The Seal Club – Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh, John King
‘The Seal Club is a three-novella collection by the authors Alan Warner, Irvine Welsh and John King, three stories that capture their ongoing interests and concerns, stories that reflect bodies of work that started with Morvern Callar, Trainspotting and The Football Factory – all best-sellers, all turned into high-profile films.
In Warner’s Those Darker Sayings, a gang of Glaswegian nerds ride the mainline trains of northern England on a mission to feed the habit of their leader Slorach. Frustrated, cynical and a big disappointment to his family, Slorach is also a man of great intelligence and deep knowledge, a British Rail timetables call-centre guru who just happens to be addicted to gambling machines. And pubs. Welcome to the world of the quiz-machine casual.
In Welsh’s The Providers, a terminally ill woman’s family gather in Edinburgh for her last Christmas, but everyone needs to be on their best behaviour, and that includes her son Frank, recently released from prison and trying to forge a new life as an artist. Also present is his brother Joe, who arrives in a state of alcoholic dissolution. The ultimate nightmare family-Christmas looms, where secrets and lies explode like fireworks.
In King’s The Beasts Of Brussels, thousands of thirsty Englishmen assemble in the EU capital ahead of a football match against Belgium, their behaviour monitored by two media professionals who spout different politics but share the same interests. Meanwhile, a small crew of purists run the gauntlet in Germany, eager to join the fun. As order breaks down and the Establishment rages, we are left to identify the true beasts of the story.
The Seal Club is maverick, outspoken fiction for the 2020s. It will make you think and it will make you smile.’
John King and Irvine Welsh about The Seal Club
Photo : Bruno Picat
John, where does the idea to gather these three novellas in a collection come from?
Irvine suggested it in a pub called The Ship in Soho, Central London. We had briefly touched on doing something together in the past, but this was when the idea was properly formed. There is a nice link as I first met Irvine in the same pub back in the mid-1990s, and one of the first sessions I had with Alan was in there also.
Did you find the title? Can you explain to us what ‘The Seal Club’ exactly means?
The title can be interpreted in different ways and it is best if people read the book and study the text, consider the various layers, muse on the possibilities, and then, after a period of reflection, decide on the meaning. We are sworn to secrecy on this, as otherwise the magic will be tainted. The Seal Club is as much a state of mind as anything else. So our lips are sealed. They are sealed with a kiss.
It is the first time I read one of your texts that is so short. Are there differences between writing a novel, a novella or a short story?
There are definitely differences, and it was an interesting learning experience. Is a novella a short novel? Is it a long short story? That is what I was asking myself. I decided it is neither. That it stands alone. Once I had rejected the stronger option that it must be a long short story, I was able to finish Beasts. I went for different threads, a variety of voices and styles, wanted to achieve an intensity the form allows. More expansive than a short story, more tightly written than a novel. The experience was very positive. I have two other novellas here half-done, and now I can finish them.
For those who know your work well, ‘The Beasts Of Brussels’ can be seen as a digest of your talent for giving a voice to very different characters. The words of the eurocrat Robert Marsh is very far from the language of Matt or Pat, as what they drink. How do you succeed in finding their precise way of speaking? Are certain speeches misleading?
Robert Marsh’s language reflects his background and his attitudes. He says one thing and does another. The man is a bullshitter. A hypocrite who doesn’t live his own words. Marsh and his friend Chris Bradley may spout different political views, but they behave in the same way. Our political, media and so-called creative classes are full of these people. Self-serving careerists. In a broader sense, it is a lot of fun playing with different uses of language and styles, as I also do with Matt, Pat and Tommy. Hopefully it helps show their characters and states of mind. It makes things more interesting for me as a writer as well.
We follow successively Matt, Pat, Darren, Tom. Each one expresses his views, tells some memories. Each one has a voice, a background, has lived funny stories or dramas. Did you want to personify them as individuals, whereas they are always presented as a whole, a horde?
John : It is a bonus as much as an aim. Everyone has a story. Everyone is an individual. As a writer you choose which characters you want to go into in more depth, what works for the overall story and how it balances or contradicts other characters and storylines. We live with difference, have views that may conflict with those of our friends, and that’s healthy. We don’t all have to think the same way. There is a lot of talk about diversity these days, but there seems to be a lot less diversity of thought, largely due in my view to the internet and social-media bullying.
Irvine, are women the providers? In your work in general, the main characters are often men and they get to take the center stage. Do you consider women more reliable, responsible?
