Brookes & Leal bring an icon of contemporary literature to Hastings
Review: ‘An Evening with Irvine Welsh’ plus support from Andrew Grainger, Richard Heslop, Michael Smith and David Quantick.
By Pete Donohue
Recently relocated back to Hastings, arts event producers and promoters Simone Brookes and Rossana Leal have built on their multiple successes in London with a local debut night that those who were there are still talking about. This literary coup unfolded within a packed St Mary in The Castle when author Irvine Welsh arrived from Chicago via The Edinburgh Festival to read from his latest novel and get down and dirty with the good folk of Hastings & St Leonards.
‘An Evening with Irvine Welsh’ kicked off with a DJ soundtrack echoing music that had inspired the author through the conception and success of his breakthrough novel of 1993 Trainspotting, and beyond; and all this to a screened backdrop of Andrew Grainger’s well-received photographic captures of our quirky Hastings.
Next, the audience was treated to a selection of Richard Heslop’s nineties acid house scene-defining music videos including the unforgettable Ebeneezer Goode by The Shamen and work from Happy Mondays, who coincidentally perform live this Saturday 17th on Hastings Pier.
Before the main event, poet Michael Smith premiered his short film ‘Stranger on The Shore’, a view of some of the stark and fascinating contrasts found within our unique seaside town, as seen through the eyes of a newly arrived creative mind. Locals and long-time residents will already be familiar with many of the scenes and images Smith focuses on here – we live it every day – and it was interesting to see which aspects of Hastings & St Leonards proved important to the film maker. For those who don’t know the town Smith’s film offers a decent, although far from comprehensive, introduction to our charmed and edgy life at the seaside.
After this showing Smith read some of his poetry inspired by other seaside towns, with a live bass and beats accompaniment from Simon & The Pope. Both film and poetry went down very well with the audience. Now we know something of where he is coming from we welcome Michael Smith to Hastings.
The task of introducing Irvine Welsh fell to local interviewer extraordinaire David Quantick. When the unassuming Welsh ranged onto the stage and adjusted the mic stand upwards, he immediately second guessed the audience’s thoughts: “For some reason people never expect me to be as tall as I am,” he said. The ice was broken and, after a little more introductory banter, the author launched into a section of his new novel The Blade Artist.
Fans of Welsh and his darkly humourous writing style knew exactly what to expect. In a book that catches up with the contemporary exploits of one of the most striking characters from Trainspotting, Franco Begbie, there was sure to be violence. Welsh did not disappoint. Judging by the queue that would run around the circular auditorium at the end of the show, with audience members clutching a shiny new hardback copy, some multiple copies, eager for a signing and a selfie with the author, it seemed clear Welsh had won over the room already, gaining new fans as well as consolidating old ones.
There was more to come, however, as Welsh and David Quantick settled into comfy chairs for the interview. Quantick wanted to know how the author was able to write such convincing violence. “You write from the character,” explained Welsh, “at first Renton seemed the most important character in Trainspotting, then Sick Boy, but now it’s Begbie – we’re in the age of the sociopath.”
Pressed on the development of his writing career Welsh revealed how Trainspotting was written during a period when he was trying to make sense of his own past druggie lifestyle – a past that hadn’t worked out particularly creatively. “But then the emergence of acid house pulled me back into all that,” he quipped with characteristic openness. Quantick skilfully teased out the motivations behind Welsh’s earlier works post-Trainspotting and we soon learnt much of it stemmed from a sense of playfulness – “Playing and trying to find myself as a writer.”
Asked about characterisation as ‘a kind of toolbox of characters there to turn to for future ideas’ Welsh agreed and said he was always writing notes to keep himself in touch with strong characters already created. He doesn’t think Trainspotting is the best book he has ever written but feels privileged to be constantly identified with it after twenty-three years since publication. “It’s a kind of nice problem to have.”
David Quantick proved an excellent foil to enhance our understanding of a literary superstar and, despite a packed house, this interview brought a front-room intimacy within which the audience were truly able to engage with the affable Irvine Welsh. And then we had questions from the floor.
‘What are the themes you go for?’: “Living in the present is the only thing I tick the boxes for in mental health questionnaires, so I’m embracing those ones.”
‘Trainspotting blew me away – which books blew you away?’: “Orwell and Evelyn Waugh.”
‘Any advice to those writing today?’: “It’s easy to get published, it’s easy to self-publish, but to get noticed and traction with that is harder than it’s ever been.”
‘How does music influence your writing?’: “When creating and defining characters it’s all about where they stay, who they lay and what they play.”
‘Now you are a name would you consider advertising, say butter?’: “Maybe when drugs are legalised – This is the nicest morphine I’ve ever had.”
With that tongue-in-cheek answer to a tongue-in-cheek question formalities were brought to a close and the endearing author made himself available to mingle with his readership. The Blade Artist is out now published by Random House and HIP Literature highly recommends it. The evening was a resounding success in so many ways and all praise to the organisers Simone and Rossana. HIP looks forward to reporting on their future local events.