In preparation for T2: Trainspotting, Scottish culture scholar and longtime 10YA contributor Erik Jaccard looks back to 1996’s Trainspotting and examines its relevance both as an artifact of globalized ’90s culture and as an enduring symbol of British narrative and filmmaking.
Dir. Danny Boyle
Like many of my generation, my initial experience of Danny Boyle’s 1996 indie film Trainspotting began with an iconic poster. Before I’d seen Ewan McGregor’s Mark Renton snake his way out of a filthy toilet, before I’d watched Robert Carlyle’s Franco Begbie glass a bystander just to start a fight, before I’d learned that heroin was 1000 times better than my best orgasm, before I’d even heard those first few pulse-pounding bars of Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life,” there was that poster. You know the one I mean:
To be fair, it’s a very memorable poster. The first time I saw it I was traveling in Australia with my family and, if I recall, the advertisements for the film were everywhere. I remember being attracted by the screaming orange color and clean vertical presentation. I also remember looking at the characters unknowingly, wondering why that dude was shivering and wet, what the mustachioed guy’s backwards peace sign was about, and why that young woman was leering so bravely into the camera. I’d also never seen the word ‘trainspotting’ and was thus doubly confused as to what the movie might actually be about. Maybe nine months later I actually watched the film on VHS with my best friend, probably grabbing it based on that initial first exposure, attracted by its association with my travels and the lure of something interesting and different.
As I discuss in more detail below, my first viewing entailed a mixture of bewilderment and exhilaration. Like many, I was both confused and bowled over by the freshness of the language and urban location. All British movies I’d seen to that point featured some version of Standard English and all seemed to happen in one of Britain’s two most salable settings: urban London or the English countryside. Predictably, there was a gaping hole in my knowledge where stuff about Scotland should’ve been. I knew about bagpipes and haggis; I’d seen Mike Myers impersonate his father in So I Married an Axe Murderer, and therefore thought that Scots were brash, loud, soccer- and alcohol-loving foul mouths; I knew Sean Connery was Scottish; I’d seen Braveheart and probably picked up a whole host of historical inaccuracies along with it; and, well, I’d heard The Proclaimers’ “I Would Walk (500 Miles)” about 500 times.
After the first five minutes of Trainspotting, however, it was clear that A) I knew fuck all about contemporary Scotland, and B) I was watching something memorable and new. The film seemed constructed from a dizzying collage of cleverly designed cinematic set pieces, each of which was equal parts bizarre, humorous, and grim. I particularly remember watching Renton slither down that toilet and turning to my friend with a bemused WHAT, the implied question mark swallowed by an even more emphatic surprise and delight. Refreshingly, this was not the only form of disorientation I experienced that day. Like many other American viewers, I was appropriately baffled by the Scots dialect and unfamiliar cultural context. Because of this, I probably only digested about half of the film on that first viewing, which, when you think about it, is pretty good. I took away that drugs are exciting but dangerous, that being poor is not particularly rosy, and that people can come back from their shitty choices, make good, and start a new life. Of course, there was much more to it than that. But, ignorant of British culture and politics and untrained in analysis, I let the rest go, content to have participated in this popular thing that so many around me were talking about. When I went off to college the following year I noticed that the film seemed to have caught on in some trendy, pseudo-countercultural way. Those posters I’d seen all over Australia were plastered to my peers’ dorm room walls. Jumping into the fray with enthusiasm, I began using my (formerly) excellent memory and mimicry skills to impersonate the characters at college parties and I listened to the soundtrack on repeat for a good three or four months, drawing myself back into Trainspotting’s collective pop culture delirium.
