Thursday, 7 March 2019

The Blizzard: Hibs and Rain - Irvine Welsh interview

The novelist Irvine Welsh on football, Edinburgh, the corporate world and hating Rudi Skácel

By Bernard Thompson

Published in The BlizzardIssue 32  7th March 2019

He's not as big as I imagined.

I pictured him being robust, thick-shouldered, the type of guy who could tell you where to go with a dead-eyed stare and have the physique to back it up. After all, Irvine Welsh has a self-confessed past of petty crime and running with football hooligans as a younger man.

STARGAZING: Irvine Welsh in Prague on football's future
"In a half-arsed kind of way before it got organised and serious, yeah. When you went to away games you almost had to be a hooligan, because, as soon as you got off the bus or train, you were set upon by local youths. So we huddled together and mobbed up, basically a fear thing.”

Sure, football hooligans don’t usually admit to fear but at least Welsh’s books occasionally make reference to the Capital City Service, drawn from his own experience. "Within a few years the wee guys I'd known were part of the CCS, this huge mob terrorising the country, and that lasted until the mid-1990s. It's been all but eradicated now."

I had imagined him swearing a lot, snarling out the odd contemptuous put-down, using that famed eloquence to impress, befuddle and occasionally unsettle with the "stay-away" posture of the intellectual hard-man.

I wasn't disappointed. But then, that's because he was nothing like that.

Such menaces are the images that the merciless words of Irvine Welsh can conjure. And, I suppose, the interpretations of arts writers, most of whom have never spent much time on football terraces.

He was slim in the way that a guy who has gone down a belt notch appears (apparently he has taken up Pilates). He smiled a lot – politely. We found ourselves standing at the buffet bar after I remembered that the man whom the people were there to see should really get first dibs on the sausages, chickpea salad and goulash soup. He smiled at me in the mannerly manner of someone who wanted to say that he was approachable. I smiled at him as if to say I wouldn't trouble him while he was eating. More honestly, maybe we were both saying, "Awkward, isn't it?"

If you were old enough to have a granny who spoke of a parlour, you'd have been relieved that she would have remarked, "What a nice young man". Of course, that's doubly contentious. Firstly, because one newspaper sleuth claimed that Welsh once gave his year of birth as 1951 on – allegedly/reassuringly/joyously – being arrested for drunkenness at a Glasgow football match, when he was actually born in 1958. (Welsh has also admitted to having been arrested at Easter Road as a youth.) Could Irvine Welsh really be nearly 20 years older than me? I wouldn't have said so but you can't always go by the hair.
The Blizzard Issue 32 Cover

And secondly, the nice-guy thing: “I’ve always had some kind of moral conscience, but it gets stronger when you get older," he said recently. "It’s harder to be a bastard.”

So, that's it – he considers himself too old to be a bastard and that's why this former enfant terrible of the literary world gives the current impression that he is patient, accommodating, probably kind and maybe even a little shy. I should be worried that he'd chib me for saying so but, somehow, I'm not.

Some of his most voracious readers might fear that he had sold out – doing selfie-after-selfie in pursuit of more commercial bucks, simply looking to cash in. But I go back to his earlier comment that it takes courage, confidence or at least contentment to risk presenting kindness to a world that expects and maybe prefers the remorseless cruelty of the hard case. He is also apparently indulgent of stupid questions, which is where I come in. Welsh is in Prague – I live in Prague. The stars are aligned!

Now, I've never been the kind of wanker to try to cadge an impromptu interview off someone who is there for another purpose – I didn't have the confidence. But now I have – and I am, even if I surprise myself a little. (It's a solemn day indeed when you're not hugely shocked to find yourself a wanker.)

Sure, he's in Prague to promote Dead Men's Trousers, the latest (and last?) of his books featuring the characters that first appeared in Trainspotting, but I'm here to exorcise a ghost and talk about football. And anything, really. He seems pretty good at that.

That Welsh is one of the most notable British fiction writers of his generation is not seriously contested. But his articles on British social values and Scottish independence will be well-known to most who follow the political scene, while those with an interest in his work will recognise his passions for football and music.

But I'm not going to tell him that Trainspotting changed my life because it didn't. It was worse than that – it was a retrospective marker that I only even remotely appreciated too late, finally reading the book in advance of Trainspotting 2. Devouring the book before the almost-sacramental experience of extreme unction that I anticipated T2 to be brought me vividly back to 1993, compressing those 25 years and making the contrasts even more stark to me.

And this is where the ghost comes in. My secret shame. I didn't read Trainspotting for two and a half decades for a reason. I told myself that I didn't want to; that the language was contrived and that I had no time for such fashionable frippery. (Actually, the last part is sort of true – I never saw the point of trendy books.)

