The Times, June 28, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

As well known for his epic drug taking as his iconic tales, Irvine Welsh seems now to be embracing middle age. But as he unveils his new novel, Ginny Dougary finds life in the old punk yet

The good news is that Irvine Welsh, having been obliged to give the subject some thought, does not believe that all men are potential paedophiles. What he does find interesting is that advertising and the mainstream media pander to a perceived tendency in men to respond to images of females captured on the cusp of puberty.

Welsh is the Scottish writer who shot to fame in 1993 with his first novel, Trainspotting, a surprising, not least to himself, massive worldwide bestseller about a group of Edinburgh junkies mostly written in dialect. The arresting opening line – “The sweat wis lashing ofay Sick Boy; he wis trembling” – has been quoted so often it has become youth culture’s equivalent of “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, but the book was also celebrated by the likes of such august critics and academics as John Carey, emeritus professor of English literature at Oxford University. Three years later, Trainspotting was made into a film directed by Danny Boyle, launching Ewan McGregor’s career and further boosting the author’s.

Novels have been released since then, some with short titles: Ecstasy, Filth, Glue, Porno; others with a few more words, among them The Bedroom Secrets of the Master Chefs and If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work. The new novel reverts to the school of short titles – Crime – and deals with large themes of retribution, redemption, abuse and male anxiety, seen through the horrid prism of paedophilia.

The central character, Ray Lennox, is a Scottish cop who has had a breakdown while on the trail of a serial killer of female children. In the course of his investigation, interviewing relatives of the latest disappeared girl, Britney (named, doubtless, after the singer who dressed up as a schoolgirl for her first hit song), he experiences the full weight of his colleagues’ disapproval of the chain-smoking single mother and the assumption that she must be partly to blame.

This whole subject (including the blame-the-mother syndrome) is discomfitingly topical – from Portugal, with the vanishing of Madeleine McCann, to Goa (the murder of 15-year-old Scarlett Keeling) and the ongoing morbid fascination with the Austrian captivity cases of Natascha Kampusch and Elisabeth Fritzl.

The obvious question is whether Welsh found himself besieged by inappropriate thoughts when researching the book. “In order to write something like this, you have to feel pretty confident in your own sexuality and be in an almost unimpeachable state as regards that because if you didn’t, I don’t think you could physically go through that kind of journey,” he says. “One of the things I wouldn’t do is any research at all on the internet because I have no interest in getting into paedophiles’ websites. The idea was quite sickening to me. There’s so much shady stuff in my life in other ways that I had to be content that there was nothing of that sort in my inner workings.”

Welsh was helped by police officers and social workers in the States who briefed him on how organised paedophile rings work. He also read a great number of academic and clinical psychology texts and spoke to survivors of childhood sexual abuse.

The narrative switches from the unravelling of the Britney case in Edinburgh to Miami Beach, where the cop is on holiday with his fiancé trying to wean himself off anti-depressants. Behind this haunting are hints of something murky in Lennox’s past. Unable to heal himself in the sunshine, Lennox, a recovering addict, demolishes himself in a bar, is picked up by a pair of predatory women, goes on a cocaine binge and flees with a ten-year-old girl (the daughter of one of the women) who has been the prey of a paedophile ring.

Welsh is not comfortable with the idea that he has become some sort of instant expert on paedophilia and, indeed, the more he delved into the subject, the less clear cut it became to him. “The currents of sexuality run deep and they’re very confused. Advertising, for instance, seems implicitly to believe that there is this kind of paedophile locked in the male sexuality – the way that very, very young women are made to look even younger. Some kids seem highly sexualised from an early age and they obviously need to be protected from themselves. What is really disturbing about paedophiles is the God-like status they assume… the calculation, the long-term grooming, the idea that it’s society that is at fault and therefore they can break the rules.”

One surprise for him was how very differently people respond to abuse. “Some women can have experienced something quite minor – ‘I was touched up by my uncle’ – and it can absolutely devastate and wreck their lives. And there are other people who were kidnapped as children, serially raped and cult stuff like that and yet they seem to be coping and functioning quite well.” Here one thinks of Natascha Kampusch, who was held captive in a tiny space from the age of 10 to 18 and seems mystifyingly self-composed to many commentators. She, in turn, is angered by the idea that she must play the victim to validate other people’s expectations. “What we don’t know is how much not talking about it or repressing it is as much a coping mechanism as talking about it,” Welsh says.

He had started writing a good six months before the McCann case but after the news broke he felt unable to continue for a while: “It was just so kind of big and so horrible and obviously, like everybody else, I was distressed. I thought, ‘Should I really be writing about this?’ But the reason why I went back to it is that the story is very different and the initial draft was looking at why the guy [Lennox] is the way he is. And how when you read about a paedophile case, everybody starts seeing paedophiles everywhere – and also how appropriate is it, anyway, for adults to be around kids they have no relationship to?”