In the fall of 2005, I actually moved to Edinburgh, where so much of what had originally seemed foreign and incomprehensible about Trainspotting suddenly assumed a three-dimensional life. After my first few months I’d learned from middle-class Scottish friends that the folk depicted in the film were not a part of Edinburgh’s everyday public face but rather existed at its margins, where track suit-wearing ‘schemies’ and ‘neds’ chugged Buckfast and Irn Bru, wandered the streets causing mischief, and irresponsibly drained public funds. Some of this was true. The track suit seemed like an obligatory uniform, the Buckfast bottles piled up on the curbs with surprising regularity, and, well, everybody drank Irn Bru, Scotland’s bubble-gum sweet answer to Coca-Cola. The welfare issue, just like our own, is/was complicated and I more often than not listened without comment to what was clearly a very old conversation amongst Scots, and one to which I didn’t feel qualified to contribute.
I later learned to hate the distance inserted by these class narratives between me and the people who lived and moved in those parts of town I’d been taught to avoid: Niddrie, Wester Hailes, Granton, Leith, Pilton, Gorgie, Easter Road. Eventually I’d find myself in some of them, or talking with people who lived there, and I’d learn that they weren’t nearly as terrible as bourgeois public opinion led one to expect. Even later, I’d begin working with a variety of Scots, some of whom called these places home, and, while I sometimes had to tilt my ear a bit further to catch everything they were saying, I basically learned they were pretty much living and loving, fighting and fucking, working and getting on, just like you and me. This is not to say they were perfect. Scotland can be a very small place and it is a very white and, at times, very masculine place. Thus, there was sometimes more casual racism, misogyny, and heteronormativity thrown around than I could stomach, and definitely more macho chest-pounding and boorish lad-focused boozing than I was used to or generally comfortable around. But there were a lot of really interesting and poignant times, too, where people demonstrated depth and thoughtfulness and caring.
The following year I went to see Harry Gibson’s theatrical adaptation of Trainspotting at the King’s Theater in Edinburgh’s Tollcross neighborhood and this experience transformed my living memory of what the narrative actually meant. By that point I’d probably seen the film half a dozen times and its structure, characterization, and style had predictably affected how I approached the story. My memory is that, like the novel, the theatrical version offers a more decentralized rendering of events and therefore lets Mark Renton (made famous by Ewan McGregor’s portrayal in the film) fade back into the story’s pack of amusing, sad, and violent male characters, becoming only one among many voices struggling to be heard. During that viewing of the play, I very quickly realized that Trainspotting was not the story of one anti-hero protagonist attempting to make good, nor was it really about heroin or drugs. Well, it was about these things, but it was also about an entire community and generation of working-class Scots whose social experience, long associated with the nation’s precipitous industrial decline in the postwar period, had been undercut even further by the rise of Thatcherite neoliberal reform after 1979. Moreover, it wasn’t just about a community, but also a community’s ability to live its existence as communal. What we see in Trainspotting is actually, rather than some authentic rendering of working-class life, the very seams of that life tearing apart without work, stable housing, and the myriad forms of social cement which unsurprisingly disappear when you stick unemployed people into giant concrete tower blocks instead of allowing them to move amongst one another at street level, where the jostling of bodies creates the actual conditions in which community consciousness forms.
It was another couple of years before I finally got around to reading the novel, but by the time I did I was armed with a great deal more knowledge and context, which gave the experience a much fuller and more satisfying feel. The book had everything I’d loved about both film and play, but also added even more historical context, acerbic wit, and dark humor. It also added a lot to the story: new characters and scenes, a richer sense of place, and a deeper and more meaningful connection to the cultural politics of being Scottish in modern Britain. Each of these encounters transformed what had, until that point, been my primarily nostalgic engagement with the film as a relic of ’90s pop culture and my own late adolescence.