But, deep down, I knew the horrible truth. I couldn't read the book. The dialect and vernacular were too close to the culture I knew for me to be able to appreciate. I had no problem with the heavy Noo-Yoik verbiage of Damon Runyon. That belonged to another temporal place. But 40 miles east of my own home in my own time?

Dead Men's Trousers cover
Then, as a petulant young man lost in a world that I saw as a maelstrom of uncertainty, I had a sneering contempt for the people I knew who wouldn't stop talking about Trainspotting. I saw them largely as middle-class arseholes determined to seem edgy by regaling the world with their "in-the-know" familiarity with the coolest book on the baddest part of the most glorious skid-mark on the Scottish map. I retain those views equally strongly today. The ones I refer to ticked most boxes in the Clinical Arsehole Test. But I hold the book in considerably higher regard.

By pure coincidence – from which I would dearly love to infer some false mystical significance – Dead Men’s Trousers (which I hadn’t read when I met Welsh) has Mark Renton uncovering some writing by Spud:

‘Then, the packet underneath the jeans. I open it up. It’s a thick manuscript, typed, with some handmade corrections. Astonishingly, it’s written in the same style of my old junk diaries, the ones I always thought I might do something with one day. In that sort of Scottish slang that takes a wee while tae get on the page. But after a few pages of struggle I realise that it’s good. Fuck me, it’s very good.’

Self-evidently, I’ve never written in that style but my reaction was somewhat similar: it was, erm, rather good.And the marker? Well, the first Danny Boyle film took me aback with its brilliance. I am not exaggerating when I say that I have, many times, made reference to it when young people I meet in Prague dream of living in the UK. (I'm at the age of foisting my unsolicited wisdom and experience on others.) It's one of my most well-worn clichés: "If you're going to Britain looking for Love Actually, at least be prepared for Trainspotting."

But reading the book late brought with it raging memories of the years around ’93. Seing T2 straightaway in 2017 both reminded me of my frailty and brought home to me the folly of depriving myself of the things that I could have experienced. Not the drugs or excess. Those are things that I can now understand but no more feel that I have missed out on than jumping from a plane.

No, it was the enjoyment of the "thing of the day", participating in the moment instead of letting hastily-built prejudice shield me from the traumas associated with not fitting in. (I could handle the fact of not fitting in – but could never contemplate the horror of trying.) Being constantly late to the party for fear of rejection and then rather wishing I had taken the plunge.

As I suspect many men of my generation may have felt, the end of T2 felt like the closing of a chapter. Those men on the screen were roughly my age and my own missteps very different but somehow in parallel to theirs. And, let’s face it, men are central to Welsh’s work, which is often noted as encapsulating much of the experience of males as they pass through the stages of life.

So, how does Welsh write in “that sort of Scottish slang that takes a wee while tae get on the page” – that once so allergised me? Does it feel like his natural voice or a conscious stylisation?

“Probably a bit of both, in a way, because you try to write in character; you're trying to fit the voice of the character as you see them… Not necessarily in your own personal voice but in the voices of people you hear around you... I think where it comes from [is] all your experiences, usually from growing up – childhood, youth, early adulthood – that's where we're all formed by. And I'm basically formed by the place that I write about, even if I don't write in the voice of that place.”

Welsh has moved around, including periods in London, Dublin and Chicago, so the “voices he has
5-1: Hearts legend Rudi Skácel enjoying the famous cup win
heard around him” are presumably diverse. However, his early days remain key. “I'm writing a book now about Las Vegas but the characters are still informed by that part of my life, basically.”

As a character in Porno says, when asked what brings him down, “Hibs and rain”, but it’s safe to say that the latter isn’t a problem near his current home on Miami Beach. “It's great. When I come off the plane in Miami, I feel my IQ just dropping from that little walk between the sliding doors of the airport and the taxi… about 10 per cent. But kinda satisfyingly as well. You just feel all the tension leaving you – just wah-ah-ah: 'I can't be bothered typing. I'm going to go to the beach and I'm gonna have a cocktail'… There's something very nice about it as well.”

Along with the drugs, another of Welsh’s favourite topics was the club scene:

‘Carl struts out into the box, nodding to the departing DJ. He thinks about Helena, how blessed he was to be with her. But now there are no tears at having fucked up. He thinks of his mum and dad, what they gave him, and sacrificed. Now there’s no sadness, only a burning flame igniting within him, a desire to do them proud. He thinks of Drew Busby, John Robertson, Stephane Adam and Rudi Skácel, as he bellows into the mike, – BERLIN! ARE YOUSE FUCKIN READY TAE HAVE IT??!!’ Dead Men’s Trousers

Welsh has co-written an upcoming TV series about acid house – Ibiza 87 – and he seems to display greater relish in discussing music than literature. Perhaps, for all his success, that’s understandable. Most people enjoy talking about anything other than their main job and that goes for top-class, wealthy footballers and poor football writers, too.

