PRINT Summer 1996



IN BRITAIN, POP CULTURE and drug culture are almost synonymous these days. From Oasis’ anthems of coked-out glory-lust to Pulp’s number-one hit “Sorted for E’s and Wizz” (a brilliantly ambivalent evocation of the dream and lie of rave), from the ganja-delic paranoia of Tricky to jungle’s journeys into the dark side of Ecstasy culture, British pop is all highs and lows, uppers and downers. Other sectors of the culture industry lag behind music in reflecting what every British kid takes for granted: the sheer omnipresence and banality of recreational drug use. Which is why Irvine Welsh, chronicler of the “chemical generation,” has become such a cult figure, and why the movie of his 1993 debut novel Trainspotting has become such a sensation in England, a sort of UK counterpart to Kids.

A big source of Welsh’s appeal is the shock of encountering a writer who deals with British drug culture in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way, while never concealing either its physical and psychic costs or the desperation that fuels it. The backdrop to his tales of lumpen-prole life in the deprived “housing schemes” of Edinburgh is postindustrial unemployment and the humiliation of a socialist Scotland within a Tory-ruled UK. He seldom confronts this political deadlock explicitly, but when he does, his anatomy of curdled idealism and hope is unsparing. In the novella A Smart Cunt (part of the story collection The Acid House, published in England in 1994), a left-wing militant tries to recruit Brian (Welsh’s most autobiographical protagonist). “I’m thinking, what can I do, really do for the emancipation of working people in this country, shat on by the rich, tied into political inaction by servile reliance on a reactionary, moribund and yet still unelectable Labour Party?,” muses Brian. “The answer is a resounding fuck all. Getting up early to sell a couple of [political pamphlets] in a shopping centre is not my idea of the best way to chill out. . . . I think I’ll stick to drugs to get me through the long, dark night of late capitalism.”

In Welsh’s world, even nonravers are on drugs, literally (state-sanctioned chemicals like alcohol or tranquilizers) or metaphorically (TV, videos, computer games, the adrenaline rush of football violence). But Welsh—an ex-junkie and still a fervent raver—is mostly preoccupied with illegal forms of raising and razing consciousness. The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, published in England in 1995, and the forthcoming Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances largely concern the rave scene’s drugs of choice: MDMA, LSD, and “jellies” (slang for the downer Temazepam). And Trainspotting focuses on Edinburgh’s heroin subculture of the mid ’80s, when Pakistani smack had glutted the UK market, becoming, for thousands of ordinary people mired in unemployment, a cheaper means to oblivion than alcohol.

Welsh captures this moment by contrasting the “honest” junkies Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy with their mate Begbie, a sociopath who boasts that he “wouldnae poison ma body with that shite” while consuming gallons of booze, smoking like a chimney, and finding his own twisted form of release in gratuitous violence. But Welsh’s junkies aren’t just renegades from the “hard man” mentality Begbie represents; they’re also in revolt against Scotland’s “work hard, play hard” regime. Welsh describes the smackhead as a “closet romantic,” someone who refuses to accept life’s limitations. It is from this one among many of Welsh’s stray insights that director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge (the team responsible for the 1994 film Shallow Grave) launch their movie. Putting a mischievous spin on the slogan “just say no,” their version of Trainspotting fanfares heroin as a romantic renunciation of mediocrity.

In a monologue superimposed over an exhilarating chase scene after a bungled shoplifting, Renton (Ewan McGregor) sarcastically itemizes the meaningless options available to the good citizen. “Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. . . . Choose your future. Choose life.” Then the punch line: “Well, I chose not to choose life. . . . And the reasons? Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin.” This is up-front stuff, and before you’ve caught your breath, Boyle cuts to perhaps the most true-to-Welsh aspect of the movie: a paean to self-poisoning. “People think heroin is all about death and misery and despair. . . . What they forget is the pleasure of it. . . . After all, we’re not fucking stupid.” The scene is the glamorously squalid council flat (the grot and grunge have a glossy, hyperreal feel) where Renton and his pals cook up and inject. The camera clings to their pasty faces, screwed up in need and anticipation, relief and rapture. Allison (Susan Vidler), a single mother (her baby crawls happily among filth and comatose bodies), is shot up by Sick Boy (Jonny Lee Miller) in a parody of sexual penetration; as her face spasms with the rush, she gasps, “That’s better than any meat injection, better than any fucking cock in the world.” Renton’s voice-over attempts to quantify the experience: “Take your best orgasm and multiply it by a thousand.” (This is inflation: in the book, it’s only by twenty.)

