Writer John Neil Munro lifts lid on one of Scotland’s most influential literary figures.
IT was January 10, 1977. Johnny Mathis, David Soul and Showaddywaddy were at the top of the music charts, the news was full of the devolution debate, the weather was typical for Edinburgh post-new year – cold and dull – and a new arrival to the city was about to start his first job and a friendship which would last four decades.
John Neil Munro was from Lewis, was just 17 and was sleeping on his older brother’s floor in a student flat on Inverleith Row, when he turned up for his first day as an audio-visual technician at Telford College in Crewe Toll. The man who welcomed him with a wide smile was Irvine Welsh.
“And I hope our friendship will continue beyond this point,” says John with a smile in his voice. “He has seen the book and I think he’s happy with it.”
The book – John’s fourth – is Lust for Life! Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting Phenomenon, which aims to demystify Welsh’s younger days in Edinburgh and tell the story of how he came to write what has been voted the best book of the 20th century and which on August 30 will celebrate its 20th anniversary.
Yet the idea that he and Welsh would both become writers and published authors was something so remote to them both back in 1977 that it would have resulted in loud laughs in the bar of Corstorphine’s Harp Hotel – a place that became their regular lunchtime hangout.
“Neither of us really knew what we wanted to do,” says 53-year-old John who, after a career in journalism in Glasgow and Edinburgh, now lives back on Lewis. “To be honest it was all about women and drinking and football. I had some vague idea about becoming a roadie for Led Zeppelin, and Irvine had wanted to be a footballer or to be in a band, but he wasn’t any good at either of those things. So there we were at Telford College. I remember him being very welcoming down in that basement. He was friendly but he did give the impression of being a bit of a nutter straight away, he was a very funny guy. He was a year older than me but that didn’t make him a steadying influence in my life – quite the opposite.”
For one thing, he took the Celtic supporter to Easter Road and converted him to Hibs, for another he made him his regular drinking partner. “We shared similar musical tastes and liked to drink,” laughs John. “We would go to Rose Street or Mather’s Bar in the West End or the Harp in Corstorphine. We had an hour for lunch so could get five or six pints in. We worked together for six months before I left. He left shortly after but we always kept in touch. We’d go out drinking in Wester Hailes or Sighthill and then there were Saturday trips to Easter Road. The one thing he was into, which I wasn’t at all, was fighting. Not that he’d fight, he always said he was rubbish, but he had a real fascination with that kind of football violence, or drink-fuelled pub fights. The kind of violence he’d later write about was what he witnessed.
“Irvine went to university in Essex and I drifted back to Stornoway but we’d keep in touch writing letters and postcards – I’ve kept about 30 of them. And whenever he was in Edinburgh we’d meet up for a pint or go to Easter Road.”
In the book John says he’s read many profiles of Welsh which place him in the Vortex club in the late 70s, living in squats and pogoing to punk bands but in 77 he was still living with his parents and working at Telford College. “He did love punk music, though, and I remember we both bought the Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen on the day of its release during a lunch break. He recalls that day as being crucial: ‘I felt like something had shattered inside. I remember looking at you and us deciding there was no staying where we were. There’s no question that day changed my life. If it hadn’t been for the Pistols and the Clash I’d never have written Trainspotting’.”
Aside from music, another major influences in the shaping of Welsh the writer was, says John, travel. “He started writing properly when he was in the States travelling in 1983, as it kept him occupied while he was moving long distances. But it was just short pieces, nothing that ever saw the light of day, but it must have sparked something. He never really stopped writing after that . . . keeping diaries and journals. And of course all the letters.”
He adds: “Even then though... I remember meeting him in Sauchiehall Street in the early 90s when I was shopping with my mother. He asked me what I was up to, and so I asked him and he said ‘I’m trying to write a book’ and I just replied ‘oh yeah, like thousands of others Irvine’. I didn’t really believe him. But then I read some of his short stories that were being printed in fanzines and publications like Rebel Inc, and I was amazed at just how good he was. A lot of that stuff ended up in Trainspotting.
“When the book came out I went to see him do a reading in Paisley and I could see he’d found his vocation in life. He was a great speaker as well, a performer. but that’s because his influences aren’t other writers as such, but pop stars like David Bowie and Iggy Pop, Lou Reed and Elvis Costello – that kind of rock and roll feeling is in his writing.”