“I've started deejaying again – after a long absence… and I've just made a Techno album… and we'll probably have it out about spring, I think.”

‘I know I still have some kind of pulse, cause I love it. Even when I’m fighting tae keep my eyes open, and shutting them jaunts me back into the hell of the sweaty nightclub I’ve either just left or am heading to. I have a constant four-four beat pounding in my brain, despite the cab driver playing tinny Latin music.’ Dead Men’s Trousers

If music is intrinsic to the development of Welsh’s characters and even the lyrical rhythms of his writing, then football is what binds his best-known creations. There has, arguably, never been a writer who has so interweaved football and the lives of characters as Welsh.

‘Football divisions were a stupid and irrelevant nonsense, acting against the interest of working-class unity, ensuring that the bourgeoisie's hegemony went unchallenged.’ Trainspotting

His major characters in Trainspotting support Hibs. Hearts are often mentioned, too (and we’ll come back to Rudi Skácel later), but almost invariably in the most dismissive language, which Welsh has, typically, described in socio-economic terms.

"Hearts always had lots more middle-class fans. It's always been said that attendances drop if Scotland are playing at Murrayfield on the same day,” Welsh has said, “I never understood rugby. To me it was all about power and territory, not ball skills."

In Welsh’s work, Hibs are commonly portrayed as having intelligent, non-conformist fans, usually rejecting British unionism as a political and cultural ideal, much as Welsh himself does. Fans of Hearts and Rangers are repeatedly caricatured as unionist, racist and bigoted. However, what fans of all clubs in his books have in common is an understanding of football as central to their culture, with values that go far beyond sporting competition but define individuals and groups.

As one character in the book, Porno (which provided the basis for T2) says: “It’s funny, I don’t really care that much about Hibs these days, but my distaste of Hearts never wanes for a second.”

As for his own footballing past, in his childhood he played against Gordon Strachan. "Yeah, I played football against him when we were kids. He was a prodigy from a very early age, a great player, but very small.” Welsh has previously recounted his early memories of football with the well-worn “jumpers for goalposts” imagery of the British working-class game.

In those days, his Hibs heroes were Peter Cormack, Colin Stein and Pat Stanton. “Everyone wanted to be one of them, and for me it was Pat Stanton, the guy Tommy Docherty described as better than Bobby Moore. Docherty tried to sign him for Man United but his wife wouldn't leave Edinburgh.”

"The problem with homelessness now is that it’s so ubiquitous and you can walk past so many people on the street it becomes hard for us to make that emotional investment."

If Welsh has left Edinburgh, he certainly hasn’t left football: "The culture of football is still really important to me,” he says, citing its ability to bring people of diverse backgrounds together on match days, from drug dealers and shelf-stackers to millionaires. “Guys who would never have stayed in touch but for football." Now, Welsh is comfortably one of the millionaires himself. But he is also is an ambassador for the Homeless World Cup, which originated in Scotland and was held in Mexico in 2018.

He remains passionate about the potential for football to make a positive impact on the lives of the most disadvantaged people: “The problem with homelessness now is that it’s so ubiquitous and you can walk past so many people on the street it becomes hard for us to make that emotional investment.

“We just see another body on the street and we don’t register that this is a person with a whole back-story and a whole narrative that has taken them to that point. Nobody sets off in life to be on the streets. It’s not an ambition for anybody. It just happens through circumstances.

“And it’s easy to see people as ‘the other’ and to demonise them and marginalise them in your own head. And I think when you see people getting on together and playing in tournaments like that, you see a whole different side to them – your perception of what a homeless person is completely changes when you see somebody running around the football field and putting tackles in and shooting for goal.”

But, in post-Offensive Behaviour at Football Act Scotland, does he share the views of some that the game is scorned as belonging to an underclass? “I think it’s a tough sell in this big corporate age, to say that it’s stigmatised in that way. I think it’s gone the other way. It’s too elitist. You know, the industry and the sport are different things really, aren’t they?”

That much is true, even if, in a world where clubs are also companies, team names are brands and club crests are trademarks, it is not always clear where the lines of demarcation may be drawn. But, in what is now a global corporate industry, does Welsh believe it even possible for football clubs to stay connected to the fans?

“I think to a certain extent. What I’ve noticed, because I travel around a lot and I go to a lot of football games all over… Hibs connects really strongly with the fans and the local community. But I think it’s because we’re at an optimum level. I think if they got bigger they would become less connected. They would almost become global or internationalist. If they got smaller, nobody would really care that much.

