Credit: Channel Four films

Trainspotting: Scotland off the rails

By Rosie Shackles

Almost 30 years after Trainspotting’s publication, Culture Editor Rosie Shackles examines why the cult classic is just as relevant today.

Content warning: discussion of drug use and addiction

“Choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food intae yir mooth” hit a little too close to home when reading cult classic Trainspotting, especially during that weird what-day-is-it-and-who-am-I January haze. A depiction of Scotland’s long-lasting drug-death epidemic, Irvine Welsh’s 1993 novel remains a stark reminder of the snail-paced progress made in tackling drug addiction and death right on our doorstep. A wildly entertaining, unimaginably bleak and perfectly poignant tale with some of the most (and least) likeable characters of any book I’ve read, Trainspotting is a perfect work of fiction that is unfortunately too close to today’s reality.

Scotland has the highest number of drug deaths in the EU; three times higher than that of England and Wales. Dundee is the drug capital of Europe. It is no surprise that Nicola Sturgeon has said that “drug deaths are our greatest shame”. Things seem to be looking slightly brighter as, at the end of 2020, the Scottish government pledged £50m a year for five years to reduce drug deaths and ensure a safer environment for drug users. This was seen as a pivotal moment for a country with such an embedded issue, for such a long time. We will await the results. 

Welsh’s novel was both a product of, and, simultaneously ahead of its time, in its unpacking of drug issues. However, today, there is a misconception of the so-called “Trainspotting Generation” – the now 40- and 50-year-old drug-users of the 80s, those perceived as real-life Trainspotting characters. Service manager at Addaction Dundee, Dave Barrie, pointed to official figures revealing that today, the biggest cohort for drug-related deaths are those aged 35 to 44, not the generation Welsh represented in Trainspotting. Andrew McAuley, a senior research fellow on substance use at Glasgow Caledonian University, spoke to The New York Times: “I remember there was outrage when the headlines said ‘One death every day from drugs’.” He continued: “That seems like glory days. We’re four times that now.” Ultimately, while the time has inevitably progressed, approaches to the issue have not, and the drug-death epidemic worsens.  

Welsh is a master storyteller. Not only portraying opioid misuse, Welsh delves into ableism, racism, classism and sexism (a clean sweep of the isms). Each chapter is narrated by a different character, and allows deep insight into the psyches of more than just Mark Renton, unlike the 1998 film adaptation in which he is the protagonist. Rents’ handicapped, now dead brother is a source of shame that helps fuel his addiction; Spud’s uncle is mixed race and faces consistent racial abuse; there are prostitutes, and crime, there’s infant death, there’s HIV and there’s domestic abuse. At the end of 360 pages, Welsh hasn’t left much uncovered and certainly hasn’t left much to the imagination. It’s a cocktail that I took one sip of then gulped right down in spite of its sour taste. Not a book for the fainthearted: my sometimes-vanilla reading tastebuds were overwhelmed. But read it whatever your taste tends to be, it is brilliant. 

As for the Edinburgh dialect it’s written in: don’t be discouraged. Once you get into the swing of things, it becomes an integral part of the storytelling, and the characters will become identifiable by the style they are written in, another masterful trick by Welsh. Saying “aye” doesn’t even come naturally to me after living in Scotland for 21 years, and I adjusted just fine… 

Despite the three novels now written following the activities of Rents, Sick Boy, Begbie, and Spud, et al., Welsh has admitted that he doesn’t often think about the characters he created – and no longer lives in Scotland. Although, speaking to The Guardian, he said: “They were making choices that many more people are having to make now. They were facing a kind of existential crisis – what is the point of us if we are redundant? Back then, they were mocked – all those lost men without jobs, or community, or a shared sense of purpose. Now, that’s become very much a middle-class problem, too.” 

Was Trainspotting a warning? A dark but humorous insight into the life of heroin addicts, written to usher lawmakers into action? Welsh wanted it to be a cult classic, but didn’t expect it to be “generation-defining”. His novel now shows that Scotland’s drug problem has been a long, drawn-out issue, always stigmatised, never remedied. The 2021 reader will close the book (sadly) and realise it is time for Scotland, and the rest of the UK, to treat drug misuse as a health problem, and not as a criminal justice problem. And then probably order Skag Boys and Porno on next day delivery.


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