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Irvine Welsh on 25 years of choosing life

The novelist from Edinburgh’s docklands started writing his seminal debut novel at the same time that Dazed launched its first issue – we discuss the failures of capitalism, the imminent release of T2 and being free

To celebrate our anniversary, we’ve created a series of articles around the idea of freedom featuring some of the cultural iconoclasts who have defined the last 25 years of Dazed. Head here to read them all.

In 1991, Dazed and Confused released its first issue, emblazoned with the defiant message THIS IS NOT A MAGAZINE. At the other end of the United Kingdom, in the summer of the same year, Irvine Welsh was starting to write his debut novel Trainspotting, a generation-defining tale about friendship, freedom (or the lack of it) and heroin. Published in 1993 but set in the late 80s under the dark umbrella of Thatcherism, Welsh’s iconic anti-hero protagonist Renton demanded that readers choose more than “DIY and wondering who the fuck you were on a Sunday morning.” He wanted them to choose life.

Three years later, Danny Boyle’s cinematic adaptation of the book sparked a moral panic on tabloid pages as Renton, Sick Boy, Spud and Begbie took to the big screens and shoplifted to the sound of Iggy Pop (who Welsh interviewed for Dazed in 1995), smacked out of their minds. The genius of Trainspotting was always that it refused to shy away from the different sides to reality. As producer Andrew MacDonald told the BBC, “we were determined to show why people took drugs. You had to show that it was fun and that it was awful.”

While New Labour began to set out its vision for a “New Life For Britain”, Welsh’s characters dominated cinemas and magazines, imploring a generation to choose an entirely different one. The number of young people in the UK doing heroin may have plummeted since the late 90s, but 23 years after it was published – and just months before the release of the film’s sequel – Trainspotting remains just as relevant as a coming-of-age tale.

“It still resonates because it’s not a book about drugs,” says Welsh. “It’s a book about transition out of the world of work. These characters are all from the industrial working class, being made redundant, being made socially irrelevant in Britain. Twenty, thirty years later it’s happening to the middle classes...we’re rationing out the dregs of capitalism to people. That’s why it resonates – people think ‘we’re in a dystopian future, what are we going to do?’ It’s quite hard to come to terms with and often, the answer is drugs.”

Welsh argues that a global disaffection with the trappings of capitalism manifests itself persistently in popular culture, notably in literature and then, cinema.

“The three cool novels of the last century that have lasted into this one are Trainspotting, American Psycho and Fight Club,” he says. “American Psycho is a novel about the genesis of a divide between a class of people. Fight Club is about the first generation of Americans that are going to be poorer than their parents, it’s not about guys fighting. It’s about people trying to distract themselves from the collapse of work and opportunity and the idea that they won’t economically and socially progress in the same way that previous generations did.”

Whether you have or haven’t found yourself on a mattress in Edinburgh before, crushed by the weight of heroin-sponsored oblivion, the characters in Trainspotting remain easy to relate to nearly twenty-five years on. Everybody knows a Sick Boy – charming, manipulative, gleefully amoral. Everybody knows a Spud – kinder than all his friends and torn apart for it. Everybody knows (or has at least met) a Begbie, who Welsh describes as a “poster boy for the white, male rage we’re seeing globally today” – one minute your friend, the next you’re up against the wall being asked what the fuck you just said. And everybody knows a Renton because he’s you, forever the narrator, trapped in internal monologues, caught between his genuine desires in life and his disappointing default behaviours, just wanting exactly the same thing that you do – freedom.

“The war on drugs is a war on you. It’s a war on alternate lifestyles. It’s a civil war – the state against the citizens’ – Irvine Welsh

Our freedom – economic, social and political – is de rigueur right now in discussions across all sections of society. British politicians welded the concept to their campaigns to remove the country from the European Union and ‘take our country back’. Donald Trump regularly talks of his plans on TV to build a wall at the Mexican border to restrict movement into the US and ‘make America great again.’ In London, the city’s young generation talks about the decline of cultural freedoms in the shape of persistent redevelopment and the flattening of nightclubs, its reluctant totem the superclub Fabric, shut down in September with Islington council citing ‘a culture of drugs’ as the reason.

“It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on people,” says Welsh. “The war on drugs is a war on you. It’s a war on alternate lifestyles. It’s a civil war – the state against the citizens.”

Fabric is, or was, the emblem for London’s nightlife, a place that acted not only as a mecca for clubbers from the UK and beyond, but also as a billboard for the city’s desire to be seen as a liberal, 24-hour metropolis. Its closure is representative of an authoritarian hive mind that wants the opposite. Despite the protestations of 150,000 people, the nightclub’s owners and even the Mayor of London, Fabric had its license revoked by the council, a decision made after two clubbers tragically lost their lives taking ecstasy, a decision that Welsh speculates is actually spearheaded by the prospect of redevelopment. He was one of the founding members of Fabric in 1999, back when the club still had memberships and handed out necklaces with the Fabric symbol that key attendees were meant to wear on nights out.

“Fabric closing hit me particularly, as a lot of things that were quite iconic to me died this year, Bowie too,” he says. “I had some really good nights there. That whole area of Clerkenwell was a real powerhouse of ideas and alternatives, very different to the West End which was really anodyne. It was a mess of artists and villains, liggers and blaggers. It’s become a one-dimensional facsimile of itself now, but that’s the way cities go, they play the long game.”

Welsh is concerned for the cultural future of the UK’s capital, a city he left Edinburgh for in 1978, attracted by the allure of its burgeoning punk scene (he played in a band called The Pubic Lice), before returning to Scotland towards the end of the 80s after a turbulent stay in England. “I think now you’re going to find more interesting stuff going on outside of London in satellite towns,” he says, acknowledging the relentless ‘Dubai-ification’ of London. “In London you’re going to have DJs playing in gated communities to people from Saudi Arabia and Russia, parties behind closed doors and dead streets.”

As cities change, inevitably so too do people, including his Trainspotting characters, personalities that will be thrust into the limelight again at the beginning of next year with the release of the Danny Boyle-directed sequel T2. With over two decades having passed since the first film captured the zeitgeist, it’ll be interesting to see how these characters, temporarily suspended in time, frozen without the freedom of an immediate sequel, have changed.

Loosely based on Welsh’s follow up novel Porno, they’ll possibly be framed within the adult film industry rather than Edinburgh’s bedsits and possibly doing less heroin and more cocaine. Will they be married or divorced? Will they be good or terrible parents? Are their kids fucked up? Have they been through rehab? Do they have jobs? Welsh refuses to reveal much, but does acknowledge that they’re “all at pretty different places in their life and have responded to the last twenty years in different ways.”

And what of their creator, the patient zero who birthed these beautiful monsters in 1991, who lived through years of substance abuse, who watched the profoundly seismic effect that his story had on pop culture. How does he “choose life” in 2016? Welsh says he’s “talked enough shite with guys in bars”; consequently he’s replaced alcohol and heroin with boxing and yoga and swapped Edinburgh for Chicago, while counting most of his friends now as women, a product of his wife being younger than him and having inherited her social circle.

And what of freedom? Does he even believe it exists? “You have to,” he says. “What’s the alternative? If you don’t believe in freedom...what do you believe in?”