time for a David Bowie concert, and once when I broke into the stadium at new year and then collapsed in the snow. I never understood rugby. To me it was all about power and territory, not ball skills. But I have recently got into sevens. With sevens you see the ball skills."
Welsh lives in Dublin most of the time, but his wife is American and they also have a home in Miami. Wherever he is he keeps a forensically keen eye, a novelist's eye, on local sports. Dublin is the Gaelic football team he supports, and he's a fan of Wexford "at the hurling". Meanwhile, he teases his Irish friends for their passion for the likes of Manchester United and Liverpool.
"All that fuss about kicking the English out, and now they're going over there every weekend filling English coffers. They're shameless glory-hunters, with their replica tops and Sky subscriptions, but the reason is that in Irish sports they're so tied into their county. If you come from Kerry you can't support Wexford at hurling, or Kilkenny, who are like the Man United, Chelsea and Arsenal combined. And because the supporters can't be glory-hunters, they make up for it by supporting whichever Premier League club is winning. I suppose Manchester City will be the next one."
Welsh also uses sport to wind up his American friends. "I tell them that American football is just rugby, except they get themselves all padded up, so it's basically a poofs' game. And basketball is just netball, a girls' game, and baseball is just rounders, a kids' game." A huge grin. "But they give as good as they get. And I've come to enjoy baseball over the years. I've got more and more into the subtleties of it, and it's been interesting how, since the Barry Bonds steroids thing, it's become a pitchers' game again."
Soccer, he feels, is doomed never to conquer the American psyche, Beckham or no Beckham. "They still don't understand the concept of a draw," he says. "You get ties in Major League Soccer but they don't really get it. I tell them that some of the best games I've ever seen were draws."
Featuring his beloved Hibees, mostly. Welsh grew up in thrall to the three Hibs powerhouses Peter Cormack, Colin Stein and Pat Stanton. "Everyone wanted to be one of them, and for me it was Pat Stanton, the guy Tommy Docherty described as better than Bobby Moore. Docherty tried to sign him for Man United but his wife wouldn't leave Edinburgh.
"Later, he became Alex Ferguson's first assistant at Aberdeen, and he managed Hibs for about two seasons in the 1980s, but by then the club was down the financial drain. He signed Malcolm Robertson, the ex-Hearts winger, basically by pulling him out of the pub." These days, Welsh only gets to a couple of games a month, but is still a season ticket-holder, an extravagance that would have seemed the stuff of fantasy when he was a kid being lifted into the Easter Road stadium over the boys' gate, and running with his pals around the empty terraces an hour or more before kick-off. When he does go to games, though, he still hooks up with the same pals, some of whom – he makes no bones about it – have inspired characters in his novels.
"The culture of football is still really important to me," he says. "In the pub before the match there'll be anything from a dozen guys I know to 60, from inner-city drug dealers to suburban computer programmers, and everything in between. Millionaire businessmen to guys still stacking supermarket shelves, who would never have stayed in touch but for football."
Listening to this, it suddenly dawns on me that in his youth Welsh was probably a football hooligan. Was he? "In a half-arsed kind of way before it got organised and serious, yeah. When you went to away games you almost had to be a hooligan, because, as soon as you got off the bus or train, you were set upon by local youths. So we huddled together and mobbed up, basically a fear thing. I did get arrested at Easter Road one time, and in those days they'd haul you out of the crowd and march you round the pitch to make an example of you. My dad [a docker] was in the enclosure, and he saw me. And I saw him seeing me. I thought he'd go crazy when I got home but for a couple of days he never said anything. Then it was in the paper, and my mum went mad. I remember him looking witheringly at me, and he just said, 'Sheep led by goats'. And that was it."
In 1978, Welsh left Edinburgh for London, where he played in a band that it's fair to assume was not a string quartet, called The Public Lice. Occasionally he returned to Edinburgh for Hibs matches, and found that the casual gang of hooligans had mutated into something more regimented: the Capital City Service. "Within a few years the wee guys I'd known were part of the CCS, this huge mob terrorising the country, and that lasted until the mid-1990s. It's been all but eradicated now. Shout at someone across the road and you're in jail for five years."
He sounds, I venture, positively regretful. A big throaty chuckle.
"Yeah, fondly reminiscing about that great cultural British pastime, beating people up. I remember my pal Mickey back in the 1970s. He wore a green crash helmet and gold-painted Dr Martens. The funny thing is that he dresses a lot worse now, although he does seem to have more teeth than he used to."
Through our laughter, I ask him whether, with hooliganism on the wane, there is any sign of a decline in that other -ism that has blighted Scottish football for so long: sectarianism?
"No, it's still prevalent. In West Central Scotland assaults go through the roof on Celtic-Rangers weekends. Not so much in Glasgow as in small towns in Ayrshire and Lanarkshire. They all have Rangers pubs and Celtic pubs, and after they've been drinking all day there's always someone who gets badly hurt, or killed. The pubs sustain sectarianism because it's profitable, and it's hard to see how to change it."
He drains his hot chocolate and grimaces. "It's so fucking anachronistic. In Ireland, I went to watch Shelbourne v Linfield in the Setanta Cup, and there was a Catholic-Protestant thing going on there, but it was all done tongue in cheek. They've made much more of an effort to combat sectarianism than in Scotland. In Scotland they just say, 'This is bad, let's not have it.' It's very sad. I went to George Best's funeral in Belfast, which was basically the city's first big non-sectarian parade. There were Hibs banners, Man U banners, Catholics and Protestants, north and south, but there was no bother, it was just a great party. Pissing rain but a great party." A heavy sigh. "In Ireland they're moving on. In Scotland we're still dragging our knuckles along the ground."
Good Arrows is on ITV 4 on Saturday, at 11pm. The DVD is released next Monday
Gutbuckets and Jocky Wilson: Darts pastiches
NOT THE NINE O'CLOCK NEWS
Despite desperate attempts by authorities, darts has struggled to dispel its reputation for hard drinking and elastic waist bands. It was this sketch, broadcast during darts' Eighties heyday, that cemented the quintessential image of professionals – overweight, overindulgent and overly plastered. Dai "Fatbelly" Gutbucket (Mel Smith) and Tommy "Evenfatterbelly" Belcher (Griff Rhys-Jones) go for a checkout of 501 – milligrams of alcohol – by approaching the oche and falling into a throwing stance – before diving on glasses of booze.
L!VE TV is often remembered for ground-breaking television, but this secured its infamy. The show did exactly what it said on the tin, while featuring a disproportionate ratio of females to males. Like most L!VE TV productions, it had a budget of about £1.20.
DEXY'S MIDNIGHT RUNNERS
Former world champion Jocky Wilson made an unexpected appearance on Top of the Pops in 1982. As Dexy's Midnight Runners performed "Jackie Wilson Said", an image of Jocky was projected on to the stage. Frontman Kevin Rowland insisted it was a joke, though it caused DJ Mike Reid to berate the BBC for confusing a soul-singing legend with a Scottish arrows thrower.
DARTS PLAYERS' WIVES
The WAGs were never self-proclaimed as such, not so the ear-catching "Tarts for Darts" trailed by Sky cameras for this pimped up version of the original BBC format. While Sky's transformation of the game reinvigorated darts, this louder, brasher one-off was entirely without charm and lacked any of Darts Wives' fascination or the quotidian of a Darts family's life.
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