THERE was something deeply ironic about Irvine Welsh, hero of working-class depravity and privation, giving a polite interview in front of the massed middle-classes at the Cheltenham Festival of Literature on Friday.

He railed against what he saw as the literary establishment in Britain, describing most mainstream literary fiction as "nonsense". He pointed out that the same half a million or so people consume literature in this country, and said that to get on the Booker shortlist you had to set your book in Provence or Tuscany, have lots of wine-quaffing, and "people cutting cheese".

His hesitant, colloquial style of talking was interspersed with so many "sort ofs" and "kind ofs" it was difficult to listen to, and some of his more sweeping generalisations, such as his dismissal of "Ian McEwan and the rest" were so one-sided as to make you feel like you were listening to the pub bore.

However, his readings of his work were first-rate, bringing the characters to life, and his witty, charming personality came through despite some rather clumsy questioning from interviewer John Wilson.

It became apparent early on that his tactic of continually attempting to pin down biographical detail to Welsh's work, rather than discuss it in the abstract, was not working too well, but he failed to do much about it and an opportunity was lost for a much more interesting discussion.

When he did veer towards more general topics, there were some good points raised, such as Welsh's defence against the charge of amorality. He said the morality implicit in his work was in the way he presented appalling cruelty and violence without censure, in that he respects people enough to make their own decisions when reading it.

He also pointed out that characters in his books who were racist or violent had to deal with the consequences of their actions. However, the suspicion that he is merely pandering to voyeurism was strengthened by his cheerful insistence that "every book should have a good dog-torturing scene."

Jon di Paolo