Predictably, Trainspotting has been accused of glamorizing drugs, and indeed the film is riveting in precise ratio to the extent that it glosses over the tawdry torpor of the druggie lifestyle. Welsh’s writing gets round the banality of drug use, and the dreariness of the environment that the junkies seek to “obliviate,” by the vividness of his dialogue—rich with slang and expletives, and mostly in dialect. Toning down the verbals (Welsh-speak is hard for non-Scots), Boyle vibes up the visuals. This and his film’s sheer pace conspire to make its wasters and psychos appear dynamic and charismatic, people you’d love to hang out with.

Speaking to Premiere magazine, Boyle was surprisingly candid about the liberties he took. Researching the movie, he “met a lot of real junkies. That was really, really depressing. Suddenly there didn’t seem any real energy to build the film on other than the book. When you meet the real things it’s like all the life has been taken away and there’s nothing left but victims. . . . It’s a debilitating experience rather than something that gives energy and life.” In the novel, Renton is plain, zit-plagued, and unhealthy; as played by McGregor, he’s dead sexy. And though Boyle knew that “real junkies . . . [are] quite chubby,” he made McGregor shed 28 pounds in order to achieve “the stick thin, artificial version . . . that is the conceived idea of a heroin addict.”

The fakeness of Trainspotting is both what’s problematic and what’s most engaging about it. Breaking with the gritty, quasi-documentary feel we’ve come to expect from British cinema (Ken Loach, Mike Leigh), Boyle opts instead for a kind of social surrealism. Struggling to kick, Renton procures some opium suppositories to ease his withdrawal pangs. (The dodgy-dealer cameo is played by Welsh himself.) But his habit has caused chronic constipation, which, minus heroin, wears off, and he’s forced to relieve himself in a filthy public toilet. Realizing too late that he’s also voided his precious narcotic orbs, Renton plunges his arms into the blocked toilet, then literally dives down the bowl. Suddenly he’s swimming through a beatific subaquascape to the soothing Mantovani-esque strains of Brian Eno’s “Deep Blue Day,” and triumphantly scooping his lost gems from the rocky seabed.

This amniotic vision was probably inspired by a passage in the book that imagines heroin as an “internal sea,” the only trouble being that “this beautiful ocean carries with it loads ay poisonous flotsam and jetsam . . . once the ocean rolls out, it leaves the shite behind, inside ma body.” Elsewhere, though, Trainspotting’s visual brio subverts the book’s meaning. Having successfully kicked, Renton confronts the real challenge—coping with the dreariness of unaltered consciousness. Keeping him on a close leash, his parents take him to the pub. But Boyle and Hodge deal with this supposed tedium by speeding up the film, so that the pub’s middle-aged bingo players whizz around the inert Renton; the filmmakers can’t let boredom be boring.

Departing from the book in the film’s last segment, Boyle and Hodge give us a brief vignette of a London rave that hints that the heroin scene of a few years earlier was but a prequel to Ecstasy culture. This interlude seems like a nod to Welsh’s reputation as the “rave author”; indeed its paean to a new, Ecstasy-sponsored spirit of androgyny was probably inspired by Marabou Stork Nightmares. Another aspect of rave—its surrogate sense of community and belonging as a reaction against Tory-imposed social fragmentation—isn’t spelled out, but can be read against another key sequence (also absent from the book) that shows Renton thriving as a London real estate agent at the height of the quick-killing economic boom of the late ’80s. Describing his pleasure in scamming clients with dodgy apartment conversions, Renton paraphrases one of Margaret Thatcher’s most infamous proclamations: “There’s no such thing as society.”

Renton’s buddies, too, have come up with their own nefarious take on “enterprise culture”: Sick Boy is a pimp and a pusher, Begbie’s done an armed robbery. Thatcher’s illegitimate children, they embroil Renton in a massive heroin deal. Taking self-help and initiative one step further, Renton rips off his homeboys and absconds with the loot. The movie ends as he strides into a bright tomorrow, the camera close-up on his maniacally grinning face as he recites a mantra of affirmation: “I’m cleaning up and moving on, going straight and choosing life,” followed by an incantatory list of all the things (“indexed pension, tax exemption, clearing the gutters, getting by”) that he’d earlier repudiated. Welsh’s book, though, ends on a more ambivalent, tentative note. Renton screws over his mates precisely in order to burn his boats; he can never return to Edinburgh for fear of Begbie’s retribution. “There, he could not be anything other than he was. Now, free from them all, for good, he could be what he wanted to be.”

Still, both book and film share a blind spot on the creepy subtext of Renton’s escape. Not only has he broken the blood-brother ties of his surrogate clan, he has paid for his one-way ticket out of the proletariat with the proceeds of a heroin deal, thereby further enmiring thousands of his erstwhile fellow addicts. Both these betrayals reinforce the proposition that “there is no such thing as society.” In the absence of any hope of collective amelioration, the only way out is class defection. For those who remain behind, drugs—taking them, selling them—is all that’s left in “the long dark night of late capitalism.”

Simon Reynolds is a frequent contributor to Artforum.