• Thu. Jun 13th, 2024

EIBF 2023: John King, Alan Warner & Irvine Welsh: Comedies of No Manners

ByRabbie Thorne

Aug 22, 2023
Irvine Welsh on stage, speaking to an interviewer out of shot.IRVINE WELSH IN PERSON. INTORDUCTION AND Q&A BY ALAN MORRISON WITH IRVINE WELSH. 16/08/2007 AT CINEWORLD 2

Rating: 5 out of 5.

After attending Jackie Kay’s launch of her new collection, A Life in Protest, at EIBF on Saturday afternoon, I was surprised to find an entirely different audience that evening for the joint panel of Irvine Welsh, John King, and Alan Warner.

Instead of grey heads and glasses, the three voices of the punk generation attracted a crowd of middle-aged, salt-of-the-earth Edinburgers who’d left the kids with their grandparents for the night, every second person with a pint in hand. It was clear from walking in that this was the adult section of the International Book Festival.

King, Warner, and Welsh, born in the 1960s to working-class households in London, Connel, and Leith respectively, are best known for their debut novels released in a four-year space in the mid-90s: The Football Factory (1997), Morvern Callar (1995), and of course, Trainspotting (1993). Despite the literary merit and bestseller status of each author, it became clear as the evening went on that most listeners were there to hear their local hero, Irvine Welsh, do what he does best. 

Led by rising Scottish poet and tonight’s host, Michael Pedersen, the three authors met a loud belt of noise as they arrived on stage: cheers, wolf whistles, and pints raised. Pedersen, the “Peter Pan of poetry” (in Welsh’s words) established the jocular nature of the evening by introducing himself as “the paper plate on which this literary buffet is served.” He highlighted the importance of the three authors’ 1990s works as “putting a spotlight on life in the margins” before summating them as “three of literature’s top shaggers” (to more whoops and claps from the audience).

Welsh introduced his novella, a return to the Trainspotting universe with some old and new faces. Sounding slightly drunk, Welsh said he wanted to focus on the Gen Z experience in his new story: “Young people have had everything taken away from them. They only have addictions: to screens, crap drugs, online pornography, and video games. They’ve no employment and no street culture left, it’s all gone online … Real life must be such a strange place for them when everything is done in response to a screen.”

After several of Welsh’s cynical polemics, Pedersen asked him to give a live reading. The effect was a total transformation: Welsh went from his laid-back armchair mumble to an awesome performance, speaking clearly and boldly while maintaining his natural voice. Taking on Lita’s strong “schemie” accent mid-way through, the author left the audience rolling with laughter in a dramatic, slapstick sequence reminiscent of an episode of South Park. King and Warner sniggered, looking up at their elder with admiration.

After Welsh’s dynamic reading, Pedersen gave a brief account of The Seal Club’s 2020 launch at Rebellion Fest in Blackpool, which took place on Warner’s birthday. Taking the mic, Warner highlighted punk band Slady’s performance at the festival—the world’s only all-female Slade tribute band. He joked that they sold a lot of books and saw a lot of Mohicans, but that Welsh missed it all “drinking at Spoons.” 

As per his previous works, Warner’s story is “one of race and class”. As a young man, he spent several years in Spain’s rave scene, where he met a lot of southern English people “who aren’t posh but have money, a few JCBs and a villa, and vote Tory not because they’re toffs but by instinct”. Warner wanted to explore this forgotten class (the Gibraltar Brexiteers) with a coming-of-age story about two best friends from Dorchester. He joked it was “the cheese and wine section” of an otherwise profane collection. Warner gave a short reading—less dramatic than Welsh’s, but like a bedtime story from a father to his children.

Pressed for time, a short audience Q&A followed the three author’s pieces, in which I asked: “Given your debut novels came out years before I was born, that I’ve never known a world without them, do you think their messages are still relevant to today’s youth—and do you think the spirit of punk lives on?”

King went first with his diplomatic answer: “Good literature is timeless. As you get older, you realise more and more that things repeat. Tech and fashion change, but the basics of life remain the same.” He related this to his experience reprinting novels from 1930s London, finding them just as fresh today as they were 90 years ago.

Warner said that “you never imagine your writing affecting anyone”, before saying that while publishing has changed immensely, writing remains the same. He described writing as “liberating”, something “eternal”, before tapping his chest and saying people will always write what’s “in here”.

Perhaps knowing I’d only read Trainspotting (though Morvern Callar and The Football Factory are on the list), Welsh responded that his books legacy isn’t from its violence, drugs, or bold youthfulness, but because it deals with issues arising from an ongoing socioeconomic revolution: that is, what do we do in a society without paid work? “Trainspotting is about boredom, not heroin”—the same postmodern ennui the French existentialists identified in the 1940s.

As the three authors got up to leave, raucous applause went up. Welsh hugged Pedersen, and the three men left the stage with grins on their faces.

Image “IRVINE WELSH: IN PERSON” by Edinburgh International Film Festival is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.