Twenty years on from the first Trainspotting movie, and Irvine Welsh still cannae act to save his life. In the original, he took the part of Mikey Forrester, the Muirhouse-based purveyor of inferior opiate products, the one who sold the suppositories Mark Renton shat out in the bookies’ toilet. And he was delightful at it, smirking and giggling in his Wattie Buchan T-shirt, like the total amateur he was. He’s back as Forrester again in the sequel, fencing stolen goods from one of the many underworldly lockups and basement storage areas necessitated by the plot. ‘Learning the trade, eh, son?’ he says in a wavery wee voice, the voice of a man who has never been anywhere near a drama lesson ever. He’s almost corpsing into the camera, he’s enjoying himself so much.
T2 Trainspotting does the trick Danny Boyle did with the London Olympics ceremony, reflecting its audience straight back on itself, only bigger and nicer and much, much better-looking, wrapping it in a shiny gift bag, tied up with a bow. The premise is that Renton is on his way back to Scotland from Amsterdam, where he has been hiding since the end of the previous movie, having ripped off his mates in the drug deal that was supposed to have made their fortunes. That much it has taken from Porno, the son-of-Trainspotting novel Welsh published in 2003. In Porno Renton was away for ten years, but for T2 it has to be twenty, which means a lot more time and life-events needing to be sketched in: ageing and illness, loss and offspring. All this is managed with economy and the odd streak of random brilliance. The routine about Rangers supporters and their bank-cards – lifted straight from Porno – was funny anyway, and is even better in its expanded version.
But it’s always seemed strange to me that Renton, Spud and Sick Boy, thrawn and desperate sons of the disintegrating Scottish industrial working class, became such poster boys – literally – for the bright new Scotland of the early 2000s, with its craft beers and its blond-wood, obscenely overbudget parliament building. ‘Buying a Trainspotting postcode in 1996 was a solid investment,’ I read the other day in the Scotsman. Prices in Leith, apparently, have risen more than 200 per cent. How did they keep this going through the collapse of RBS and HBOS, not to mention the tanking oil price, on the slide even before the independence referendum in 2014? But the Trainspotting laddies have done great things for the local economy so far, which is maybe why T2 was awarded a production grant of half a million from Creative Scotland, and the Scottish Parliament lent them a committee room to shoot a scene in. The one, fittingly, with Renton and Sick Boy doing a cheesy presentation in support of their application for a £100,000 grant from the EU.
Four years ago, I sat in just such a committee room at the Scottish Parliament, when Donald Trump flew in to complain about a plan to put offshore wind turbines in the North Sea close to his luxury golf resort at Balmedie, near Aberdeen. I asked the Parliament’s press office if Sick Boy and Renton used the same room, maybe it’s the best one, they keep it nice for special visitors. ‘The scene was filmed in a committee room at the Scottish Parliament,’ was all the press office would say.
I’d wanted to attend that hearing because I come from Aberdeen and know well the dunes and flora Trump was wrecking there. I like wind power, and loved You’ve Been Trumped (2011), Anthony Baxter’s documentary about the local people who had been campaigning against the development, and who looked, at that time, like they might win. I also wanted to see what Trump actually looked like in person; he’d been popping up in my dreams from time to time, after I’d got into watching The Apprentice. I thought it would be a laugh, in short. In my defence, I wasn’t the only one. But I’m not laughing now, and I’m not expecting an EU grant either. Watching Rents and Sick Boy in that room was like studying something salvaged from a shipwreck, exquisite and ancient, dredged up from the deep.
‘It is a bit depressing for me,’ Elizabeth Young wrote in Pandora’s Handbag, the collection of her journalism published just after her death in 2001, ‘that Welsh’s household-name stardom rests on a film. Books alone can’t cut it any more, it would seem.’ Liz and I were book-reviewing colleagues, and had been good friends to each other, but she’d been ill for so long, and was always so mysterious about it, that I hadn’t understood she had an actual disease that really was about to kill her. She’d been waiting for a liver transplant, I read in one of the obits. She’d been living for decades with an unknown virus, only identified in the late 1980s as hepatitis C.
In 1993, I remember, Liz had pressed her proof copy of Trainspotting on me. She recognised immediately that it was ‘a show-stopper’, and when I read it, I agreed. I’d read one of the stories in it already in a Glasgow magazine: ‘It Goes without Saying’, the one with the dead baby in it, and all the junkies just sitting around cooking up. I’d picked up the magazine at a friend’s house. She and I were both suffering, in different ways, from Scottish men and their alcoholism, and all the whiney wha’s-like-us sentimentalism that often goes with it. The plain, graphic evil of Welsh’s story, ‘the algebra of need’, as Burroughs called it, came as a relief. ‘Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fucking problem … Sometimes ah think that people become junkies just because they subconsciously crave a wee bit ay silence.’