However, this, it turns out, is pretty much how everyone else kept on thinking of the film right up into the present day. Indeed, more than anything else, the recent release of T2: Trainspotting has inspired an astounding degree of nostalgia in movie critics, cultural commentators, and just about everyone between the ages of 35 and 50. While some attention has been paid to the actual movie, reading through reviews and commentaries leads me to conclude that the entire point of the sequel was to trip a breaker in our collective memory, calling us all back to what we were doing/thinking/listening to/reading in the mid-1990s. I both love and hate this. Like many of you, the kid in me who came of age in the 1990s enjoys thinking back on who I was then and on how much I’ve changed in the interim. Doing so is a good way to consolidate personal insight and growth and I don’t think it counterproductive to indulge this very natural temptation. Then again, I’m about to have my twenty year high school reunion, which I’m guessing will perform essentially the same function, as would a re-listen to Smashing Pumpkins’ Siamese Dream, a read through Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, or a re-viewing of the fourth season of The X-Files. This makes me wonder how much damage we do a film like Trainspotting, or Pulp Fiction, or [Insert 1990s pop culture phenomenon here] when we reduce it to a generational time capsule. Thinking of culture in this way partakes of a very superficial, very commercial approach to social life, as though everything we were and thought and felt could be contained in an episode of VH1’s “I Love the ’90s.” I think this approach bleeds everything interesting and worthwhile out of our lived experience—and, in Trainspotting, the lived experience of others—reducing the complexity of who we were, what and who we loved, and how we connected to the world to an interchangeably superficial collection of common objects. Treated as superficial representations meant to appeal to everyone, generational markers like Trainspotting become nothing more than relatively similar encounters with relatively similar objects bought and enjoyed in relatively similar ways: those posters on the wall, our fleeting memory of Renton crawling out of a toilet, the way your blood temperature begins to rise with those first few bars of “Lust for Life.”
So, with this in mind, I’ve decided not to indulge my inner teenager’s nostalgia. Instead, I’m going to have another look at the film through a couple of contexts which I believe structure its relevance both as an artifact of globalized ’90s culture and as an enduring symbol of British narrative and filmmaking.
1. The Devolutionary Context and the Dangers of ‘Cool Britannia’ Kitsch
Trainspotting is a funny film, because it’s effectively a story of the Scottish 1980s transformed into a Scottish film of the 1990s. Moreover, what begins as a kinetic narrative mishmash of different voices, experiences, and struggles in the novel is condensed in the film into far more cohesive, linear, and ultimately moral-driven narrative about one righteous anti-hero’s redemption and escape from a toxic home community. As both a film-watching individual and a scholar of Scottish culture I remain ambivalent about this reduction. Granted, having read the novel a few times now, I can see the difficulty in filming it as is. Written as a potpourri of first-person vignettes originally published in counterculture literary zines, the novel’s form does not lend itself to narrative coherence. Renton is its putative protagonist, but only because his sections appear with slightly greater frequency and because it is he, rather than the others, who thinks himself worthy of the betrayal/success which occasions the film’s final third-person chapter about his escape. Screenwriter John Hodge’s major innovation is to use that final chapter—its point of view and thematic inertia—as a telos around which to restructure a story about a half dozen characters into a story about Renton. Thus, it is Renton’s redemption which becomes the film’s necessary endgame to which the other characters and context are made subordinate.
It may go without saying, but there is a lot more to it than this.
Since the failure of the first Scottish devolution referendum in 1979 there has been a tendency among Scottish writers and literary critics to see Scottish culture as performing a displaced political function. While in a British context devolution names the formal divestment of limited sovereign power from the Westminster Parliament to regional assemblies (in Edinburgh, Cardiff, and Belfast, respectively), cultural devolution names the attempt by writers, musicians, and artists to articulate the political weight of collective experience. For example, the writer Christopher Whyte wrote in 1998 that “In the absence of elected political authority, the task of representing the nation has repeatedly devolved to its writers.” Looking back on the 1980s and ’90s, my former Edinburgh University seminar leader Cairns Craig opines similarly that “if politics couldn’t change Scotland, art could.” There is something dangerously Romantic in this position, which frames Scotland’s writers as the ‘unacknowledged legislators’ of the national destiny, but it usefully underlines the way Scottish (narrative) culture has often played a far more significant role in the articulation of national consciousness. To see Trainspotting—in either its novelistic or filmic manifestations—as devolutionary is to notice how it slowly but insistently eats away at the embedded traditions and ideological commonalities of imperial Anglo-Britain from a position of implied or direct cultural difference.
