Politics of the Past: Irvine Welsh Revisits the 80's with Skagboys
In 1993 Irvine Welsh introduced us to a group of young Scots in media addictus with his debut novel, Trainspotting. Three years later, their story was adapted into a film that boosted international awareness of the actors, director, and author alike. There were complaints about the lack of subtitles and the thickness of the accents, but that didn't stop everyone and their mother from trying one on for size, sounding like so many poorly imitated Sean Connerys and Scrooge McDucks. And despite the unlikeability of many of the characters, the film seemed to do for America's fascination with Scotland what Crocodile Dundee and Men At Work did for our fascination with Australia back in the 80's.
Then, ten years after the publication of Trainspotting, Welsh got the old band back together for Porno, a sort of Where Are They Now? of the lads from Leith. It was good to see them back in action, but little did we know there was even more story hidden beneath the proverbial tip of Trainspotting's iceberg. And if Porno was the boys' episode of Where Are They Now?, then Skagboys is their episode of This Is Your Life. And if Skagboys is their episode of This Is Your Life, I guess that makes Welsh the Ralph Edwards of this little trip down memory lane.
It's been ten years since Porno and almost twenty since Trainspotting. What is it about Renton, Spud, Begbie and Sickboy that keeps you coming back to them?
I think it's a personal thing. They're the first characters that I wrote and they're very close to me. I feel like I've kind of been each one of them, at different times in my life. I understand intimately the stuff that goes on with them, more so than other characters that I've written.
You feel like you've been each of those characters?
Well, hopefully not to the extreme. Hopefully I've not been Begbie [Laughs]. But I can identify a lot with the anger and the energy of the different characters. They're partly me and partly people I've grown up with. It just all feels kind of entwined into the whole history and the whole fabric of me. It's great to go back to them.
You've described yourself as kind of straight-laced and boring in your personal life, yet you seem to be attracted to this very dark material.
I'm in my fifties now, so I think I have to be [boring]. You can't do in your fifties what you did in your twenties or your thirties. Otherwise you wouldn't be here, basically. It's nice not to see the world through the haze of drugs or alcohol. I spent so much of my life being out [of] my face that sobriety is almost like being fucked up for me. I see the world in much more vivid and sharp ways. It's great. It's nice seeing the world through sober eyes. Paradoxically, it's quite intoxicating. Because I got through this phase where I was going out every night and partying and taking drugs and drinking a lot, and it became mundane to me. So now when I do have the occasional-- I'll go out and have a glass of wine or a couple of beers-- I really appreciate them in a way I didn't before.
I read much of the material for Skagboys was written as part of Trainspotting, but didn't survive the editing process.
Yeah. What happened was, Trainspotting was the first thing I had written, and I wrote about 300,000 words, which is way too long for a first novel, or any novel, I suppose. So what I did was, I chopped out the first 100,000, a large part of which is now Skagboys, and I chopped out the last 100,000, basically keeping the 100,000 in the middle. Then I stuck on the heist ending to finish the book. I thought the book would be stronger if I just plunged people into that world rather than try to explain how it came about.
So Skagboys was looking back at that old material and trying to explain more about how they got to that point. The last 100,000 I just cannibalized for other stories, but the first third, I never really knew what to do with it. So I started to think about these characters again, and I thought, I could use this material to write a novel about the 80's. Because that was a pivotal decade for me, and I think a pivotal decade for Western culture. Because the New Liberal government that came to power in the 80's set a kind of economic and social agenda for the West, particularly the English speaking West, particularly Britain and America. And it hasn't really been reversed or challenged in any way. I mean, in some ways it's been tempered, but the basic governmental approach has been very much the same for the last thirty years.
How easy is it for you to step back into these characters' heads?
I had to read Trainspotting again to get into them. The hardest part for me is the visualization, to see the characters as I originally constructed them, because Trainspotting's become such a widespread, ubiquitous film, and the images of the actors have colonized my head as well as everybody else's. So it's very hard to get back to seeing these characters as I originally conceived of them.