Except that even as Welsh was writing these cold, dark sentences, he also kind of knew they weren’t true. You’d sink into heroin, you’d start wanting out again. You hate your mates, your fucking family, you love them at the same time. You need away, you get the bus or train or plane to London, Amsterdam, Miami, and then you start missing them for some reason and so you want hame. It’s the great rhythm of the Scottish diaspora from the Clearances to Calvin Harris, it’s a basic rhythm of the world’s migrating peoples, and it’s there in all the Trainspotting stories, deep down but dominant, like the Hunt Sales drumbeat on ‘Lust for Life’. Being Scottish myself and, like Welsh, an Iggy Pop fan from the 1970s, I’m always surprised to see how much Trainspotting is loved by people who can’t have grown up as we did, with mince and tatties and Embassy Regal, but it seems the trope is infinitely expansive. You get away, you come back again, and neither of them works really. You’re always a bit unsteady on your feet.
Nothing Welsh has done since has been as good as Trainspotting – not much anyone else has done has been either. But everything he does is interesting, and speaks of formidable craft and discipline, and his overall trajectory is shaped like myth. He lives in Chicago, seems to visit Scotland often, and is in touch with all its business constantly via Twitter, on which he is shrewd, extremely rude, and often very funny. He publishes a lot, books and plays and screenplays, and journalism and prefaces for friends’ books and worthy causes, and last year, an entire manifesto for a book called Scotland 2021 (‘Challenge the debt economy orthodoxy of neoliberalism … Don’t fall into the trap of believing that our toy-town, toothless parliament in Edinburgh can do anything but administer this misery as humanely as possible.’) As well as Porno in 2003, a Trainspotting prequel called Skagboys came out in 2013, and Trainspotting characters pop up in all his other books too. Fans talk sometimes about a ‘Trainspotting universe’ and will even now be reworking their timelines to fit in all the T2 revelations. On Amazon you can buy all three ‘Mark Renton books’ in a bundle, and a new book called T2 Trainspotting, though it turns out to have the text of Porno inside.
The most recent Welsh novel, The Blade Artist (2016), stars Frank Begbie, the psycho from Trainspotting, giving him a different set of outcomes from those in T2. In The Blade Artist Begbie has discovered the artist within himself in prison, married his therapist and moved to California, where he works as a sought-after sculptor. It’s an idea that surely channels something of Jimmy Boyle, the artist and writer and former Glasgow hard man – though Welsh has said it doesn’t – as well as something of Welsh himself. Begbie returns to Edinburgh when his son is murdered: ‘The funeral will be a big day; he senses that in the fractured grief-and alcohol-fuelled narratives that will besiege him, a certain truth and understanding might emerge.’ And then he sits browsing the Scotsman over his vegetarian breakfast in Valvona and Crolla, the ‘wonderful’ Italian deli that has sat since the 1930s at the top of Leith Walk. ‘Sure enough, it has the shabby, beaten, depressive tone of a publication on its last legs.’
‘Why here,’ the young Renton asked in Skagboys, ‘why in this city? The Scottish Enlightenment. You could trace the line from that period of the city’s global greatness, to the Aids capital of Europe … From the deliberations and actions of Edinburgh’s finest sons in the 18th century, to its poorest ones poisoning themselves with heroin at the close of this one.’ As Andy Beckett observed in the LRB (10 May 2012), this sort of thing was new for Welsh, the beginning of a punt, maybe, at ‘the great Edinburgh novel’, though he doesn’t seem to have taken it further. And it sounds like a stretch, that ‘line from … the city’s global greatness, to the Aids capital of Europe’. Though there are ways, as the novel demonstrates, that it’s not.
Two strands in the plot of Skagboys centre on the MacFarlan Smith chemical plant in Gorgie, just west of Edinburgh’s city centre. One concerns a scam to smuggle out pharmaceutical heroin to sell on the city’s black market. The other details an attempted heist of that heroin. MacFarlan Smith was then and still is the UK’s leading manufacturer of opioids and other controlled substances, not to mention Bitrex, a harmless but extremely nasty-tasting substance that gets put in household chemicals to stop children from drinking them. John Fletcher MacFarlan was an Edinburgh apothecary who started making laudanum in the early 19th century. T&H Smith moved its flourishing morphine works from the Canongate to Gorgie a century later, and went on to supply both painkillers and sterile dressings to the trenches in the First World War. The companies merged and were taken over by Glaxo in the 1960s and MacFarlan Smith has been part of Johnson Matthey Fine Chemicals since 2001.