If Trainspotting is a devolutionary story—and I think it is—it can’t really be understood fully outside the historical context of the 1980s. Its unapologetic use of Scots-dialect and its devotion to the marginalized lived experience of working-class Scots is framed in direct historical relation to the increasing centralization of cultural and economic power in Southeast England—and especially London—after the rise of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative Party in 1979. The Thatcher government, which famously liberalized the UK economy in the 1980s, purposefully undermined the country’s postwar social democratic consensus, crushed the power of organized labor, and reconstituted British cultural identity under the banner of (white) English heritage. By 1979 Scotland, like large swathes of Northern England, was in a decades-long spiral of industrial decline, its traditional industries undermined by reliance on state subsidy and an aversion to innovation which made Scottish industries (Steel, Coal, and Shipbuilding) particularly vulnerable to global market forces. Thatcher’s dedication to welfare state reform and privatization made her particularly unpopular with Scotland’s urban and predominantly left-leaning and Labour-voting population, which was both beset by chronic unemployment and hampered by a dramatic nationwide shift in political ideology which undercut not only the funding for a social safety net, but also that safety net’s entire reason for existence.
Much of Trainspotting serves as indirect comment on the experience of this dramatic shift, though it also more directly about and the heroin and AIDS epidemics which ravaged an underemployed and desperate Scots working class during the Thatcher years. This only comes and goes in Welsh’s original novel, beholden as it is to the immediate experience of its protagonists. However, Welsh frames the context far more directly in his later prequel, 2012’s Skagboys, where cold facts and figures on the epidemic foreground the significant scope of its destructive impact on the community as well as the connection between that scope and the national shifts in policy which deliberately caused unemployment and then refused to do anything to soften that trauma. One could say that much of what makes Trainspotting so exciting is its blunt depiction of people attempting to live meaningful, exciting lives while everything stable and known is transforming under their feet, their society changing, their friends dying or going mad, their social bonds inexorably fraying. Trainspotting’s depiction of this experience represents a flagrant rebellion against an official, London-based literary culture which never really admitted that such lives existed or, if it did, that they would ever be a legitimate literary subject. It faces some of the most flagrant Scottish stereotypes head on and dares a reader not to see the complexity and nuance of the lives depicted, however grotesque they may be.
I used to believe that the film mostly cuts out or neglects this context. But now, after repeated viewings, I think instead that it’s just tasked with the daunting task of condensing it into a sequence of clever, stylish, and memorable cinematic set pieces. The greatest thing about this strategy is that it makes for an energetic, contained, and extremely evocative rendering of the narrative, which bounces along from piece to piece without ever really pausing to reflect on what’s come before. It also makes for great nostalgia because it condenses the film into easily memorable units. I mean, who doesn’t recall the moment Renton squeezes himself into ‘the worst toilet in Scotland,’ or when Spud splatters feces across his girlfriend’s family’s kitchen, or, more somberly, when the crew awaken from their respective druggy stupors to discover baby Dawn dead in her crib?
However, this reduction of a broad historical and political context to such detailed images means that your average person is not going to catch the connotations and references which require extra information to interpret. The iconic train platform and hike scene, for example, where the reality of urban Scotland is juxtaposed against the mythical backdrop of the romanticized tourist image of the Scottish highlands, comes and goes quickly, lost in the cranky bravado of Renton’s famous ‘It’s shite being Scottish!’ speech. Renton’s equally well-known ‘Choose Life’ soliloquy is also commonly misunderstood, I think, insofar as it makes it far too easy to arrive at a simple opposition between heroin use and contemporary consumer capitalist society. While I do think most understand the speech to be ironic, I think fewer understand heroin consumption in the story as equally ironic, as the exemplification of destructive consumption rather than as some dialectical death-driven heroism. For me, what the speech actually does is baldly present the viewer with the implication that that their consumption of the film does not exist outside a consumptive paradigm. While we may not be heroin addicts laid up in grimy dens, surrounded by squalor, we nonetheless live a life structured by similar principles and a similar lack of choice.