The initial catalyst for the book was something that had taken place in the writer’s own life – when a friend of 20-odd years’ standing broke down and wept in a pub, saying that he’d been abused by a close family member that Welsh and his friends all knew. “Within our Scottish working-class male culture, we were singularly unequipped to deal with it,” he says. “Our first reaction was wanting to kill the abuser, basically. But there was also a kind of loathing for this guy – not so much the fact that he might have brought it on himself but that he had involved us in this thing. So I wanted to work out these ideas of compassion and rehabilitation and retribution and what happens when you keep something to yourself for so long.”

We meet in Dublin, where Welsh has been principally based for the past four years. (He also has homes in Edinburgh, Chicago and Miami.) He has picked the venue, the café of the Irish Film Institute, which is thronging with groovy young folk. He is wearing a suit – as instructed for the photographs – but it is not one of those sharply tailored black designer numbers. If anything, he looks more like a middle-aged bank manager than someone on the cutting edge of counter-culture, where part of him still firmly wishes to reside. The first impression is of someone solemn, reserved and modest, with gentle manners but lacking a certain joie de vivre. The latter, it turns out, can be partly put down to jet lag (he has recently flown in from a wedding party in New York) and a prolonged hangover.

The cocaine binge in the new novel one can safely assume is written with the knowledge of experience. Indeed, there is a fight involving an overturned television and a smashed table which had a familiar ring. In previous newspaper stories, there are a number of references to Welsh getting belligerent in a pub and a friend’s flat – both involving karaoke – and him completely trashing both places.

“Yeah, nothing’s wasted,” he grins when I point out the similarities. Why, I wonder, does karaoke bring this out in him? “I think it’s this desperate need for attention but at the same time hating it in myself and trying to resist it. I’ve never liked people who are brash and I’ve always been fighting that in myself.”

This tension between repression and, shall we say, excessive ebullience is particularly pronounced in the Scots, Welsh thinks, and the older he has become, the more his dour tendencies have come to the fore. He calls it his Dewar (as in the late First Minister for Scotland) streak: “Donald Dewar on acid, that’s me.”

The other streak still runs strong in him. Even relatively recently, there was a drink and drugs binge which almost did your head in just reading about it. As part of one New Year’s Eve revelries, he consumed intoxicating substances that were so extreme in their variety and quantity that it seems almost miraculous that he survived such a gruelling recreational marathon. The list included: malt whisky, champagne, magic mushrooms, base speed and crack cocaine. When I ask him about this, he says: “The kind of quality control rationale thing goes right out of your head. You get into such a state that you’ll put anything in: ‘Just give me some of that, and I’ll take it.’”

He appears to have had a passing flirtation with crack cocaine and talks about visiting a crack house on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. “Yeah, it was quite interesting,” he says, ever the observational participant. “I was there with a bunch of guys from Stoke-on-Trent – I’d just met them – and there was an altercation and shots were fired and it was the first time that I’d been so close to gunfire.” Did it frighten him? “It didn’t at the time because I was pretty wasted but it did afterwards.”

There has always been a dance between hard work and hedonism for Welsh. In his early twenties, he was a junkie himself, but only for 18 months before he managed to go cold turkey. Inevitably, perhaps, some of the die-hard drug addicts he knew accused him of being a heroin novice and of exploiting their experience for his own betterment. Most of the junkies he knew then are now dead, but he is still friendly with a couple of survivors who lead reasonably normal lives.

The bare bones of Welsh’s biography are well known: born in a tenement home in Leith, moved to the new-build estates in Muirhouse, where drug-taking later became rife. Left school at 16, completed a City & Guilds course in electrical engineering, fixed televisions and may or may not have blown one up accidentally. Arrived in London in the late Seventies, lived in a squat and became part of the junk and punk scene, playing in the bands the Pubic Lice and Stairway 13. Worked for Hackney Council and studied computing, became a minor property developer in the Eighties, buying studio flats in North London, doing them up and selling them for a profit, then (to quote his website) “cleaning up his act” and “finding a nice lassie and settling doon”. This, I take it, is Anne (Antsy), to whom Trainspotting was dedicated and who was his first wife for around 20 years; these details are flimsy because he has chosen not to make them public.