Yes. Men have been responsible for many of the good things in human development but we’ve simply come to the end of our usefulness and we just keep shitting the bed. You have to fuck up in order to grow but we keep do it in the same way and as well as threatening the existence of our species, it’s also getting boring. And all ‘enlightened’ men can come up with as a solution is to turn us into robots. If there is a future for humanity, its female.
Begbie is about to leave Edinburg. He is supposed to have changed. He doesn’t drink any more, is fit, is becoming a famous artist. He is leaving behind his bad habits and wrong crowd as if the city had a bad influence on him. How do you feel about Edinburg? Can you stay long far from your hometown?
I’ve been back in Edinburgh since Covid after a long absence. I come back regularly to write and to see family and friends. I get inspiration from North Edinburgh and Leith primarily, but the wit and style of the working classes there in general. I love the city, but it’s a big world and I’ve always aspired to immerse myself in as much of it as possible. The city is ours, but so is the planet.
“To invite Frank and Joe for Christmas, what a bloody mistake that was”. Since the beginning, the scene is set. The readers who hear about Frank for the first time, and of course those who already know Begbie, understand immediately his sister Elspeth is right, it is not a good idea. The atmosphere is tense, the explosion is expected at any moment. Is it enjoyable to deepen Begbie’s ambiguity, to play with your readers’ nerves and to share complicity with your fans?
He’s a nutter. So fundamentally disassociated from his violence. One of the great things about him is that he is unpredictable. Those are great characters to write and as a reader, they are fun to read.
The atmosphere is even tenser because everything happens behind closed doors. Nobody can escape. It happens in one room, it is like a real-time family tragedy. The reader is like a voyeur hearing and seeing secrets. Did you conceive your text as a theatrical piece that could be played on stage?
It’s had a strange history. I thought of it as a black box play and then I wrote it as a shorter piece for The Big Issue before developing it into a stage play. Obviously with Covid nothing is happening theatre wise so I redeveloped it as a longer piece for Seal Club.
We are living a terrible period at the moment with the covid pandemic, with the masks, the curfews and lockdown. Pubs, stadiums, clubs, concert halls are closed. Does it affect your way of writing? Does it limit or free your imagination?
John : It hasn’t affected my way of writing in one sense, as I impose my own lockdowns in order to fully concentrate, but they only last one month at the most. The pandemic does make it harder to focus though, as my mind is racing like everyone else’s, and what is going on connects to things I have written about in the past, whether it is White Trash and healthcare, or the origins of the virus and Slaughterhouse Prayer. In terms of imagination, it has pulled me towards The Liberal Politics Of Adolf Hitler, added to ideas I have for a follow-up set further into the future. There is a whirlpool in my head where those three novels keep spinning, even though I am trying to focus on other writing.
Irvine : I’ve been working hard and on one level it’s been great as writer thrive on isolation. But you need to get out for a tear; get pissed in the boozer with your mates, shout your lungs out at the football, dance in a nightclub, relax in the cinema, marvel at the power and athleticism of the ballet at Sadlers Wells…these things fire the imagination. You need to replenish the well. I’m also finding it harder to concentrate, writing in 20 minute rather than 3 hour bursts.
Can you imagine how you could have lived under these sanitary rules in your twenties? Do you think your characters, such as Tom or Matt, would respect/have respect(ed) the social distancing?
John : Good question. It would have been more difficult in my twenties I am sure, but would there have been the same sort of crackdown without the internet I wonder? At least if I was in my twenties I wouldn’t have this sense of losing precious time. Tommy and Matt would respect the social-distancing measures for sure, but Darren maybe not so much. Pat would be dedicated and do everything by the book. They would all be out working and exposed. Robert Marsh would talk a lot about doing the right thing, but make exceptions for himself, justify his actions, while Chris Bradley would be dismissive. Those two would be able to work from home.
Irvine : Oh there would have been a revolution by now. We would have been out on the streets. The young are atomized by technology now, it’s not their fault, there’s just no street culture.
Even if completely different, the three novellas are all full of fun, rage, violence, melancholy, love and hate, empathy. They work well together. How do you explain that deep coherence?
John : I was really pleased about that, but it wasn’t planned. We wrote what we wanted and the stories came together as a whole. We have been friends for twenty-five years, although that wouldn’t be the reason, but we share a culture and a view of the world, have the same sense of humour, like similar music and literature, enjoy a good drink. I am not sure of the answer to this question. It just worked naturally. Maybe deep down I always felt it would.
Irvine : I’m not sure I can, other than an overlapping literary aesthetic between John, Alan and myself. This book and this Covid nonsense has made me realise how much I love and miss those guys and I’m looking forward to seeing them when this is over.
Interview published in New Noise n°57 – May-June 2021