Hurricanes, Scottish independence and conspiracies; David Whitehouse gets quite an earful
Scotland stumbles into springtime. A thin country lane sews Perth to Dundee, and down it speeds an old black cab; a dirty mirage against a lush green vista, newborn bunnies with dive-bombing ospreys above. Inside is Irvine Welsh, on the first leg of a book tour around the land from which he mined the minerals of his literary canon. He lives in Chicago now, and the jetlag’s addling his brain enough that a grubby Hackney carriage in the Highlands doesn’t seem that unusual. He’s used to seeing the grit in Scotland’s myth. It’s how he made his name.
Driving is Irvine’s friend of four decades, Jimmy. He’s an actual taxi driver, though he’s lent his skillset to plenty of other vocations besides.
“He got lifted for getting in ‘trouble’ at the football once,” Welsh says. “I had to go to court as his character witness.”
“Aye,” Jimmy says, “they raised my fine from £150 to £275 because of that bastard.”
Jimmy, legend has it, formed part – no one is saying which part – of the inspiration for one of Welsh’s most enduring characters, ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson, who first appeared in Glue (2001) before cropping up in Porno (2002), and who now gets his own star vehicle, A Decent Ride.
Terry’s a cabbie charged by a gargantuan sexual appetite, a 21st-century post-internet-porn Robin Askwith – the explicit, grotesque antihero shagging his way around Edinburgh.
“He’s a modern tour guide, the taxi driver-slash-drug dealer-slash-hustler. It’s like trying to interphase all these kitschy worlds with the kinda reality of an urban centre in a country that is in a kinda stasis – a stagnation, where we’ve not worked out how we get past this crippling neo-liberalism that’s got a grip on us all.”
Love in the time of bawbag
Welsh has form with exploiting the taxi driver/passenger dynamic – he once stole Alanis Morissette’s waiting cab by pretending his name was Alan Morissette – and Terry’s adventures mean he eventually collides with hideously dark events in the life of new character, Jonty – a man failed at all turns by life.
It’s Welsh’s funniest novel, helped in part by its setting in December 2011 as the city prepared for the intense extratropical cyclone Friedhelm, which, with typical vim, Scots renamed Hurricane Bawbag – the first ever instance of a nation collectively belittling a potentially cataclysmic weather system.
It worked. Bawbag limped away having done “about £500 worth of damage” to Scotland.
It was an imperfect storm, which played right into Welsh’s hands.
“I’m using Hurricane Bawbag as a metaphor for the Scottish referendum. ‘Cos everything in Scotland – whether you’re Yes or No – it’s all defined in these cataclysmic terms, like if we get independence it’s gonna be the best thing in the world, and if we don’t get independence it will be disaster. Both of these things are nonsense. Either way, life would have gone on much the same. So I wanted it to be like, the idea that you would think this first hurricane to hit Scotland’s shores in 100 years will be like Hurricane Katrina [like it warned on the news], but nothing actually happens; it’s just used as an excuse to go to the pub.”
In one of the book’s few overtly political passages, Welsh writes: “Terry Lawson drives through an Edinburgh that seems to him tawdry and second-rate. A city crushed by its own lack of ambition, grumblingly miserable about its status as a provincial north British town, yet unwilling to seize its larger destiny as a European capital.” The referendum, he believes, unlike Hurricane Bawbag, hasn’t yet blown itself out.
“My gut reaction is that there is gonna be independence in the next 10 years, but I don’t think it’s gonna come by referendum. I think it’s gonna come by an engineered political settlement. We’re secularly moving towards ‘Yes’ in terms of the demographics, and the things that bond a union together, the things that created Britishness, all being gone. We’re moving towards Scottishness. There is a sense that the union has to deliver something. Not just for Scotland, but for the rest of the UK.”
He continues, warming to the theme. “The elephant in the room is the way… with Britain dissolving, how is England gonna identify itself? The decline in British national consciousness has been mirrored in an increase in English national consciousness. Most of it’s been articulated in the south as a kinda ‘greater England neo-liberalism’, a kinda ‘This is where we’re at – we’re getting overcrowded, we have to watch immigration’ and all that stuff. But the north and the midlands, declining post-industrial Britain, hasn’t made its voice heard properly yet, and if it has it’s still roughly sentimentally attached to Labour in the same way the Scots used to be. To me, that’s the crux, the fulcrum of how the new English voice is gonna develop. You see all these northern parties emerging now. There is a Yorkshire First party, a North East Party. I think they might build significant support at Labour’s expense, and the future for England could be a regionalist one.”
Welsh speaks with a searing lucidity on independence, as you’d expect from a man now so totemic of Scotland’s literary scene. His debut, Trainspotting, in 1993, made him about as famous as a living novelist can be. It heralded the arrival of a brutal new voice, ensconced in a raw Scottish dialect that didn’t care whether you understood it or not. It was, like its iconic characters, operating on its own terms. Many thought Welsh’s work was typified by a harsh social realism, but there’s a more refined texture to it than that. The world he’s created – in novels and on screen – has a hyper-ness to its reality, and through that he gives us an insight into the lives of a working-class people in flux and up against it.
No wonder he’s been approached by every political party to speak for them.
“I’ve been feted by Labour. Alex Salmond asked me to join the SNP one time… with Sean Connery. Even the Tories asked me – I think they thought I was some enterprising guy. Dunno where they got that from. I think ’cos I wrote for The Telegraph one time. They must have seen it and thought, ‘This guy is one of us.’”
As is about to come clear, he’s anything but.
A Decent Ride, while his most comedic novel, is also his darkest. The most unpalatable of taboos – incest, necrophilia – seep into the characters’ stories in subterfuge. But it’s clear this moral wasteground is no darker than the real life it reflects. And, in the run up to the general election, this topic fires him most.
“There is a massive conspiracy in the media not to talk about how the government is covering up paedophilia with the Official Secrets Act. It’s absolutely crazy. It’s particularly hurting the Tories given the whole Thatcher cabinet composition. You can see it on David Cameron in these election debates.
He doesn’t look comfortable. He’s almost expecting someone to say: ‘Why did you do this thing with the Official Secrets Act? Why are you protecting these people when you said you’d leave no stone unturned?’ I think… he’s been asked to do all this and it’s against his best judgment, but he doesn’t wanna disappoint his paymasters.”
In the evening, Welsh wrestles the jetlag into submission to read to a Dundee theatre in ‘Juice’ Terry wig and glasses. As we drive back late to Edinburgh across the Firth Of Forth’s oily black expanse, Welsh admires from the window – thanks to the building of the mighty new Queensferry Crossing – an Edinburgh changing before him, and though he now views it from afar, it’s one he’s no less in touch with. It remains the beating heart of his writing, now and in the near future – the rumoured Spring Breakers sequel is on hold, while Porno, the follow up to Trainspotting with Danny Boyle and the original cast, looks likely to film next year, he hints. And that might mean ‘Juice’ Terry makes it onto the big screen, and out of this cab, as it disappears into the city in search of another encounter.
A Decent Ride is out now, priced £12.99 (Jonathan Cape)