What’s eating Irvine Welsh?
As well as entertaining millions, the Scottish novelist has shocked, repulsed and pissed off a legion of readers since the early ’90s. Now he’s on a mission to find new meaning in affrontery in Sky doc Offended by Irvine Welsh.
Irvine Welsh is walking around his dimly lit living room looking for a charger. The phone he’s holding up to his smiling bald head is about to die on our evening Zoom call. He’s in a good mood, though, laughing, joking and talking about the will-he-won’t‑he lead-up to the US election a few days before Joe Biden was declared the next President.
Over the course of the past few weeks Welsh, typically, has been swearingly vocal with his support for Donald Trump’s demise. “Has that tedious fat sex pest fucked off yet?” went one tweet. And that was one of his more moderate ones.
“At first we thought it was going to be a Biden landslide,” the 62-year-old says now. “It was going to be a great schadenfreude getting Trump fucked up. Then it changed and you think, oh no, he’s going to do it, he’s going to win again…”
Well, he didn’t. But that hasn’t stopped Welsh calling the soon-to-be ex-President a “dozy old cunt” in a response to the, er… dozy old cunt contesting the election results the other day.
In recent months, the author – whose works have taken in junkies (Trainspotting), misanthropic, coke-addled police detectives (Filth) and a jacked-up retelling of the porn biz (Porno) – has used his twitter to take aim at (deep breath): Boris Johnson, anti-maskers, the upper class, The Queen’s Honours list, Piers Morgan, Brexit, Christ the Lord and talks of Trainspotting 3.
Welsh has carved a stellar career out of offence – Trainspotting was so shocking it reportedly got booted off consideration for the 1993 Booker Prize. And yet, almost three decades on from his literary debut, he still feels he doesn’t know enough about the stuff.
Which is why he’s off to find out more in an upcoming Sky documentary, Offended by Irvine Welsh.
“I wanted to [speak] to people that thought about offence a bit more than me,” he says of a show that sees him speak to pop culture provocateurs like M.I.A., artist Jake Chapman and comedians Geoff Norcott and Andrew Doyle.
In an age of Twitter battles, the wokerati, political correctness and quick-time call-outs, Welsh takes the road less travelled to find out, in 2020, what gets everyone so royally fucked off.
You’ve always been offensive. Why are you making the documentary now?
I wanted to [speak to] people [about] the nature of offence, and taking offence about art, and trying to cancel out different types of behaviours in art. I wanted to get some balanced views, set the whole question up, and then research into the background of these opposing views that other people bring to the table. And then I would come to a conclusion about it myself.
And what was that conclusion?
We can work everything out!
It seems that the main concern in the documentary is that offence is distracting people from the stuff that’s actually important.
I think it is detracting from them to an extent, and it’s almost sponsored by elites in order to make sure that happens. But it’s also a manifestation of them as well. I think that the idea that you control and police culture through language is an erroneous and harmful one. But there’s other manifestations of where it comes from. People are moved to challenge inequities and injustices and I think that’s a good thing as well. You can’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. But if you want people to genuinely challenge injustices and all, you can’t do that in a prescriptive way. There has to be some kind of engagement that takes place in order to make this happen successfully.
Have you ever worried about offending people throughout your, er, offensive career?
I’m more worried that I don’t offend people sometimes, and that I’ve not been offensive enough.
I don’t know if you’d be able to write your books without offending people.
I hope not! I think that you’re either one kind of a writer or another kind. The other kind wants to affirm things and make them feel better about themselves. Otherwise, you’re somebody who wants to challenge – not other people – but you want to challenge yourself. I want to offend myself to get a reaction from myself, basically.
When do you think the last moment was for true artistic freedom? You refer to the controversial 1997 Sensation exhibition in the documentary…
I don’t think there ever has been, really. But Sensation was an interesting one, because it was the last time that you could put on an exhibition that could actually offend someone, and people didn’t necessarily know why it offended. There were genitals coming out of children, limp figures… Now that’s been done, nobody would care [now]. It was a very clever thing to do, because it was almost like saying if you get offended at this, isn’t it quite silly to be offended? And people say, well, isn’t it quite a silly piece of art? Well, why are you offended about it?
Do you reckon people had more fun back then?
Yeah! More fun, more freedom. The problem for younger artists is that they don’t really have meaningful peer group interaction. The problem with social media [is that] it leads to a conformity – just a massive psychological conformity.
In the documentary, M.I.A. says “the most creative thing you can do right now is to get off fucking social media”.
And it’s true. Where are you going to nourish and find your roots and power as an artist? You’re not going to find it on Twitter or Facebook.
It seems like we all just want to please one another.
Yeah, I think we have been a bit too much. The world’s become so safe, but it’s become so psychically dangerous. The booby traps we set for each other are in this horrendous psychic world. It’s like we’ve set up this zoo which is very comfortable. We’re getting fed our three square meals a day, but we’re pacing up and down like polar bears in these little cages.
So, Irvine, what really offends you?
Seeing people being treated badly en masse. Nobody can help what gender they are, what race they are, what their sexual orientation is. Why should they be treated badly by the world, their community or this particular society, country or group of people because of that? There’s no rationale to that at all. That offends me.
Offended by Irvine Welsh, 10pm, 17th November, Sky Arts, Freeview Channel 11