Irvine Welsh has written some of the greatest British books of a generation, lending themselves to iconic film adaptations and worldwide acclaim. But Irvine's beginnings found him as an unlikely author...

I REMEMBER...

...Saturday morning matinees 

I was born in Leith, but we moved to the prefabs in West Pilton in Edinburgh when I was three or four—which is my first, big, pre-school memory! From there, we went to a housing-scheme maisonette in Muirhouse, and that’s basically where I grew up. Even though it seemed exciting to move to the “big city”, I still saw Leith as my town. All my aunties and uncles lived there and, of course, there was the State Cinema. I loved going to the Saturday-morning shows—a couple of cartoons, a Western or, if you were really lucky, a Bond film. That was a perfect weekend for me; getting fed by my relatives, then watching Dr No.

 

…getting up to all sorts of nonsense at school 

My main school was Ainslie Park High in Pilton. I enjoyed the actual act of being there—hanging out with all my pals—but I wasn’t much use once I got inside the classroom. I just didn’t have the attention span. My mind was always off somewhere else. 

In a strange way, though, it was having a laugh with my pals that probably sowed the seeds of me being a writer. Joining in with the older kids and getting up to all sorts of stuff, listening to them tell their stories. I grew up with people who were way better storytellers than I’ll ever be, but they’d never think of putting pen to paper. Instead, I just watched these theatrical performances behind the bike sheds and they eventually became the fuel that drove my own stories. 

 

…calling myself working class

Some people have had a go at me for becoming part of a so-called middle-class industry like writing, but my dad was a docker and I’m proud of my roots. The area I grew up in was full of people like him who worked for other people, worked hard and put their feet up at the weekend. When those jobs were destroyed in the 1970s and 1980s, places like Muirhouse went from being working-class areas to being perceived as ghettos. And that’s when you started getting all the problems with HIV and heroin. 

I enjoyed growing up in Muirhouse and I still think it’s a good place to live. Some of my oldest friends are still there. Yes, there are problems, but you’ve only got to look at what happened during the search for that poor lad Mikaeel Kular [who also lived on an Edinburgh estate] to see the tremendous sense of community that’s always existed on those working class estates. 

 

Irvine in a cameo role as a drug dealer in Trainspotting, alongside Ewan McGregor

…becoming a junkie 

As a young man, I was the kind of guy who was up for anything, and when it came to drugs I just wanted to get off my head. I started with alcohol and ticked every box until I got to heroin. I thought I was having a fantastic time, but I didn’t understand just how addictive and destructive it was. 

Most of the junkies I knew back then had serious problems from their childhood, but my addiction was born out of sheer stupidity. Actually, that’s not true. I also lost my father in my mid-20s and I just didn’t have the emotional tools to deal with that. So I became a junkie. 

The pain of that loss did eventually subside, but coming off heroin wasn’t easy. There’s a real, physical addiction that requires a strong reason for you to stay off the stuff. Young people still ask me for advice about heroin, but there’s not really much you can say. You can give all the speeches, but it’s very difficult to impart the idea of danger to a young person because they have no sense of their own mortality, no sense that they’re gambling with their life. 

 

…moving down to London 

I’d been going there since I was a kid—I had relatives down south—but in 1978 I finally made the move. I suppose it was punk that convinced me to do it. I was listening to the Pistols, the Clash, the Damned, plus the newer bands like 999 and Chelsea. We used to go and watch bands at the Vortex in Soho; I even played in a few bands and for a while I was convinced that was how I was going to make my mark on the world. 

I was still getting into bother in London for petty, silly stuff, but the weird thing was that I was also finding a bit of calm. I got a job [at Hackney Council] and sorted myself out. I suppose I was reinventing myself. To some extent, I think we all do that whenever we move to somewhere new. Nobody knew me in London, so I could write songs or go to the theatre or a museum without anybody taking the p***. I felt like I was spring-cleaning my persona.

 

…writing Trainspotting

At the end of the 1980s, I went back to Edinburgh and I also went back to college. I’d never thought of myself as a writer because, culturally, I’d never received what I’d call a writerly education. You just didn’t sit around at the dinner table discussing Shakespeare in your maisonette in Muirhouse. But my songs became short stories and they became longer stories and one of them became Trainspotting. 

I thought it might do well locally, but I couldn’t see it selling outside of Scotland ’cos it was written in the vernacular. I was wrong! After the film came out, my life just went a bit hysterical. Bob Dole actually referred to Trainspotting during the 1996 US presidential campaign. Can you believe that? As a piece of PR, I couldn’t have asked for better. Suddenly, every kid in America wanted to read it.

 

…deciding I didn't want to have children 

You don’t wake up and think, “OK, I won’t have kids”. It’s just something that happens. I think I’m too old. I’ve got lots of friends around my age who are becoming parents for the first time—they’ve done everything else in life—but I’ve never felt like that. I’m not unhappy about that decision. I enjoy today. I enjoy who I am right now. I enjoy what I’ve got. On top of all that, I think there are already too many people in this world. I don’t really want to add to that number.

 

…watching James McAvoy morph into a 40-year-old, bitter alcoholic

About three years ago, I went for a meeting with James about him playing the lead in a film version of my novel Filth. He was all fresh-faced, smiling and looking about 18. I thought, How can he play a bent, middle-aged, alcoholic copper? In a heartbeat, he just morphed right in front of my eyes. He literally became [the character] Bruce Robertson. 


 


 

Making a good film of an Irvine Welsh novel is all about the acting. If you just play it for laughs, it won’t work. You need people who can stand outside of reality. People who can find the real darkness in my stories. Let me assure you, James McAvoy found the darkness. 

Classic Trainspotting Trailer

Buy Trainspotting, Film adaptation, £12.99

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