The couple returned to Edinburgh, where he worked for the city council’s housing department and studied at Heriot Watt Uni-versity, writing his thesis on equal opportunities for women. (He still talks about the “patriarchal society” and feminists’ “self-empowerment”.) Encouraged by the rave scene and loosened up by Ecstasy, he worked on a draft of the novel that became Trainspotting and sold a million copies in the UK alone, and was translated into 30 languages including Hebrew and Arabic. In August 1995, he gave up his day job to concentrate on writing full time. Ten years later, he married for the second time to a young American woman, Elizabeth Quinn, who at 26 is almost half his age.

The point about this curriculum vitae is that even in Welsh’s wildest years, the extreme behaviour was balanced by pragmatism: the work-orientated training schemes, nine-to-five jobs with local authorities where colleagues consistently described him as solid and reliable, the serious-minded thesis. There is also something almost Zelig-like about him being at the centre – or, perhaps, more edgily, just off the centre – of the Zeitgeist, in punk bands at the height of punk, seguing into a property developer during the “greed is good” Eighties, and a fully paid-up member of the Ecstasy-fuelled clubbing scene in the Nineties. Perhaps this constant reinvention explains his hang-up about ageing; the anxiety that the onset of middle age might ban him from being embraced by whatever scene is happening.

He says that he never believed he would still be alive at 50 – which he will be this September. Some time ago, there was a story doing the rounds that he had been born a number of years earlier than 1958 and Welsh was so rattled by it that he resorted to taking his passport along to interviews to prove to journalists that he had not been massaging the truth. Wasn’t this a bit uncool?

“I don’t know why but I’ve always been sensitive and touchy about it,” he says. “The dramatic thing for me was being 30 – when I was still doing loads of Ecstasy and cocaine and drinking – so everything since then has been a kind of bonus. I’ve always believed that it’s very much a young society, and that line that you can’t trust anybody over 30, you know, the older I get the more I believe it.”

Welsh’s binges, he says, are getting smaller as the distances between them get bigger. “Before, I could spend all night clubbing and I’d get in and just hit the word processor and start writing, but I can’t do that now,” he says. “And my main buzz now is my work, basically. I love working.” This is not to say that the struggle is over: “These two things are always vying. If you’re out on the tear, you think, ‘This is fantastic. This is the way I want to live my life for ever.’ Then you think, ‘I’m feeling rough. I shouldn’t do this. I’m wasting my life. I should be achieving things and making a name for myself.’ Then when you start doing that, you think, ‘This is great. I’m getting recognition and I’m enjoying this but it’s a really boring life.’ You oscillate between these two states of mind and I do this all the time.

“Even this weekend in New York – the first mad one I’ve had in a while – the aftermath was like muscular dystrophy: achey and your skin’s crawling and you’re lethargic and everything’s too much trouble, and I hate feeling like that. You make that calculation: the older you are, the less time you’ve got and you don’t want to spend what’s left of it feeling like that.”

Quite apart from the abstinence that came with the two marathons he has run (his body still looks gym-honed), he tends not to drink at all during the winter months because it makes him depressed. But come the spring and summer, that all changes: “I love margaritas, red wine [he writes a wine column in a magazine but he’s temporarily forgotten its name], anything, really.” His favourite part of drinking, anyway, is the sense of relief when you emerge from a hangover: “You just want to get pissed again because the sense of intoxication you get when your head gets cleared and your body is purified is so great.”

By now, Welsh is quite different from that rather uptight initial version of himself. When I say that I had been wondering what it would take to get him to smile, he grins and pats my knee and says, “Oh, stop it,” in a kind of indulgent, “Aw shucks, you’re naughty but nice” way. Do you feel I’m teasing you? “Yes,” he says. He has, it turns out, a ready but rather unusual bark of a laugh – his chin juts out, and the sound escapes from the corner of his thin strip of mouth, a bit like an old-fashioned ventriloquist’s dummy.

He is staring at my hair in such a strange way that it prompts me to ask whether he’s spotted something I should be worrying about. “I’m fascinated by it, actually, particularly that cascading bit at the front,” he says. “I like the different kaleidoscope colours in it.” (I should point out that this does not appear to be a drug-fuelled observation and that he has been drinking nothing stronger than tap water and green tea.) Since he has no crowning glory at all,

I wonder whether he misses it. “That’s probably why 30 was such a bad time for me,” he says. “It was going before that but I’d always had quite bad hair.” Now this is fascinating. So what was his hair like? “Kind of weird. It was black and stuck up in inappropriate tufts all over the place, and I’d always go to the toilet and apply lots of water and smooth them down. But I couldn’t have it over any length at all – so I always had a skinhead or a sort of semi-skinhead. And when it started to recede, I just started shaving it off basically so I kind of wouldn’t notice it going.”