John’s book also looks in depth at the place where Welsh grew up – Muirhouse – and again he hopes it will change opinions which become set about the place over the last 20 years. “I think people got the impression he had some really tough upbringing in Edinburgh, but Muirhouse in the 70s was a place of hope and aspiration. People were working, the housing stock was new, and there was a real community spirit. Irvine himself has said he grew up in a family where there was a lot of ‘visible love’. The deprivation only started to kick in at the end of the 70s when people lost their jobs, and the community fractured when heroin became available and then Aids came along. By that time Irvine was in London but he still knew people there and knew what was happening, so again that fuelled what he was writing.”
So from boredom, a teenage fascination with football gang violence, a hard-drinking culture and then the impact of heroin on Muirhouse . . . from such seedlings Trainspotting began to grow. Then there was Welsh’s own drug use – something which took John by surprise but which seemed to get serious after Welsh’s father died in 1982 and when Welsh was working in an Edinburgh bingo hall. “When we worked together he wasn’t interested in drugs at all – had no time for them. Hash was the main drug in Edinburgh then and he thought it was for middle-class public schoolgirls. But he got quite into smoking it later on and when he was in London in the early 1980s he was taking a lot of amphetamines – and did so again later back in Edinburgh when the rave culture was something he really got into.
“There have been suggestions that he never took heroin at all, that it was all just invented as a way to profit from Trainspotting. But I’ve got letters from him in 1982 where he’s detailing his use of heroin. And why would he fabricate those stories then?”
In the book John has published some of the content of these letters: “The reason I’ve been quiet on the mail front recently . . . I got into snorting smack for a bit and almost lost more than a few buddies . . . anyway I nipped the habit before it became too dangerous.”
Another from the same year, 1982, the year his dad died, states: “I can assure you the flirtation was brief . . . I just felt I had to give it a go, but witnessing the numerous social casualties around the Wester Hailes area persuaded me the whole exercise is pointless, futile, pathetic.”
John writes: “He [Welsh] later told me: ‘There was a lot of shame around that time of my life. I felt a bit of a failure for responding inappropriately to the situation I was in. I probably downplayed the extent to which I was using heroin. I was banging up regularly at one stage’.”
Attempting to deconstruct Irvine Welsh has been, admits John, a long process. “Some people have been very helpful, others not so much. I approached Irvine years ago to see if he’d be interested in a straightforward biography but he wasn’t keen. When it comes to family, friends or work colleagues he tends to keep them out of everything.
“But with the 20th anniversary of Trainspotting coming up I got in touch to see if he’d mind doing something around that. He’s really fed up with talking about Trainspotting and the ground rule was that I couldn’t speak to his family. But when it came to asking him questions he did answer, and he read a proof and put a few things right, so I think he’s happy with it.
“The other books I’ve written have been about people I’ve admired like George Best or Alex Harvey. I admire Irvine but he’s also an old friend so it was a harder book to write, because I really didn’t want to do anything which would offend him. What I hope though is that the book does tell people something new about how Trainspotting came into being as a book and film.”
• Lust for Life, Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting Phenomenon is published by Birlinn on August 30 priced £12.99.
AUTHOR CHOSE LIFE
SINCE it was published in 1993 – and longlisted for the Booker Prize that year – Trainspotting has sold around one million copies in the UK and been translated into 17 different languages.
The book and subsequent film by Danny Boyle, starring Ewan McGregor, Kevin McKidd, Kelly MacDonald and Robert Carlyle, made Irvine Welsh a household name.
But in his desire to keep his family and friends free of media attention, many myths have sprung up about his life growing up in Edinburgh.
John Neil Munro’s book not only deals with the phenomenon that Trainspotting became, but aims to iron out a few crinkles in the rich tapestry of Welsh’s life.
Welsh was born in 1957 in Elsie Inglis Maternity Hospital. His family lived in Leith when he was born, but moved to West Pilton and then finally to a maisonette in Muirhouse Avenue. His grandfather was a Hearts supporter and among Welsh’s first words was the phrase “god bless Willie Bauld”. He attended Ainslie Park High School, where his English teacher was the first to spot his writing talent.
In the late 70s he was working as an A/V technician when punk became big and he considered drugs to be a middle-class
pastime. Drinking copious amounts in the Harp Hotel, Corstorphine, was more his idea of a good time.
He was fascinated by football violence, but never really fought himself as he was “rubbish” at it.
His dad died when he was 25, and his grief was one reason he ended up using heroin.
Trainspotting is the culmination of merging a number of short stories he felt compelled to write about how heroin and Aids was destroying the community in which he grew up.