Sat in the impressive West Africa Room of Liverpool’s Oh Me Oh My and taking in the décor—‘vintage’, paint-splashed doors draped with fairy lights leaning against white walls, white wicker chairs, stately wooden tables decked with vases of flowers and simple candles—I was intrigued to imagine Welsh’s first impressions of the place. Known for his gritty, visceral, brutally honest novels, notably Trainspotting, Filth and Marabou Stork Nightmares, perhaps I was expecting a rock-god-esque, taciturn but exuberant sort of character to burst through the door gushing with the virile masculinity of many of his characters. Yet when he did arrive, strangely on-time, weirdly genuine, warm and humane, he was instead a man at ease, very laid back and approachable. Welsh seemed genuinely pleased to be in Liverpool and greeted all with a large smile. A smile only interrupted by a mildly excited rounding of the lips at the proposal of a sandwich and snacks-accompanied rest. As he headed off for some good scran and a moment’s pause, I was left to rue my misled preconceptions, but I could only be taken in by the man’s genuine and friendly demeanour.
And the venue too surprised, providing a peculiarly fitting background to what was a relaxed yet intriguing affair. Kevin Sampson (Awaydays, Stars are Stars, Powder) led the event and was instrumental to the fluidity and engaging nature of Welsh’s performance. Both men were slung back in armchairs below dimmed lights, legs stretched out intertwined, completely at home sipping their drinks. You would have thought they were just two guys having a chat down the boozer if it wasn’t for Sampson’s incisive questions which allowed Welsh to meander freely and openly through the evening’s many subjects. The chat ranged from his early influences to writerly routine (or lack of), Saturday Night Fever to the politicization of the word ‘c**t’ in the English Language and the power language has over individuals who fear such words. Sampson and Welsh’s openness was engrossing and loaded the gig with a personal, intimate feel. As too did Welsh’s humour, with the spurts of comedy filling in the gaps of the discussion as they do his novels, and laughter was the only sound uttered by a fixated audience during Welsh’s performance. Talking of Saturday Night Fever, Welsh declared that ‘if you don’t like that opening scene, then you haven’t got a pulse’, and when discussing books that had influenced him, he spoke frankly of being influenced by ‘bad books’; ‘If I read a good book, I’d think “Bastard!”, but when I found a bad book’, his face lit up, a beaming smile forming, ‘I’d think, “here we go! What a load of crap! I’m gonna take yer down!”’ The crowd loved this honesty and so did I. There were many moments like this that made me think “Yes! That’s exactly how I feel! That’s exactly how it is!”, a feeling Sampson claimed Trainspotting gave him the first time it was thrust into his hands by a friend in the early 90s and influenced the way he thought about literature. Often when an author is questioned about his or her influences, you get a standardised list of ‘classic’, ‘acceptable’ authors reeled off—Joyce, Dickens, Wodehouse, Woolf, Eliot, etc. But Welsh’s claim that it is also the badly-written novels that inspire, that make you think ‘d’ya know what? I could do better than this crap!’ is spot on and it’s refreshing to hear an author speak with such genuine openness. And it is this openness which is on-show in his works. Many critics claim that Welsh has an ‘impulse to shock’ and be, as Anthony Cummings recently called him, ‘full-throatedly yucky’ (I think what he means here is more gritty, gory and in-your-face explicit) but Welsh didn’t seem to be some sort of sadist who took a gruesome pleasure from creating brutal characters, but instead he struck me as a man who simply saw and accepted the world for what it was, in all its colours and glory. He suggested this himself when discussing his characters, explaining what he enjoyed about creating them was their absolute unpredictability. So demonstrating the benevolent qualities of his most grotesque characters by having them do something positive, or inversely having an inherently good character lower himself to get mixed up in some nasty business. Why? He didn’t explicitly say. But again, Welsh seems to have a desire to take in the whole spectrum of the human condition in his characters, to portray the complex nature of mankind and the real experiences of the working class man.
A Q&A followed, and continued in the relaxed tone set by Sampson. Lots of interesting questions were posed from the floor and the session was wrapped up by a former docker who thanked Welsh for giving coverage to and supporting the docker’s strikes in the late 1990s. A respectful round of applause sounded and Welsh went on to sign books for fans, with copies of his latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins (released last Thursday 1st May) on sale from Liverpool booksellers News From Nowhere and Peter Hooton of The Farm took to the decks to fill the air with British nostalgia of the 80s and 90s. Welsh’s amicable personality never wavered and he appeared tireless in greeting fans with hearty handshakes, personalised signatures and posing for photographs. After fulfilling his duties, he unwound chatting to Hooton and co and enjoying the feel-good music which gave an apt ending to a great evening enjoyed by all. Including Mr Welsh himself, it seems…
Thanks to all at Liverpool Writing on the Wall Festival for organising the event, to the staff at Oh Me Oh My, to Kevin Sampson and to Irvine Welsh for a superb evening!
Kevin Sampson’s latest novel, The Killing Pool, is on sale here.
Irvine Welsh’s latest novel The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins is on sale here.
Thanks for reading!