The new Mrs Welsh is a brunette, apparently. How do you like marriage second time round? “It’s absolutely fantastic, really great.” After a year of courtship, they moved in together and got married a year after that. I josh him about being a dirty old tutor, getting off with one of his creative writing students (he was teaching a course at the University of Chicago). “That’s another myth,” he says, in an equally relaxed way. “A lot of people assume she was one of my students but she was a waitress. It’s a mother complex, really. My mother was a waitress and so I only date waitresses, like.”

I wonder whether Betsy, as Irvine says he calls her (I’m not sure he isn’t teasing me at this point), is a pure-living gal. This is greeted with a whoop of incredulous laughter. “She’s got that thing that she wants to go for it and I’m, like, ‘Oh, I’ve done that sooohhh many times.’” Well, if you will marry someone so much younger, there’s obviously a lot of catching up to do. “The converse of that,” he counters, “is that it keeps you young as well, hopefully.”

The spectre that always seemed to horrify Welsh was the idea that he might one day be somehow shoehorned into becoming Suburban Man. He is thrilled to have gone the express route from working class to upper middle class, which is where he places himself now, bypassing the ignominy of “the bourgeois thing”. After travelling first class to his various homes, he now flies economy: “Just because I’m a Scot, and at three and a half grand I’d always be thinking, ‘God, how many bottles of whisky could I buy for that?’”

Nonetheless, my big revelation is that Welsh is now a Domestic God: he goes to B&Q! He cooks! He puts up shelves! He has zero tolerance of mice! Mind you, being Irvine Welsh, his version of all the above still has a strong whiff of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. He has his Black & Decker drill and he insists on putting up shelves and painting them even if it kills him: “I’m a bit of a bastard because there may be loads of holes in the walls where I’ve drilled and my hands are all cut to ribbons and there’s paint spattered all over me but I still have to go to the bitter end.

“It’s the same with cooking, and with all the cookbooks around there’s no excuse for anybody not to cook. I like the idea of having people around and cooking a nice meal and I start off all enthusiastic and I spend three fucking hours doing it and I’ve broken a dozen plates and burnt my hand…”

If Irvine is a Ramsayian home cook (“I don’t trust all that Jamie Oliver touchy-feely,” he says), Betsy is definitely in the school of Nigella: “She’ll go all transcendental and have a glass of wine as she’s doing it and it’s almost like meditation. But for me it’s definitely a struggle.”

He is still resolutely anti having children and is relieved that his wife is as allergic to the idea as him, “which is good since, whatever you say, it has to be the woman’s choice”. When he was younger he felt that children would inhibit the kind of lifestyle he wanted to lead, and now he’s too old for that malarkey.

What he witnesses among the parents he knows (he is also an uncle) is that they say, “‘This is great, it’s the best thing that has ever happened.’ But you see them completely eroded by it at the same time. This tremendous debilitating effect and the lack of a personal life they have. I mean, who wants to be getting up at three o’clock in the morning? It’s like, you know, I want to be getting in at that time!”

In 2002 Welsh wrote a powerful piece about his trips to Sudan and Afghanistan as part of Unicef’s campaign for the rights of children, encouraged by his friend, the Scottish writer Andrew O’Hagan, who had been quietly working behind the scenes with the organisation. His words were admirably direct and cut to the chase: “We have to ask ourselves how healthy it is to say: ‘OK, so my £100 a year means they save six lives but if it were used effectively it would save seven, so therefore I’m not going to give anything.’”

On the personal front, he wrote: “What I saw and felt will never, ever leave me, and what I feel has fundamentally changed me in ways I could never begin to define.”

I wonder whether this experience had not altered his feelings about children. “I don’t want to see kids die or suffering or being tampered with but that’s very different from saying you want to be responsible for kids yourself,” he says.

“One of the great things about Unicef and the other organisations that work with children is that it’s a bit like boarding schools – you can contribute without having the responsibility of having to be involved on a day-to-day basis.”

What would be ideal, I suggest, is for him to fast-forward to being a grandparent. “If someone else could take them home at the end of the day or you could stick them in the freezer and bring them out when you… Ahh, this is getting a bit like child abuse again…”

Welsh’s bright eyes are beginning to glaze over. Tomorrow he has an early flight to Mauritius where he is being put up for a week in a luxury hotel with five other judges, including writers Tim Lott, Joanne Harris and Simon Armitage, who will be picking the winner of a best love story competition. The BBC will be there filming and Welsh thinks they’re going for a sort of literary Big Brother. For his sake, I hope there isn’t a karaoke machine on the premises.

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To order Crime by Irvine Welsh, published by Vintage on July 3, for £17.09, free p&p (RRP £18.99), call BooksFirst on 0870 1608080;