“When you go back to a novel, all you can see are the flaws. Every fucked up sentence.”
Irvine Welsh is sat in his hotel room, talking about the perils of going back over a book you’ve written. It's a modest, low key establishment in central London: somewhere he can rest his head between early morning TV appearances and tonight’s launch party for his new novel, A Decent Ride.
“You think to yourself, ‘Did I fucking write that? How did I write that fucking nonsense?’ But in a way, I am quite happy with that. I don’t want everything to be flowery perfection. I like it there to be a charge behind it, you know? I just want to get on and tell stories.”
For my money, Welsh is the best storyteller in Britain. There may be better, more 'important' novelists. But even now, twenty years and thirteen novels and short story collections since his cult debut Trainspotting, few can match Welsh's verve for spinning a yarn, for putting you inside the minds of characters that are by turn grotesque, joyful, hilarious and – crucially – utterly compelling.
Welsh is still best-known for Trainspotting – arguably the defining novel of 1990s Britain – but A Decent Ride is Welsh’s tenth full length work of fiction, a landmark. Along there way there have been some dud notes and some bad reviews, but also huge, underrated highs. 2008’s Crime was a brilliant, brave look at the victims of sexual abuse – “a positive, deep book disguised as an airport thriller,” as he describes it – while 2001’s Glue was a masterpiece; a enormous, Dickensian tale that follows multiple generations of the same four families and understood, better than any book I’ve read before or since, the loyalties and frailties that underpin lifelong friendships, the way our oldest relationships both define us and hold us back.
To the delight of his fans, it is one of Glue’s protagonists – the corkscrew-haired ‘top shagger’ ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson (who also played a large part in Trainspotting's sequel Porno) – that Welsh has revisited for A Decent Ride. It finds Terry in modern day Edinburgh, now deep into middle age, driving a taxi and dealing coke but still resolutely focused on getting laid.
One of the joys of the character is that, for all Terry’s crudity, his sexual politics are surprisingly progressive. Even in Glue, when the character is a teenager in the 80s, we see him pulling up mates for being sexist (“we want our hole all the time, why should we expect anything different from birds?”). In A Decent Ride, Terry has no interest in internet pornography. He loathes a local pimp who exploits the women who work for him, and refuses to coerce them himself. His sexual pleasure comes, not from bedding as many women as possible, but from satisfying them as much as he can. As Terry sees it in an epiphany towards the end of the novel, it is more a case of ‘them using me’.
“I think he is a feminist,” says Welsh.
“In fact, I’d even go further than that and say Terry might actually want to be a woman. He relates strongly to them and to femininity in general. I think a lot of shaggers are like that. They idolise women in some ways.”
In person, as on the page, Welsh is great company. We sit down to chat moments after he has checked in – he hasn’t had time to unpack his luggage, barely even time to take off his leather jacket – but he is happy to spend an hour engaging on a variety of topics.
I ask him what he thinks about masculinity – arguably the biggest subject of his fiction – in 2015, and feminism comes up again, though this time more seriously.
“If we’re going to survive and get through the next two hundred years, there have got to be radical changes. We have to give feminism a shot. Out of sheer self preservation, we have to stand aside and let women run the show.”
His view is simple: the world is fucked, and it has happened on our watch. So men should embrace the fourth wave of feminism that has found its voice in recent years, particularly online.
“Historically, men have a hard time getting onboard with feminism, but I think that’s changing. Cat [Caitlin Moran, the writer and Welsh’s friend] is a very important figure in this. She’s helped popularise the movement and put a bit of humour in it, put some soul back into the thing. It makes it easier for guys to get involved.”
We talk about the growing problem of male suicide, the pressure that still exists on men to have highly successful careers, the fact it is still predominantly men who fight in wars.
“You can talk about how the patriarchy has failed women – and it obviously has," he says.
"But look how has it failed guys, as well. It’s not done us a great service either.”
Welsh was born in 1958 in Leith, a working class area of Edinburgh where many of his novels are set. He lives in Chicago now – his wife is from there – but still has a home in Scotland and goes back three times a year.
That – coupled with the use of Scot dialectic in his books – has made Welsh synonymous with his home country, in that way some writers become. He gets asked a lot about politics – particularly since last year’s referendum – and is firmly of the left, although when we get onto English politics, he says something that surprises me.
“I would love the referendum on the EU to happen. I’d love Cameron to institute that,” he says.
“Because whichever way the vote goes, it won’t really be about the EU. It’ll be about democratic renewal.
“Scotland is fortunate. We had that moment. The thing people don’t understand about the referendum was that it was a discussion where we asked ourselves: who we are? What kind of government do we have? What kind of relationships do we have with each other?
“That’s what galvanized everyone. They weren’t voting for some fucking party. They were talking about ideas and ideals. England needs to have that moment too.
The country’s future, he thinks, rests in the North.
“That’s the key to whole puzzle, for me. The South benefits from the unitary state. Scotland is going its own way into a social democratic model. Wales is doing something similar.
“The North, on the other hand, is the one part of the these islands still invested in an old idea of post-war Britain. So what happens there is crucial. It’s a sleeping giant, politically.”
“To me, the road map is looking at what Scotland has done and what Wales is doing. Not thinking about sending a bunch of people down to Westminster to buy into that system, and fucking guzzle expenses and wrap themselves in ermine. It’s about saying: this is what we need here, this is our sovereignty, we’re not going to play this stupid game anymore.”
Welsh’s political convictions sometimes surface in his fiction, but he believes the real stuff of drama is “how we fuck up, how we create pressures for ourselves then make the wrong choices”. Men, he says, are particularly great at that.
“Get someone when they’re having a bad year and they’re making all these silly mistakes they wouldn’t make of their head was together. Then bring in someone else, going through the same thing.
“When things are going that well, it’s not really that interesting. When things are going badly, then you’ve space for drama."
Welsh is 56. He has mentioned in other interviews that his partying days are largely behind him, but what about his writing? Has his approached to that changed too?
"I used to be a bit chaotic about it. I’d get up at 2 in the morning and work till 5 – just whenever it suited me. But you can’t do that. Live in a house with someone and do that, and they’ll just leave," he laughs.
"So now, I try to get up at 6 every day and do 3-4 hours solidly, have a bit of breakfast, then do another 3 hours. Then I maybe go the gym, before I come back and look at what I’ve done, once I’ve cleared my mind."
It’s time to let Welsh unpack and get ready for his party. A couple of hours later, I’ll watch him give a short reading on stage before being mobbed by a stream of fans – many of them young women who would send Juice Terry into a frenzy – looking for a selfie. He happily obliges.
Before I go, I ask him about the next book.
“It’s done. It’ll be out next year,” he tells me.
He won’t say what it is about, but he does offer a small – and very welcome – clue.
“It follows an old friend, put it that way. Another old pal.”