We ‘choose life’ on a day-to-day basis, not fully understanding, or maybe just cynically ignoring, that the phrase binds us to a passive model of consumer-based life to which our choices have been reduced. This is underlined, I think, by the fact that Boyle’s film, unlike the novel, is bookended by Renton’s monologue, which in the second act seems ironic in a different way entirely:
“Now I’m cleaning up and I’m moving on, going straight and choosing life. I’m looking forward to it already. I’m gonna be just like you. The job, the family, the fucking big television, the washing machine, the car, the compact disc and electric tin opener, good health, low cholesterol, dental insurance, mortgage, starter home, leisure wear, luggage, three-piece suite, DIY, game shows, junk food, children, walks in the park, nine to five, good at gold, washing the car, choice of sweaters, family Christmas, indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing gutters, getting by, looking ahead, the day you die.”
If one were so inclined, they could read this very simply as the story of a bad boy turned good, not unlike the shocking ending to the American edition of Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange, where Alex repudiates his erstwhile dedication to anti-social behavior in order to reinvent himself as a responsible adult citizen. But I’ve always seen the smirk on MacGregor’s face during this scene as contradictory; while the condensed life-plan outline above and associated with you might be preferable to the paralyzing life he’s so far lived in a dying post-industrial Scotland, it’s also presented not as an option, but rather as the option. There is a cold determinism at work here, as though, given a variety of choices as to how one could live their life freely, one is always going to come back around and find a way to fit themselves into this condensed litany of common moments that passes for ‘life.’
At the same time, while Trainspotting may be an act of devolutionary defiance, it’s also a reproducible, interchangeable symbol of the same mid-1990s ‘Cool Britannia’ marketing ploy by which New Labour think tanks like Demos attempted to rebrand Britain for success in an evolving capitalist economy. In this paradigm Trainspotting, like Scotland itself, becomes a trendy new dimension to an old Britain attempting to reinvent itself for the twenty-first century. Our nostalgia plays a part in this, even if just because it was fostered on the back of a commercializable wave of British cultural product during the ’90s. One glance at the Trainspotting soundtrack—right up there for us ’90s kids with The Bodyguard, Pulp Fiction, The Crow, and Forrest Gump—confirms this. About a third of the songs included hearken back to the ’70s/’80s context out of which both Welsh and his novel emerge: Iggy Pop, Brian Eno, Lou Reed, New Order. The rest, however, all fit into either the Britpop or UK Rave scenes, probably the two most recognizable British musical exports of the decade. Blur, Sleeper, Primal Scream, Pulp, and Elastica jostle uncomfortably with house/trance DJ-Producer John Digweed’s “For What You Dream Of” (created under his Bedrock moniker), rave-crossover stalwart Leftfield “A Final Hit,” and, of course, the one that still gives me the tinglefeels: Underworld’s “Born Slippy (Nuxx)”. Taken together, the soundtrack dovetails with a branded image of what cultural managers want people to think is cool about Britain. By the same process the complex Scotland depicted in the novel, play, and film becomes just another interchangeable piece of cultural kitsch, a two-dimensional poster on the wall of an American dorm room.
2. “These foreign cunts’ve goat trouble wi the Queen’s fuckin English, ken”: Trainspotting’s Linguistic Riot
A few years back I taught a course on contemporary Scottish fiction at the University of Washington. Wary of my students’ ignorance—of where Scotland even was, let alone what a ‘Scottish novel’ was and could do—I attempted to rip the Band-Aid off, so to speak, and showed them this with little to no warning:
The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jis sitting thair, focusing oan the telly, trying no tae notice the cunt. He was bringing me doon. Ah tried to keep ma attention oan the Jean-Claude Van Damme video.
