Irvine Welsh: 'I was a heroin addict – then I found buy-to-let'
Fame and Fortune: Author Irvine Welsh has first-hand experience of the drug addiction and poverty his gritty novels often deal with. He describes how a bus crash and the Eighties property boom may have saved his life
'I’m not very materialistic. If somebody torched my house, I’d be quite relieved. It would give me fewer
things to worry about', says Welsh Photo: Steve Black / Rex Features
By Angela Wintle
8:00AM BST 07 Jun 2015 http://www.telegraph.co.uk/
Irvine Welsh, 56, found fame in 1993 when his debut novel, Trainspotting, became a global hit. The book achieved cult status after Danny Boyle’s hugely successful film in 1996. Welsh lives in Chicago with his second wife, Elizabeth, and has no children.
How did your childhood affect your view of money?
My parents [Welsh’s father was a dock worker in Leith, Edinburgh] were quite responsible financially because they didn’t have much money. They focused on the basic stuff of life: we ate well and had decent clothes, but didn’t get much at Christmas.
My attitude to money was largely shaped by my extended family: an incredible mix of militant socialist atheists, working-class Presbyterian Tories and sticky-fingered, small-town criminal vagabonds. They had very different attitudes to money, but they all believed that you should feed and look after the people for whom you were responsible. They also took the view that material things over and above life’s essentials were unimportant. That’s rubbed off on me. I like living in a nice house for the convenience, not the status.
How would you describe your work ethic?
I’m the worst employee in the world. I’ll cheat and steal time and resources from my employer, although I’ll con everybody into believing I’m essential to the operation. But working for yourself is different. I’m the worst employer I could wish for because I push myself hard.
What was your first job?
When I left school at 16 I became an apprentice television and radio technician, and was paid £17 a week, which was decent money in 1976. But the job turned sour when I gave myself an electric shock while repairing a television set.
Fortunately, my pal knocked the television off the work bench, and broke the circuit. These things tended to happen on Friday afternoons after the pub.
Have you ever struggled to pay the bills?
I left Edinburgh to follow the London punk scene in 1978, singing and playing guitar in various bands. My income was sporadic, so I did anything to eke out some kind of subsistence – laying down slabs, working as a kitchen porter. I was almost destitute and lived in grotty bedsits. If a big red bill came along, I’d just do a runner.
How did you fund your well‑publicised drug habit?
Drugs were part of the normal landscape when I was growing up. The game changer was getting seriously addicted to heroin in my early 20s. I didn’t have any money to lose, so for about a year I got into the dark world of scams and multiple giro claims, petty shoplifting and theft. I was constantly borrowing from people and running up debts, and that changes people’s perceptions of you. I felt I was on top of it for a while, but I started to disintegrate from within.
How did you turn your financial situation around?
My big break was falling out of the top deck of a bus when it toppled over in a traffic accident. I was in Scotland for a cup game and the bus was involved in a collision. I received £2,000 in compensation. If it had happened 18 months before, I’d have spent the lot on drugs, but instead I secured a mortgage on an £8,000 flat in Hackney and sold it for £15,000 18 months later.
I then bought a house for £17,000 in south-east London and, again, sold it for £52,000 18 months later. In three years my working capital went from zero to £40,000. I’d shown no entrepreneurial skills whatsoever; I was just exceptionally lucky to be living in London during the Eighties' property boom.
From then on I became a postcode sociologist, buying flats in emerging areas. You could see the gentrification starting in Camden and slowly creeping through Islington and Hackney.
When did you start writing?
When I got married I wanted a stable career, so I returned to Scotland in the late Eighties to work as a training officer in Edinburgh District Council’s housing department. I worked my way up to middle management, earning about £20,000 a year, and because I controlled the training budget I was able to pay myself to do an MBA (this is what I meant about ripping off your employers). I had two offices – one in the housing department where I was seconded and another in the Department of Personnel and Management Services, and spent a lot of time between the two. That’s how I wrote my first novel, Trainspotting.
How did you break into publishing?
I put a lot of Trainspotting out into little journals to drum up interest and my work caught the attention of Robin Robertson, then editorial director of Secker & Warburg. He liked the novel, but didn’t know if it would sell, and I remember sitting in an Edinburgh pub with him just before the launch, after he’d had 3,000 copies printed, agonising about how we could publicise it. At one point I even considered sending anonymous letters to The Scotsman, condemning the book for besmirching the good name of Edinburgh. We didn’t need such guerrilla tactics. Sales went a bit crazy.
Trainspotting has become part of the culture, says Welsh
How many copies of Trainspotting have sold across the world?
I’m not sure, but certainly more than one million copies have been sold in the UK alone, and it has been translated into 30 languages. The stage adaptation, which premiered in 1994, boosted sales enormously because it toured everywhere. In fact, there are three stage versions still running – in Islington, Cork and Australia – and I receive about 6pc from ticket sales. But the film adaptation, released in 1996, took it to another level.
What impact did the film have on book sales?
It went off the scale. I had a couple of years where I was earning what, to me, was incredible wealth. I remember this cheque for £8,000 arriving in the post, shortly before the film was released, and thinking it was brilliant. But 18 months later a cheque for £500,000 came through. I assumed sales would eventually subside, but Trainspotting is a cash cow because successive generations keep discovering it. It’s almost like a rite of passage book for kids to read, so I still get a big wad of cash each year from that book alone. And if the film gets reshown on television, book and DVD sales spike again [such as after Danny Boyle’s 2012 Olympics opening ceremony]. Trainspotting has become part of the culture.
What are your other sources of income?
Screenwriting, which accounts for 35pc of my income. I also own my own production company, Shoplifting Productions, which is a vehicle for raising finance for film projects that interest me. We’ve had a few decent tickles.
How much property do you own?
My main residence is in Chicago. My wife, Elizabeth, and I bought it for about £1m six years ago and we’ve spent £250,000 doing it up. It’s probably worth £2m now. I also have a place in Miami and a nice flat in Edinburgh, plus a few rental properties.
Do you invest in shares?
Yes, although that’s mainly my wife’s influence. She spends hours studying the market . I just gape into space. We put most of our cash into low-return but relatively safe industries such as brickworks and biscuit-making, build up the stake and then take a punt on a higher yield but more volatile blue-chip firm.
What is your most treasured possession?
I’m not very materialistic. If somebody torched my house, I’d be quite relieved. It would give me fewer things to worry about.
What is the most important thing you’ve learnt about money?
Neither a lender nor borrower be. I’ve given a lot of money to friends and family, and it has changed my relationship with them. When you have money, you feel you should be paying for things, but that takes away people’s pride. It also puts them in a position where they’re desperate to pay you back.
Do you support any charities?
I’m patron and ambassador of several and have a few monthly direct debits. But I hate celebrities who talk about their charity work – it’s like they want a sainthood. I’d rather be thought of as somebody who gives nothing than some self-righteous bore with a Messiah complex. My rule of thumb is that the taxman takes what he wants (which, after expenses, is usually 30pc), which leaves 20pc for relatives or charities, and the remainder goes to me.
Do you have any plans to retire?
I am retired. Writing isn’t a job, it’s a hobby.