Skagboys gives us more of the 'why' behind the characters' drug use. Why was it important for you to go back to that original 100,000 pages of Trainspotting and address that?
I think it's important for me because it retroactively humanizes the characters. It's also important because I'm getting to that stage where I'm old enough to see recurring themes in recent history, how we don't really seem to learn from the past, just make the same mistakes over and over again. There's a whole new band of people coming up telling us that these policies, these socioeconomic policies that fucked things up 30 years ago are suddenly going to work and miraculously transform the place into a land of opportunity, which clearly isn't the case.
I also thought it would be interesting to remind people, remind myself of what actually happened back in the 80's. What is still happening and what will continue to happen unless we try and be a bit more imaginative in economic and social policy.
Those themes, and setting Skagboys against the backdrop of Thatcherism, was that something that was originally included in those first 100,000 pages, or did those ideas become more prevalent while you were writing the novel?
I think it was all in there. In the family relationships, in the community where suddenly everyone is unemployed. Pubs shut down, shops shut down-- the whole place goes into a massive depression, an emotional depression as well as an economic depression.
So from that came this whole idea that a whole generation of people, a whole community, suddenly became non-viable, within a country, within a context, which was the kind of society I grew up in. I didn't want it to be some simplistic thing, like Thatcher and Reagan are the boogeymen, the villains. I think social forces were changing long before that and governments were responding to that in their own manner. It was Denis Healey and the Labour party who first, in 1976, went to the IMF with what was essentially a monetarist right wing economic program. This was a U-turn from a Socialist government, which was probably at the time, in some ways, the most socialist government Britain ever had. So the whole thing has to do with the idea of the post-war consensus breaking down, and the idea that, in Britain, the very wealthy didn't want to subsidize a welfare state and universal healthcare or education. They didn't want to pay for that. And they have this mechanism now whereby they don't have to contribute to it, they can simply take all the money out of the country.
Sounds familiar to me. Now that you've lived in the United States for a while, do you see a correlation between the socioeconomic climate you are writing about in Skagboys and what is currently going on here politically?
It's often difficult not to make these conclusions. People here have said to me about the UK, 'you've got the conservatives back in power, David Cameron and all that...' but I think the policies of New Labour under Blair were the very same, maybe with a slightly more human face. But the big right-wing policies of privatization and the mass unemployment/underemployment that were prominent under the Thatcher era, when all the money and employment was taken out of poorer areas, thus ghettoizing them, that wasn't reversed at all by Blair and Labour, that was accepted as the way things had to be.
I think it's amazing that the Republican party here in the US has drifted so far to the Right, and has tried to reorientate and drag all politics in America to the Right. And I think it has been successful. I think the Democratic party in America is a very, very conservative party.
How much, if any, did where the characters end up in Porno affect how you crafted their backstory in Skagboys?
I think quite a bit, because you see them going from young guys to early middle-aged men. And I think where they end up is very much where you have to start. I tried to look at Trainspotting and Porno, and make Skagboys a cohesive part of a trilogy. But it took me a few drafts to realize I actually had to do that, to see them as a trilogy. Because the weird thing for me now is-- the book's been out in Britain for a while-- having all these young kids who've heard of Trainspotting but never read it, they're actually gonna read the books in sequence. They're gonna read Skagboys first, then Trainspotting then Porno. It took me a while to get my head around that, to think this is how [the books] are going to be received from now on. So I had to make sure it was going to read well that way. It's freaky for me to think that someone's going to pick up a book that's a year old, then they're gonna read one that's twenty years old, and then one that's ten years old.
Do you feel like you've said everything you need to say? Have we seen the last of these characters?
I think you've probably seen the last of them together, as a gang. I can't conceive of any kind of reality where these guys-- they'd be in their late 40's, early 50's now-- where they'd be together in a group. I think there's some mileage in them as individual characters. They all have their different stories to tell, and hopefully I'll continue to tell those stories. In terms of writing novels, I think they were such a powerful ensemble, they gain so much from being together, I think their appeal would probably be a bit diluted if they were written about separately. But you never know, they might become bit characters in some other books.