As happens in such movies, they started oaf wi an obligatory dramatic opening. Then the next phase ay the picture involved building up the tension through introducing the dastardly villain and sticking the weak plot thegither. Any minute now though, auld Jean-Claude’s ready tae git doon tae some serious swedgin.
This passage, the opening to Welsh’s novel, had exactly the effect I was looking for. In fact, the same thing currently making my spellcheck lose its shit struck the students with predictable force. Mouths hung open, eyes scrunched up or widened in bewilderment, a few noses wrinkled at the ‘c’ word, and a lot of people looked suddenly less excited to be there. Few had ever encountered this kind of obvious, energetic, and unapologetic difference in the English language. Even fewer had been told by someone in a position of authority that it was worthy of respect. Though there was enough familiar linguistic ground to get a sense of what was going on, none knew exactly where they were. It was for them a profound, dazzling, glorious collision with the unknown.
Unless you’re Scottish, or a very world-wise Brit, you had similar trouble with Trainspotting the first time you saw it. Admit it: you did. I sure as hell did. I very clearly remember sitting on my friend’s family’s old couch in their musty basement, laughing because, for the first, oh…twenty minutes, I understood very little of what was being said. My friend and I looked at each other with dumb smiles on our faces, eager to share our mutual confusion. Undeterred, we stuck with it. There was enough going on visually for me to follow the plot, more or less, and so much of it was memorable, interesting, and bizarre that I couldn’t look away. Interestingly, by the final third of the film something had clicked into place and we’d found our footing. We didn’t understand the slang, but had wrapped our minds around the alternate phonetics and the seemingly offbeat meanings. We didn’t know it because we hadn’t been trained to think about it in this way, but we’d assimilated into a different world, one where social experience and consciousness came wrapped in this bizarre linguistic shell that felt foreign, estranging, alien. Sitting on that couch for ninety minutes, we were the strangers, the outcasts searching for meaning in translation. The power embedded in the Standard English we’d been taught from birth to speak had been shattered by this little movie that told our globalized American cultural privilege to git tae fuck.
The same eventually happened to most of my students, of course. By the end of that class some of them had grown incredibly adept at slogging through their Scots-riddled texts, reading faster, then faster still, as their brains began to think and thus see the world in mutual, overlapping registers. I’ll always remember the first day of class the following term, when I was teaching a very different course on the emergence of what I called ‘Global Englishes.’ Going for the same effect with my new unsuspecting prey, I put an even more alienating fragment on the overhead, from Scottish poet Tom Leonard’s collection Intimate Voices (excerpted here for brevity):
aboot thi dif-
n object n
god said ti
a doant kerr
fyi caw it
It plays brilliantly to the ear and I suggest you take a listen here. So, picture the same farcical facial expressions in my students, the same body language, the same sighs and eye rolls and dumbfounded gasps. Except for this one guy, this one amazing kid who’d loved the Scottish class so much he’d taken my new one, too. This one guy raises his hand confidently and goes ‘I can read that.’ Unable to help myself, I beamed. And I smiled in part because this kid didn’t just ‘know how to read Scots.’ He’d spent enough time studying and thinking and writing about Scottish experience that he’d come to see it’s relation to Standard English in coeval terms, to thoughtfully respect its complexity rather than reducing it to a sign of corruption or profanity. Everyone else looked at him like he was an alien as he clearly translated the rich Glaswegian Scots into something soothing and familiar, known and therefore trustworthy.
Most of us who watched Trainspotting in or around 1996 had very little sense of the cultural politics involved in its unselfconscious presentation of working-class experience and Scots vernacular. In order to, we’d have had to think about the fact that the better portion of our English language literature had always been written in Standard English (SE). We’d have had to make conscious something that was so normal, so effortless and so everywhere and all the time that to ‘see’ it would be to see air. We don’t often think, for example, that we naturally associate ourselves with a narrator speaking in SE. Even when we see accented speech or dialect in a text, it’s most often bounded by the SE of a narrator which curls in and out of action, framing dialogue with the implicit authority of received pronunciation, subordinating anything different.
