At the Hay Festival Cartagena, Irvine Welsh tells Colombians what he really thinks about the legalisation of heroin — and the Scottish referendum.
If there’s one man who’s excited about coming to Cartagena, it’s Trainspotting author Irvine Welsh. His gritty novels may not seem like the perfect match for the glamour of the South American coastline, but it appears one thing at least has won him over: the alcohol.
“The last time I came to Cartagena was with my wife on holiday,” he confided to an audience in the city’s main theatre. “We were here for about three weeks. She drove me around the bars, trying to get me drunk. It was before we got married, so I think she was trying to get me to propose to her. I just remember having a very, very good time.”
His recollections went down well in Cartagena, needless to say, where fans of his novels Filth, Porno and Skagboys, flocked to hear him speak. The hour-long interview saw topics range from the notion of legalising heroin (“it wouldn’t be appealing for young people if you could buy it in the chemist”, but would leave users “dependent on the state”) to his reasons for giving up DJing (“I didn’t want to be that sleazy old guy hanging out with the young people”). On the Scottish referendum, he argued its very existence would empower a generation of youngsters, and claimed – despite his preference for independence – that he would welcome any decision as long as it was positive, had a clear majority and meant people had considered how to “get the most out of the next stage”.
He also gave one key insight into his writing methods, which drew a murmur of appreciation from his fans. For each character, he said, he constructed a playlist of music he thought they would listen to. Or, as he neatly summarised his character development process: “Where they stay, who they lay and what they play.”
The notion of motherhood has proved controversial for female authors in recent months. In June, an article in The Atlantic argued that the secret to being a successful female writer was to have “just one kid”. Zadie Smith was among the notable successful novelists who responded with outrage: “I have two children,” she commented, “Dickens had ten.” In Cartagena, the debate took an interesting twist as Fflur Dafydd, the Welsh author, poet and singer, told an audience being a mother had made her more creative.
“One of the interesting things is exploring different things, like women and childbirth, with a new perspective,” she said of her work with folk tales. “There is a notion of motherhood clashing with creativity. But actually I haven’t found that, and being a mother has made me more creative, more determined. There is a real interest in the way folk tales recognise women. Women are seen as flawed creatures, constantly being punished for something. I wanted to investigate a kind of deeper identity. I guess I’m trying, in The White Trail [her 2012 book], to give a voice to the silent characters.”
It appears Hay Cartagena has a new celebrity, by the name of Walter. The clean-cut young Colombian, a member of the public, was quite the star of an evening debate into the morals of the markets, hosted by Harvard professor Michael Sandel. The American speaker had invited the audience of the four-tiered Teatro Adolfo Mejía to join in a philosophical debate about the ethics of buying, selling, ticket touting and medical access. When he asked for a volunteer to defend the “scalping” of concert tickets, the eager Walter leapt up to confess he had only been able to attend the evening after buying his ticket off a tout.
“It’s the law of the jungle,” he said. “This is life.”
Thank goodness, then, for the soothing tones of British singer Beth Orton, who cooled heavy debate with a simple, soulful set in the theatre just half an hour later. Armed with little more than a guitar, a microphone, a cup of tea, and willing assistant in the form of her husband, she played a mix of old favourites for an eager crowd ranging from teenagers to pensioners. The highlight? It could only be the song she had written in Cartagena on her last visit 15 years ago, which she told the audience was about “going home with knickers in your pocket”.