Welsh also punctuated the Skagboys storyline with a series of bulletins called ‘Notes on an Epidemic’. Some of these have factual points to make about drugs and HIV in 1980s Edinburgh: Thatcher, unemployment, the catastrophic explosion of infection rates after the closure of the city’s only needle exchange at Tollcross. Some of them seem to be urban legends, tales from local junkie lore: ‘American Andy’, for example, was long believed to have been, as Welsh writes, ‘the Johnny Appleseed of Aids’, but probably wasn’t, because the HIV that spread in Edinburgh was later identified as having come from northern Europe. I emailed Welsh to ask more, and he replied to say he was busy with a play about to open in Chicago, but would try to help me. I haven’t heard from him again.
I did talk to Roy Robertson, the professor of addiction medicine at Edinburgh University, who has worked as a GP in Muirhouse on the north side of Edinburgh since 1980, and whose study of what is now known as the Edinburgh Addiction Cohort has been following the health of local drug users for more than thirty years. Robertson thinks Welsh did great things for public health in Edinburgh with Trainspotting, and when I met him was planning a works outing with the rest of the team from the Muirhouse practice to see T2 on its opening night.
The strange thing about heroin in the 1980s, as Robertson wrote in 2007, was that, suddenly, it was everywhere, probably because of ‘political upheaval’ in Afghanistan and Iran. Its usual market, among ‘the student or dissident class’, was quickly saturated, and expanded to ‘socially deprived populations in inner-city housing estates’. The response in Edinburgh, from press and police and city fathers, was hysterical and heavy-handed. ‘As ever, and in retrospect, it is easy to see that there was a social change happening which was neglected … until much damage had been done.’
On the most recent published survey of the Edinburgh Addiction Cohort, 228 of the 794 Muirhouse heroin-users had died by 2007, with a spike in HIV deaths, just as Trainspotting was being published, in the mid-1990s. No formal follow-up has been published since 2010, but Robertson says that ‘a lot of the latest updates are increasing numbers of deaths, from all causes, but ten or fifteen years younger than they should be.’ One patient, whom Robertson calls ‘Paul’, is nearly fifty and has been living a stable life on methadone prescriptions since 1986. ‘He still has untreated hepatitis C, still uses heroin occasionally and is what my colleague … calls the “unworried unwell”.’ If Spud were real, he would be about the same age as Paul and might well have joined him in his flings with heroin. If Spud were real, he’d probably also have hep C, and maybe liver damage from alcohol, and COPD from smoking, and other chronic illnesses of unhappiness and self-neglect.
When the first Trainspotting film came out in 1996, I went to see it on my own at the Brixton Ritzy. It was everything people say it was, but it didn’t do much for me. A brilliant piece of multidimensional brand strategising, I felt it was, ideas and looks and tunes and actors moved around on a board. This may have been because at that time I was completely miserable, lost and out of work and living in an exciting but squalid Brixton house-share. (We even had some links with the Trainspotting cast: Ewen Bremner had my room before I did, and Kelly Macdonald stayed with us for a couple of weeks while filming Stella Does Tricks, in which she played a teenage runaway, from a script by A.L. Kennedy. She was nice, poised, quiet, and had what I remember as a marvellous pair of orange trainers, though when I think about the orange on the Trainspotting posters, I wonder if I made that detail up.)
I went to see T2 at the Ritzy for old times’ sake, the night it opened, by myself. Ewan McGregor and Ewen Bremner, skin beginning to shrink over shiny, actorly cheekbones, limbs so lithe in performing awkwardness, it just showed how athletic they really were underneath. Jonny Lee Miller, doing quite well with his new sour-and-defeated face, but with the body of a guy who ran straight up Arthur’s Seat every morning during filming and twice on the day before the premiere. My husband went the day after me, as part of a friend’s 54th birthday party. He came back looking pensive, and said it made him feel old. Maybe it just hasn’t hit me yet, but feeling old seems the least of our problems at the moment. It’s not a great time to be young either, or so my sources say.
The last time I looked at his Twitter page, Welsh was calling Trump a ‘Fanta-faced falangist fuckpuppy’ – impressive – and feuding idly with Piers Morgan. ‘Talking of arse,’ Morgan wrote, ‘sorry about the #t2trainspotting reviews.’ ‘We’re crying all our way from the box office,’ Welsh responded. The film took more than £5 million on its opening weekend.