By the time Welsh published Trainspotting in 1993 that frame had already been shattered by a number of Glaswegian poets and writers, such as Leonard and James Kelman. A year later Kelman’s How Late it Was, How Late would win the 1994 Booker Prize, instigating a veritable shitstorm of teeth-gnashing amongst the London-based literati, many of whom refused to legitimize a novel, written in Glaswegian demotic, which so insolently, proudly, and creatively chewed at the innards of the staid, respectable British novel. I laugh whenever I think of this, because to my mind all Kelman did was insist that the language spoken around him on a day-to-day basis was a legitimate form of expression. All he did was demonstrate that to see through the consciousness contained in that language was to explore how the people he knew built and inhabited their world. All he did was implicitly claim that to do so verified the existence of those who spoke it and marked them as visible beings with human value.
In brasher, far more vulgar, and often more hilarious terms, Trainspotting extends Kelman’s intervention to the Edinburgh environs, where it puts the inhabitants of the city’s previously ignored nether-regions on full display. I choose the latter words carefully, because there is a danger in such experiments of exoticizing the speakers of such languages, to laugh at their silliness and thus banish them once again to the realm of abnormal, and therefore disempowered, oddity. But what’s so great about both Kelman and Welsh is that they refuse to allow this because they do away with the stable frame of reference supplied by Standard English. In Trainspotting the dialect is the frame and you are the oddity.
For the most part, Boyle’s adaptation of Trainspotting follows suit, forcing alienation on a viewer and daring them to catch up and find their way in a world that recognizes their authority at best with resentment. There are times when its need to sell itself to a global audience—the subtitles running under the club scene discussion between Tommy and Spud, for instance—but these are fewer and further between. In fact, whereas the novel was sold in the United States with a glossary included at the end, the film allows for no such concession to the bewildered. You just have to stick it out, hoping that the walls that have unconsciously formed around your experience of the world will begin to crack as the words beat energetically through your head. And Trainspotting really is a fabulous, sacrilegious riot of language and sound and tactile, immediate sensation that overturns so much of the ordered and official which regulates our lived experience in this world. It’s a carnival of glee and misery and hope and dejection all rolled into a condensed ball of energetic fury and love and loss.
Listening to the rhythms of Trainspotting’s dialogue twenty years later gives me a lot of feels. Like some, perhaps, I’ve long clung to my initial experience of that exhilarating brush with difference. But after living there as long as I did, working, laughing, and playing with Scots of all stripes, the language, which can never be mine, still carries a comfort and familiarity I’m hesitant to relinquish. I’ll admit that I’ve kept a number of Scottish colloquialisms close to hand since I moved away, in part because I know they’re what’s left of my time there. To lose them is to lose my experience the same way we lose memories, knowledge, or skill through lack of use. I’ll admit that over the last ten years I’ve returned to Trainspotting in all its forms because I haven’t been ready to let that part of my life go.
I’m going to see T2: Trainspotting tonight and I’ve prepared myself to feel it in one way and to think about it in another. Trainspotting (the film) is a character study more than anything else, and it appears T2 is a film which appropriately focuses on the evolution of the mythology’s characters rather than the socio-historical contexts in which they operate. From watching the trailer half a dozen times, in addition to interviews with the cast and crew, I know what I’m getting into. There will be a lot of rehash of the first film’s stylistic bravura, as the main characters reconvene in middle age to reminisce on and ponder their maturity and move past—or not—the hang-ups from their youth which continue to haunt them. As a fan of the first film’s story, form, and style, I have to admit I’m okay with this. In a way it would be strange for the filmmakers to suddenly decide that fidelity to the source material (in this case, Welsh’s 2002 follow-up, Porno) is the point. At the same time, it seems obvious to me that this is going to be a film that is both about nostalgia and heavily nostalgic in its own right. Boyle, Hodge, and the producers cannot do anything but make a film in the conscious light of the first film’s success and, while I’m not going to revel in the return of some vague ’90s zeitgeist, I’m also not going to stop myself from basking in an ordinary kind of gladness at the new film’s depictions of characters—and an Edinburgh—I love, often miss, but probably need to let go.
