Irvine Welsh on Edinburgh: ‘I officially had a criminal record at eight years old’

The Trainspotting author on breaking the law, revelling in his ‘bad boy’ status and how life on a housing estate shaped his worldview

We are all formed by our early experiences, principally our family relationships and the community we grow up in. It’s like the old story of the two babies born on the same day. One gets a hug every time it cries: the other gets shouted at, or just ignored. They meet 20 years later in a bar. One of them contends: “The world is like this.” The other declares: “No, the world is like this.”

Creative artists have their own ways of dealing with experience. If you are lucky enough to be successful as a writer, I think the great paradox is that you owe where you come from absolutely everything, and at the same time nothing at all. To me, the conflicting duality of that mindset is the essence of what it’s all about.

The James Bond matinees at the State Cinema in Leith and the Lion Adventure series of books from Muirhouse library might have shaped my worldview, but I’m formed by Edinburgh, specifically its northern housing schemes, a geographically short but culturally long distance from the historic city centre experienced by tourists and visitors. Growing up where I did, you encounter the city as largely a place of exclusion and containment.

My first exposure to the law came when I was eight years old. Some pals and I were kicking a ball around on the grass verge in front of the maisonette block of flats in Muirhouse we had only just moved into. We all knew each other as we came from the West Pilton prefabs. There were no “NO BALL GAMES” signs in evidence, but we were apprehended by the police and formally charged under an obscure council bylaw; a bunch of boys ranging from six to 10 years old. Humanely, they let the six-year-old go, as he was distressed and crying. The rest of us had a day out in the city, up at the court on the High Street, accompanied by our outraged, disbelieving parents. I recall my dad doing his nut at the judge. It was educative and exciting.

Rear view of Pennywell flats in Muirhouse, Edinburgh
Rear view of Pennywell flats in Muirhouse, Edinburgh Photograph: Edinburgh Film Office

At first we were terrorised, thinking we were going to jail. Then we swaggered around, revelling in our ludicrous “bad boy” status. Even though we were let off without a fine, I officially had a criminal record at eight years old.

It’s difficult to think of this happening in the leafier bourgeois suburbs of Edinburgh. Yet it showed me exactly what the city was, and my place in it. The nice person reading this will go: “That’s terrible.” The mean-spirited idiot will say: “Get over it.” Both are the babies I mentioned earlier, telling you the way their world is. But, of course, both their observations are completely irrelevant to the artist.

You simply use it.

  • Irvine Welsh’s Dead Men’s Trousers will be published by Cape on 29 March.
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