‘I like the way you call me Irvine,” says Irvine Welsh to a young woman who’s just offered him a cup of tea, and pronounced his first name to rhyme with wine. “I’ve been living in Miami and it makes me feel like I’m back there.” The so-called Magic City is his happy place, “the polar opposite of Edinburgh. All people do in Scotland is fucking talk, they rabbit in each other’s faces. Miami is nothing like that. At the start, I found it so vacuous, but you can get all your stuff from Edinburgh and London, then take it away to Miami and write in peace.” The world is one long, warm bath to this man, it seems. He is “happy everywhere. All the shit comes out in the writing. In normal life, I focus on the good things: the beauty in life, romance, friendship.”
The undisputed king of the 1990s, of swear words, of Scottishness, is here to talk about Crime, in which he breaks new ground with his first script for television. It’s a riveting and quite surprising move from him – it starts off looking like a classic cop show, although I’ve only been allowed to watch the first three episodes. “I know this sounds like what everybody would say, but episode four is when it really kicks off, and five and six go absolutely fucking mental.” It really doesn’t sound like what everybody would say. It’s hard to figure out what is more charming about Welsh – how much of a one-off he is, or his conviction that he’s exactly like everyone else.
If his latest project comes as a shock, it’s because Welsh is so established as the novelist of a particular, ludic period in British culture. But he was 35 when Trainspotting was published in 1993, and had already lived one, if not two, lives. First, as a young tearaway, escaping Edinburgh’s sky-high levels of drug abuse and HIV to head to London to try to make it in bands (the most successful being the Pubic Lice, which is to say, not successful at all). Second, as a training officer in the housing department, once he’d gone back to Scotland. An unnamed colleague remembered him thus: “He could have gone right to the top in local government … He was diligent, hard-working and well-liked.” That wasn’t exactly how he came across when he became famous, yet the ease with which he now moves into writing primetime TV does suggest at least a bead of truth to the diligence he hides so assiduously.
If the concept of Crime – missing girl, emotionally tortured cop – sounds like a standard police procedural, don’t be fooled. “We didn’t want anyone going ‘guv’ or ‘ma’am’; we wanted the cops to be this bunch of shabby people. Not so much about good guys trying to catch bad guys, but fucked-up guys trying to catch even more fucked-up guys.”
One thing that feels prescient is its presentation of toxic masculinity, the symbiosis it tacitly insists upon, between the casual misogyny of individual policemen and the brutal violence against women that occupies their time. But Welsh insists it’s not prescient at all: “This conversation has been going on for years. A case like Sarah Everard will come along. All these pious statements – ‘We take this very seriously, we’re all for women’s rights’ – are absolute nonsense. That’s just the way organisations are, particularly organisations that are the harsh end of enforcing the state’s power.”
Society is, he says, “a fucked-up zoo that doesn’t really work for anybody” and now we’re staring down the barrel of the most important question humanity has ever faced: “We all have to work out what really happens post-capitalism, when we can’t pay people wages, which is the world we’re coming into now. Maybe we can’t survive it. Maybe we’re not meant to survive it.” He can sound like a student, also stoned, but I’m not sure there’s anything I disagree with.
Trainspotting, he summarises, immortalised four magnificent creatures: “The cynical intellectual, the lovable loser, the philandering rogue and the absolute nutter.” There was a time when Welsh was just everything, in publishing terms – the bad boy, the money tree, the workhorse, the avant garde experimentalist but also the ultimate crowd-pleaser. I remember going on holiday just after Filth was published in 1998, and everyone round the pool in this Ayia Napa 18-30 was reading a Welsh book. How was that for him? “Mostly, I was relieved I could do something creatively. I messed around with music for years and got nowhere. I just thought: ‘This is fabulous.’”
He had a strong work ethic, not rooted in anxiety but actual delight in the creative process, that insulated him from the perils of fame. “I was too immersed in actually being a writer to think about all the publicity stuff,” he says. “I’d do the odd splurges and parties and make a fool of myself, all the obligatory things you do when you suddenly get fame and money. But I was never massively interested or impressed by it all. I just wanted to get back to my dingy little room and type.”
He has fond memories of the era, personally speaking – but his overall assessment of that decade, the age of Cool Britannia, is stark. “The 90s were seen as a big celebration of British culture. In retrospect, it was more like a requiem mass for British culture. Everything we had to that point was then recycled, ready to be sold off to the global marketplace through the internet.”
Trainspotting’s characters – Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie – went on to launch or solidify a number of other careers after Danny Boyle made the film, but they were never quite over for Welsh, although he’s a little contradictory on this point. One minute he says: “There is no Renton. He doesn’t exist for me. They’re all dead to me until I come to write them.” The next, he describes how they gatecrash his projects: “That’s how I wrote Porno. I didn’t mean Sick Boy to be one of the main characters. I just realised: ‘This guy is actually Sick Boy.’” He talks about the actor James McAvoy – who starred in a 2013 film adaptation of Filth – telling him how to “de-role”, unbecome the character you’ve been inhabiting so you can return to your life. “You have to think of three ways you’re like the character and three ways you’re not. You give yourself permission to come back to yourself. It helps. It saves a lot of money on divorces.”
This advice came too late for his second divorce, which was around the time Dead Men’s Trousers was published in 2018. It was his fifth novel about Begbie et al. Welsh is tight-lipped about his relationship status now, saying only: “You know Mr Peanutbutter in BoJack Horseman? That’s who I’ve been compared to.” Who made the comparison? “I’m not going to say, but I wake up with her most mornings.” Mr Peanutbutter is a cartoon labrador who is completely cheerful, high-octane, pleasant and nice, all the time. So whoever it is obviously loves him very much, unless she’s a cat person.
His next writing project is a novella about gamers but he has an unusual approach to research. “I don’t want to authenticate it at all,” he says. “I don’t want to go talk to them.” But he is writing the score for Trainspotting: The Musical. “We didn’t want to just license the soundtrack from the film, we wanted it to have its own identity.” In dismay, I say: “But people are going to want the film soundtrack!” “Fuck people!” he says, delighted. “And you can print that!”
His relentless creative enthusiasm contrasts with his overall view of culture. “Now that it doesn’t operate in the street, it’s not contested. It’s all Instagram influencers.” Publishing, meanwhile, is all “retail-dominated” with books commissioned to fill genre holes in the shops. If he takes heart from anything, it’s that people can still be bothered to riot. “Whatever your views on vaccines, I think it’s good that people are out on the streets, having a row with the authorities. I think that’s where culture is made.” There’s a pause, then he modifies his thoughts about these protests: “A lot of it is inherently weak and stupid and fascist.” But you like it anyway? “But I like it!”
Do not, however, mistake any of these cascading statements for pessimism. “I’m very optimistic about things in general,” says Welsh. “I think we’re heading towards an anarchist paradise where we’re running around in the fields and playing football and writing poetry and making love and painting pictures. I believe in the Age of Aquarius. This is just a load of shit we’ve got to get through first.”
Crime is on BritBox from Thursday 18 November