Since the spectacular success of his first novel, Trainspotting, ten years ago, Scottish writer Irvine Welsh has solidified his reputation as the profane scribe of the drug-addled and disenfranchised, producing four more novels in addition to multiple novellas, plays, and short stories. He’s also gotten into film production, journalism, teaching, and humanitarian work on behalf of UNICEF and other organizations. Earlier this year he landed in Chicago for a five-month stint as a writer in residence in the fiction writing program at Columbia College.
Many of the places Welsh has lived have become settings for his stories–Amsterdam, London, his hometown of Edinburgh–and one day Chicago may join them. When he arrived in January, however, Welsh used it differently than any of the other cities he’s lived in: as a vantage point from which to write “From America,” a weekly column for the UK’s Daily Telegraph. From the start, Welsh was a good guest: “Chicago is my kind of town,” he wrote in his first column on March 3 (“Very, very cold–a Scot shivers in Chicago,” read the headline). “Chicago continues to wear its blue-collar heart on its blue-cuffed sleeve. You don’t have to dig too far into the soul of any true Chicago native to find out where they’re coming from.” By May, however, he was a bit homesick, and consented to be filmed here by Scottish Television (STV) for a profile to air in August. “Normally, I never bother doing such things,” he wrote, “but being so far away from home, you tend to grab any excuse you can to keep in touch with the old country.” Welsh might have called Englewood “Inglewood” and believed that Chinatown is “isolated,” but he knew this town well enough to want to show it off to the folks back home.
Welsh met the STV crew at the Hancock building one Thursday in May, and spent the next two days leading an entourage of director, producer, host, cameraman, and soundman around his kind of town. Welsh and the group rode the el, toured the Art Institute, and got drunk at a Sox game (“the Sox are the working-class team,” he told the producer, “so I have to support ’em”). On Michigan Avenue, outside Columbia’s main building, a woman he knew from the college ran up and hugged him before promising to retreat out of camera range. “No, come on,” he encouraged her. “You’ll be a star in Scotland.”
“We need more writers like him,” she told the camera.
The Scots had brought him gifts from the homeland: Sainsbury’s All Butter Highland Shortbread Fingers, Irn-Bru (an orangey pink drink that tastes like cotton candy), Tunnock’s Tea Cakes, and Tennent’s Lager.
“Edinburgh or Chicago, which is your kinda town?” asked the STV host.
“Edinburgh’s my home, I’ll always end up there,” he answered, and sure enough, by the end of June, after Columbia’s spring semester wrapped, he was home again–but just for a visit; he plans to move to San Francisco in September. Currently traveling in Europe and the States, Welsh will return to Chicago for a reading at Metro this week (his fourth at the club in the last two years), but will only be here a day or so. Will he return to Chicago again this year? “If the Cubs and Sox are in the World Series,” he says, “I’ll be here.”
The reading, occasioned by the paperback release of his latest book, Porno (the sequel to Trainspotting), is Monday, July 21. Some of Welsh’s Columbia students may read as well. Afterward Metro owner Joe Shanahan will DJ a dance party. The free all-ages event runs from 6 to 10 PM at Metro, 3730 N. Clark. For more information call 312-344-7611.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Paul L. Merideth.