Let's talk film adaptations. Danny Boyle has said he was waiting for the actors to look old enough to adapt Porno. Ewan McGregor has said filming the sequel would be a terrible shame. What do you think?
I'm pretty agnostic on it. I think every time I have a book or Danny has a new film we're always asked the same question, When's Porno going to be made? It's never really been... John Hodge, who adapted Trainspotting, wrote a really good first draft of the script. So that's there. But John and Andrew MacDonald, the producer, the idea was for the three of us to work together on the script, but we just haven't really had the time. We've all been involved in other things. If we got the script together, then we'd give it to Danny, and Danny would take it to the actors to try and get things going. But the reason it hasn't happened isn't really down to Danny or Ewan. John's out in Hollywood doing script doctoring, Andrew's producing films all the time, and I'm involved in all sorts of things. I'm doing theater projects in Britain, I'm doing a TV project with HBO, a new novel... you kind of feel that there has to be a really strong reason to go back to something, you know? I don't think it would be a big shame in the way Ewan has said, but I can see where he's coming from. I think it would be a terrible thing to do badly. It needs to be a huge passion project for people like myself and John, and right now-- and this might change-- but right now we're not really feeling it. We're all excited by other things.
Can you expand on the HBO project?
Yeah, we're getting a pilot together, a very American story. Basically, it's a re-working of the Hatfield-McCoy dispute set in the modern age. Two families that are antagonistic towards each other. It's about inter-family rivalries, but also intra-family rivalries.
Sounds good. HBO does quality work.
Yeah, it's wonderful. They're really great people to work with. It's been fun so far. We're just going through the development process, trying to get the scripts where we want them.
I feel like a film adaptation of Porno wouldn't be the same without Ewan and the original actors, but Skagboys is another story. Any thoughts on how an adaptation of that book could be handled?
One of the things I've thought about is, I think it's much more suitable to be a TV project than a feature film. I've actually been talking to Andrew MacDonald about it and we've been thinking that if we shot it as a series, then we could do Trainspotting as a series, and possibly Porno. Once you have the new, young actors established in Skagboys, people would accept them in Trainspotting and accept them in Porno.
You've done a bit of directing work yourself in recent years. Is that something you'd be interested in directing?
Yeah. I'm actually slated to direct a film next year, which is about DJ's-- a comedy set in Miami during the Ultra Festival. There's also a local film in Chicago I'm trying to get off the ground. But it's a time thing. As a director, you don't just get to show up for 6 weeks or however long you're shooting, it's a big chunk out of your life, with the pre-production and the post-production and all of that.
We've got Ecstasy, which has been out in the UK, and Filth, which has just been shot with James McAvoy, and that will be out next year. The director, who also produced, a guy called John Baird, you see how long he spent on this project to the exclusion of everything else. I think when you're the director of a film, you have to work at the exclusion of everything else. You can't have other stuff on the back burner. So for me, to direct seriously, I would have to give up writing novels for a couple of years and I'm not quite sure I could do that.
Taking a break from writing for a couple years doesn't seem like that long. Are you someone who is constantly writing?
Yeah, I've got to have something on the go. I hate to see a blank page. I've got to fill it up with stuff.
So you're already working on your next novel?
Yeah, I'm pretty far down the line with it. It's set in Miami and it's about two women who become obsessed with each other. One's a personal trainer and one's an artist. It's an offbeat slice of Miami noir.
That sounds like something a little bit different for you.
Well, both characters are American and they're both women, so that's different.
Have you seen any of Filth?
I've seen cuts of the film.
How do they handle the tapeworm?
I shouldn't give any spoilers out, but it's done in a very clever way.
When can we expect to see that?
We wanted to get it together for Toronto, but we didn't have the time. Clint Mansell is doing a big dramatic score for us, so that's going to take a little time. I think the plan now is to try and have it for ready for Sundance. It's a fantastic film.
Photo via Pufferfish
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