Irvine Welsh on 'Crime'
To celebrate the launch of his new novel, ‘Crime’, Irvine Welsh is curating a night at cool literary salon Book Slam. Time Out finds out more
You can’t accuse Irvine Welsh of wanting to bend to convention. Since the unapologetic exposure of the highs and lows of heroin addiction in his debut novel ‘Trainspotting’, the Edinburgh-born novelist has built a reputation for unpalatable themes and characters who rouse revulsion or ambivalence rather than empathy. So it follows that his new book, ‘Crime’ – an unsettling glimpse into a murky sub-world of sexual abuse and paedophilia – will not be launched with a conservative bookshop reading.
Instead, Welsh will take to the stage at what he dubs ‘the best night out in London’: the Book Slam Summer Barbecue, on July 8 at 93 Feet East, E1. The club night of which this one-off barbecue special is an offshoot began life four years ago in west London as the brainchild of Whitbread Award-winning author Patrick Neate and Everything But The Girl’s Ben Watt. ‘The whole idea was to take books off this narrow platform they are on,’ explains Neate. ‘They are too often regarded wrongly. We wanted to place them in a mainstream venue, like a bar.’
The idea has proved a hit with well-read club-goers and the event’s usual venue, 12 Acklam Road (formerly Neighbourhood) in Ladbroke Grove, is packed to capacity every month. The crowd, according to Book Slam’s statistics, is a varied mix of ethnic groups that you might not find at a conventional bookstore recital. And there are three women for every man – a ratio you’d find reversed at many an average club night. ‘It’s for people who like going out but don’t want to listen to pounding club beats and crap music,’ says Welsh. ‘There’s an odd mixture of bohemians and successfuls. It’s a literate, educated audience, but one that likes to have a wee bit of fun.’
The Book Slam formula pulls in heavyweight writers as well as punters. Other than Welsh, who read extracts from his last novel ‘If You Liked School, You’ll Love Work’ at a Book Slam night in 2007, alumni include Nick Hornby, Will Self, Monica Ali, Jonathan Coe and Zadie Smith.
‘When you have a book published you get wheeled out to bookshops and theatres,’ says Neate. ‘It’s all so boring. But [at Book Slam] people are much more relaxed and easygoing, yet they still listen to your work.’
Welsh agrees: ‘And it wasn’t just in deference to me, because I have a reputation. They were respectful to all the performers.’
He liked his first experience of Book Slam so much that he thought it would be the ‘ideal’ place to launch his new book in London. In fact, he is taking over the event, and as ‘temporary curator’ has confirmed acts who are his personal friends, including Alabama 3, who will play an acoustic set.
As Neate points out, the night is as much about the performers as the books. ‘We want storytelling to exist in all its forms, side by side – including songwriting, rap, performance poetry and stand-up comedy.’ In the past, acclaimed artists such as British hip hop star Ty, rapper and jazz saxophonist Soweto Kinch and pop sensations Kate Nash and Adele have helped to ensure that high standards are maintained across the categories. At the upcoming event, comedian Adam Buxton will be providing the giggles.
‘It’s going to be bonkers,’ says Neate, ‘like this big, crazy cultural event – one of those long summer evenings. Everyone thinks after “Trainspotting” that Irvine’s some Scottish nutcase. But he’s actually this funny, warm, charming, straightforward human being. He was great last time, a very easygoing character with no airs and graces, and a great raconteur: one of the best.’
Yet despite Welsh’s personable character, the subject matter of his new novel is so disturbing that you wonder if it won’t be at odds with the event’s relaxed mood of summer levity. Why did he choose to write about paedophilia? ‘I think it tests the limits of our liberalism,’ he says. ‘The liberal view would be towards rehabilitation and sympathy with abused people who go on to abuse others, but people find it very hard. There’s this vitriolic reaction, like “just exterminate them”. I wanted to explore it because it’s a big challenge for us.’
In the book, the Rebus-like main character, Ray Lennox, discovers a paedophile ring while on holiday in Miami. Lennox, a Scottish policeman with a cocaine habit who appeared as bent cop Robbo’s sidekick in Welsh’s earlier novel ‘Filth’, was himself abused as a child. ‘I tried to make
him someone who people could identify with, a strong empathetic character,’ says Welsh.
His research for the book was lengthy and harrowing. He interviewed survivors of sexual abuse, and nearly abandoned the first draft after Madeleine McCann’s disappearance. ‘It was the book I’ve written of them all – apart from “Trainspotting”, which was more personal – that I really wanted to crap out of,’ he says. ‘But I’m glad I saw it through.’
Neate and Watt are not alone in their desire to tease bookworms out into the world of bars and nightclubs. The B Club, held twice a month at the Andaz Hotel on Liverpool Street, is a sort of book club with booze that includes recitals, DJs and live bands, while Penned in the Margins organise events around the capital with a focus on poetry reading. Welsh even had a similar idea in 1993, when he and Kevin Williamson – a poet and activist – set up the Invisible Insurrection club night in Edinburgh. He admits, however, that they never quite pulled it off. ‘You took all sorts of drugs, read books and listened to writers. But it didn’t come together other than sporadically for us. It turned into either readings with music or a fully fledged party where it was hard to get the readings heard. Now [at Book Slam] it’s really come of age. It hits the right register; it’s really well-organised and ticks by like clockwork. It’s good as a writer because you have a few drinks and bump into old faces. It feels nice.’
The Book Slam Summer Barbecue is at 93 Feet East on July 8. ‘Crime’ is published by Cape at £12.99.
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