The scholar of Scottish culture in me will not be able to operate on that wavelength, I’m sure, and I may need to see it again so that I can devote more thought than feeling to a second viewing. Recent events—the failed Scottish independence referendum of 2014, last year’s successful Brexit referendum, and the Scottish Parliament’s recent vote to seek a second referendum on independence—have my critical mind spinning. I don’t know yet whether, or how, T2 fits into the events which will surely follow over the next five to ten years.
The trailer makes it sound as though Renton has revised his ‘choose life’ speech to fit the historical realities of our day, but whether this operates in the film as critical commentary or kitschy stylistic wallpaper remains to be seen. I hope it’s the former. I hope that ‘choosing life’ does not get turned into the very reasonable, but also saccharine, admission that we all ‘have to grow up and face facts’ at some point. If this works well as a mantra for personal growth, it seems less applicable to political situations wherein accepting reality more often than not means bowing to an established status quo. Scotland, like any nation, has some growing up to do, for sure. But growing up means exactly that: growth, change, evolution, and not a return to the comfortable, the familiar, the same.
Coda: “Vanishing ___________”
For the last six months or so I’ve been following a local Instagram account called #vanishingseattle, the owner of which posts photos of landmarks, restaurants, and homes which have fallen victim to Seattle’s most recent wave of invasive affluence and hyperdevelopment. I follow the account in part because I’m ambivalent about the changed currently at work in my city and because I want to remember who I am by reminding myself of the places in which that self was made. Watching T2: Trainspotting made me think and feel a lot of things, but one of the first things I thought of when I left the theater was #vanishingseattle. This is in part because the Edinburgh depicted—the actual Edinburgh, versus the largely Glasgow-based locations of the first film—is currently undergoing a similar process of transformation by ‘creative destruction.’ Whereas Trainspotting has a grimy, washed-out feel, as though taking place in a half-erased city, the terrain of T2 is resplendent and new, with new people, a new economy, a new Scottish government. Yet, at the same time, piles of rubbish, rubble, and junk dominate the settings of the film. As the characters gather for their various reunions and the plot—mercifully, I now realize, freed from the bonds of Welsh’s sequel—spins on its way, you get a sense that the erasure and reconstitution of the city has deprived the characters of their ability to make sense of themselves, to even make sense of the story that we’ve grown to love over the last twenty years.
I love this, and I think it’s the pressure to both close old wounds and build into fresh terrain that the film reconstructs its story from the nadir outward, weaving novel, film, and original writing together in clearing ground for something new. For example, I love the way T2 revisits parts of the original novel which were cut from the Trainspotting but which come back around here as Spud’s stories in order to remind all four that they are both bound to the past and free to revise and transcend it. Rather than being nostalgic for nostalgia’s sake, T2 seems instead to fully illuminate the necessity and pain of memory, the compulsion to keep moving, and the desire—never fully achieved by any of the characters, but on its way—to assume an active, interdependent, and mutual accord with past and future. There’s no better symbol of this then when Renton, back in that hideously decorated train-themed bedroom at film’s end, finally drops the needle down on a record we’ve spent most of the film thinking will be Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life.” And it is, but not quite. ’70s post-pop purists will squeal sacrilege, but it’s instead a turbo-fueled Prodigy remix of the song which throbs and screeches through an intro before opening onto an equally electric and uncannily vivacious melody. While Renton dances, ironically free in the prison from which he for so long felt he must escape, we’re free to reflect on whether this is destruction or creation, vanishing or appearance, the banal same or a dynamic transformation.