Interview: Sandy Macnair on his friendship with Irvine Welsh

Sandy MacNair
Sandy MacNair
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IT WAS another humdrum day in the Civil Service, circa the mid-1970s, and 18-year-old Sandy Macnair was pleased to be introduced to a new colleague. The job – “sticking postcodes on maps for the census” is all he can recall of it – was extremely tedious and if this was going to be his lot until retirement then he was glad of the assistance, companionship and distraction of someone of like mind, interested in the things that really mattered – beer, music, girls and football.

One look at Macnair today tells us that he didn’t hang around for the carriage clock and the pension – his arms are colourfully tattooed and his hair, snaking down his back and tied in a greying ponytail, doesn’t appear to have been cut since his days as a spotty pen-pusher. And the other guy? Oh, he was never going to last either. But he would introduce millions round the world to EH6 and EH7, plonking Leith, Muirhouse and even more unsung places on the literary map. Macnair knew Irvine Welsh when he had hair and a dodgy moustache. He knew the Trainspotting author when he thought he looked great in PVC breeks, kept eels, loved Crossroads and played guitar in a band called Pubic Lice. And now he’s written a book about his friend before he became famous.

Did anything about Welsh the civil servant suggest that one day he might become a millionaire author, chronicler of the chemical generation? “Not really,” laughs Macnair, 53. “Although, come to think of it, we spent a lot of time posting cartoons to each other through the internal mail, ridiculous caricatures of work colleagues, and Irvine’s were always much funnier than mine. I remember making myself ill laughing at his drawing of this fellow who always wore a raggedy cardigan – it trailed 25 feet along the ground. Basically, we transformed boring bastards by nature into characters. It was juvenile stuff, really, but we needed it to keep us sane.”

The pair – “two rascally types who recognised a kindred spirit” – had vaguely encountered each other a few years previously on awaydays with their football team, Hibs. “We’d been on the same supporters’ bus. I was sure that Irvine had been one of the bad boys who’d commandeered the back seats, and nothing that happened subsequently disabused me of that notion.”

Carspotting – the Real Adventures of Irvine Welsh recounts trips the pair made to rock festivals, more football matches and English courtrooms, where Welsh was required to answer charges of being loud, drunk and Scottish, although obviously the latter is not strictly an offence on the statute books.

Sometimes, the future wordsmith would display the gift of the gab and get off with a smaller-than-expected fine. Macnair became overfamiliar with what he calls “the naïve expat Scotsman unused to strong liquor routine”, with Welsh striving for respectability before the magistrates with “a nasty flowery tie draped round a manky neck”. Other times, the beaks didn’t like his cheek.

In 1979, over the weekend of an England-Scotland match at Wembley, Welsh was one of 450 arrests, his offence being the chucking of bottles into the Trafalgar Square fountain. “I was in it at the time and apparently I should have caught them,” says Macnair. The other 449 miscreants were deposited in the dock as if from an assembly-line and each was fined £10 – but Welsh’s quip of “Just a spot of harmless fun, your honour” resulted in the punishment being doubled.

Even the travelling was eventful when Welsh was leading the charge and this would involve hairy hitch-hiking experiences, fare-dodging on the railways and, en route to another Hibs match, a fatal bus crash. Both Macnair and Welsh were injured in the accident and carted off to separate hospitals, with the latter mounting a botched escape bid from Perth Royal Infirmary. Macnair recalls: “When he told me he’d been trying to reach the nearest pub but was stopped at the gates, I said, ‘What, in your pyjamas, and covered in scabs and skingrafts? You’d never have got served.’ He said, ‘Don’t be ridiculous, I was wearing my dressing-gown!’”

Macnair says Welsh in those years was an exuberant character dedicated to spontaneous fun which could of course lead to spontaneous trouble. “I never saw him down or depressed,” he says. “He was always looking for a bit of a laugh and was prepared to go the extra mile for it.

“Like a lot of us, he was a daft laddie, although you definitely got into scrapes with Irvine. The worst thing about his drunkenness was its unpredictability. You couldn’t file it away under ‘talking shite’ or ‘winding up Jambos’ or whatever. But it was never, in my experience, truly malicious. When it came to violence he was a professional coward. If you wanted a quiet life, if you didn’t want to end up lifted by the polis, then you wouldn’t hang about with him. I took the decision that on balance the fun he brought to the party outweighed all the hassle.”

Macnair knows none of this malarkey would have made a book if it hadn’t involved the author of all those tales in Trainspotting, The Acid House, Ecstasy, Glue and the rest, all of them involving far stronger stimulants than booze. But if you were to accuse him of trying to exploit his friend’s fame by gathering up the crumbs from Welsh’s table, then he’d point out he was writing about him in fanzines before he became successful, only back then Welsh was referred to as “Octopus – a nickname given him by a harassed woman who complained he had arms like one”.

He embarked on his book two years ago after being made redundant from his job as a courier. A draft was sent to Chicago where Welsh now lives and came back with only a handful of suggested cuts – none of which, according to Macnair, altered the portrait of his pal in any serious way. Welsh, then, hasn’t vetoed the account of the night he was jumped on by a prostitute known as Deep Throat, although the scratch-marks on his back were done by her cats, Orthanc and Zirak-zigil. Similarly, the man who many would assume must own an immaculate record collection because the Trainspotting soundtrack was so memorable is happy to have his essential pop naffness revealed (Boney M? Barry Blue? Terry Seasons in the Sun Jacks?).

This is Welsh when his crowd included Bananas, The Judge, Barney the Beard, Coffin, Corpse, Crash, Preacher, Rustler, Catfish, Plod, Santa, Pockets and Skull. When, at the capital’s Waverley Station, he’d announce another epic excursion (Macnair: “Where are we going this time?” Welsh: “Haymarket!”). When he’d never leave Waverley, stay all day in its Talisman pub (Barman: “No-one’s ever done that before”). When he’d apply for the job of Hearts manager with a diabolical plan to ruin them. Welsh as a provocateur and a radge – before Trainspotting brought the term into common usage. “If he was reading books at this time, he didn’t let on,” says Macnair.

Welsh escaped the Civil Service for London, married for the first time and, during the yuppie boom, bought and sold property. But the wild nights continued and still there was no sign of the end-of-century enfant terrible of Scottish letters. “Though when I look back,” adds Macnair, “the rabid imagination and powers of description were always there.” Macnair actually helped Welsh make his debut in print, in fanzines which subsisted on jokes at Hearts’ expense, but his contributions were confined to cartoons about the late Tynecastle chairman Wallace Mercer, or as he was dubbed, Wallet Mercenary. And then one day Macnair spotted a hefty pile of A4 papers in his flat. “Just something I’m getting published,” said Welsh. “What published published?” meaning not in fanzine form. “Aye…”

For a fee of £20, Macnair proofread Trainspotting, suggesting a glossary, otherwise radges from outwith Edinburgh might struggle with the lingo, but after enduring so many American movies and English soaps, Welsh was having none of that. The rest is history.

The old Civil Service slackers have gone in different directions. Adds Macnair: “It’s been funny down the years reading about, say, the one-eared transvestite prostitute in The Acid House, and going, ‘I know where that came from!’ But I’ve never been jealous of his success. I’m chronically unambitious, you see.

“I actually think he’s getting better and better and that Crime was the great novel he’s always threatened to write.” He hopes Welsh approves of his own efforts. “But if he doesn’t, well, his next one is going to be a prequel to Trainspotting and I suppose he could stick me in it and make me particularly unappealing.”

l Carspotting – the Real Adventures of Irvine Welsh by Sandy Macnair is published by Black and White (£12.99).