"So they’re in that sweet spot where they’re a community club who can have a bit of influence on the community and can do good things – which to be fair to them, they do – but I think they’re just at the right size for that. You get clubs that can do that – like Hibs, St Pauli can do it. I don’t think Celtic can now. They’re maybe a bit too big and they aspire to be internationalist – all the Champions League clubs, I don’t think can do that. I think it’s the next tier that can do that.”

But many Scottish football fans would consider their league and national team to be in anything but a sweet spot. Fans of both Hibs and Hearts, for example, have many reasons to be positive, particularly in a domestic season that started competitively (at the time of Welsh’s visit, Hearts were comfortably at the top of the Scottish Professional Football League – and Dead Men’s Trousers carried multiple references to Hibs’ Scottish Cup win, as he had previously promised).

But the days of either of those – or most of the Scottish clubs with strong European histories – even passing the qualifying rounds of European competition seem far off indeed. As for Celtic, while many fans would likely take issue with his assessment that they can no longer have an intimate connection to their fans as a “community club”, the point would be difficult to argue against. At the same time, Celtic – after seven years of domestic dominance – seem a considerable distance from being a club that can compete strongly in the group stages of European competition, never mind other Scottish clubs.

“I think it’s just the economics of the game, eh? You’ve got less than six million people in Scotland. And I think the future of the Scottish game is for smaller countries to have something like the Atlantic League – smaller countries like Scotland and Denmark and Holland and Belgium – to have these kinds of leagues that are more appealing to broadcasters and then you get up to a level whereby you can start to compete.

“It’s ridiculous that clubs like Ajax, with their European pedigree, are now marginalised because they’re in a smaller league and they’re now another poor club from a smaller league that’s trying to work their way into fourth slot [in the Champions League] or something like that.”

The proposed Atlantic League, featuring clubs from Scandinavia, the Benelux and Celtic nations was first mooted almost 20 years ago, shortly after the major club powers were talking about a European Super-League. These and other suggestions have been widely considered to have provided the impetus for Uefa to restructure the old European Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup and Uefa Cup into the current in 2018. But Welsh is unconvinced.

“I think you can [only] mess around so much. It’s been proven time and time again that people buy into a domestic league more, so you need an element of that domestic competition. And I think you could just expand it by merging some of the borders from the smaller nations until you’ve got something that’s the size of a Germany or an England or a France or a Spain or Italy.”

There is a certain logic to the idea of clustering smaller nations together so that their clubs might generate the revenue to compete in the new world order that seems to have been so ruthlessly imposed, even if it means challenging self-serving governing bodies, which seem ever happier to run the game in the interests of their richest European members. And, as with his political writing, Welsh invites a re-imagination of the possible, even when the established structures appear prohibitive. So much for the principled dreams. But I want to mention something rawer than that.

Irvine Welsh laughing at being asked for a message for Rudi Skacel
SO, RUDI SKÁCEL: Good guy?
That Czech Hearts legend, Rudi Skácel, referenced above and in Dead Men’s Trousers. The man who took such pleasure in infuriating Hibs fans. (For those who may not recall, when Skácel went to Dundee United, he chose the number 51, in memory of the 2012 Scottish Cup Final which Hearts won 5-1 with Skácel scoring and winning man of the match. His then-manager, Peter Houston issued a public apology.)

Skácel is now playing for FK Příbram and, not without a sense of mischief, I ask Welsh if he has a message for his club’s former nemesis.

“Yeah! Fuck off, Rudi!”

You can imagine how Renton, Spud, Sickboy and Begbie would cheer on their favourite bastard’s message of defiance. However – perhaps because he is getting older – he is laughing and takes a moment to consider his words. “But, he winds up Hibs supporters and has fun doing it, so why not?” And on hearing that Skácel is still playing top-level football at 39: “Well, good on him! And give him my best.”

It is not the reaction you might expect from an arch Hibee and former small-time hooligan – he clearly doesn’t hate Skácel as most of his fellow Hibs fans – much to Skácel’s sheer delight – still do. But, then again, how many angry football hooligans could you really expect to find living on Miami Beach?

I leave Welsh without taking a selfie – perhaps because I’m old-school, old-fashioned or just not the sort of wanker who has the particular type of confidence to do that. Instead, I take the liberty of asking for his autograph as people used to do to prove that they had met the likes of Pat Stanton. Not on Dead Men’s Trousers but a copy of the book that left my life unchanged. And I also do that old-time thing of shaking his hand – 21st-century microbes and all.

A couple of weeks later, I'm shaking hands with Welsh's Hearts nemesis, Skácel. Does he have a message back to the writer? "My parents were teachers so I can't answer him in the same way," he says, laughing. “But…" – almost imperceptibly, he raises his hands, with five fingers open on the left and one on the right. "I hope I annoyed him."

I think that's a safe bet, Rudi.

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