It’s illogical that a book written 25 years ago, set in the 80s on an Edinburgh council estate, and written in a language you can barely understand could inform the way that you view the present day.
But that’s just how poignant Irvine Welsh’s seminal 1993 novel Trainspotting is. Prior to reading I’d seen Danny Boyle’s film adaption, must’ve been 10 times, and in hindsight feel immensely guilty for not having read Welsh’s book first. As a stand-alone, the film is obviously a masterpiece, one that cemented a place in time—a generation—on the screen and claimed its place alongside 90s cultural mammoths Blur, Hurst, Moss etc., as a worthy member of the “Cool Brittania” canon. But the film merely compliments the book. Welsh’s novel is so rich in themes and spunk and language that, despite being a swift read, packaging it in its entirety for the screen would be impossible. Not to mention that fact that Danny Boyle’s too savvy an auteur to ever try and do that. In fact, my greatest regret in the order of my consumption is testament to Boyle’s success: I was robbed of the pleasure of letting my imagination work out what the novel looks like because his casting and aesthetic is too strong to shake.
The language in Trainspotting hits you right in the face. Linguistically it’s what you’d describe as “Scottish English”, but it’s not an official written language, especially when it contains the amount of colloquialisms and swearing that Trainspotting does. The first chapter, the first line even, leaves you scratching your head going, ‘How the hell am I going to read a whole book full of made-up words?’ But despite first glance, the phonetics of Welsh’s words actually make it really easy to read. Once you’re into it, you’ll soon find yourself developing an internal Scottish monologue, calling people “radge cunts!” in the surf, on the road, at home etc. It makes you feel tough like listening to rap music, and what’s daunting at first, soon becomes one of the great pleasures of the book.
One of the stark differences between the characters in the book and the film is that every single character that’s central to Welsh’s plot is as morally ambiguous as the next. Especially Renton, the protagonist, who most identify as speaking Welsh’s truth. Despite giving the performance of a lifetime, Ewan McGregor’s too handsome to get Renton’s complexity absolutely down. In the book he has sex with his brother’s pregnant widow, in the bathroom, at the wake. Just one of the myriad of graphic scenes in the book that make you go, ‘What on god’s earth just happened?’ You can almost hear Welsh’s mischievous chuckle coming through the page: “Wanny expectin’ tha wer yer ya bastard!”
Begbie too, the psycho, is capable of such moments of tenderness and loyalty, that you have to shake yourself and recall the multitude of savage beatings that he gives his girlfriend/any poor sod who looks in his direction at the pub. The characters are real because Welsh’s experience growing up on an Edinburgh council estate like Lieth is real. Human nature doesn’t follow the washed-up morals of religious fallout, there is no black and white, good or evil—although Welsh leaves little hope for the moral retribution of Alan Venters, the character who rapes a girl at knifepoint and infects her with HIV, but he gets his comeuppance, of sorts—and humans are all painful, damaged and complicated in their own unique way. The way Welsh gets this across is a triumph.
We’re all familiar with the “Choose Life” speech, masterfully ripped from the guts of the novel and reappropriated to open Boyle’s film. But Renton’s monologue is just one of a book-full of wisdoms that could just as well be written in regard to the present day—“By definition, you have to live until you die. Better to make that life as complete and enjoyable an experience as possible, in case death is shite, which I suspect it will be”—and that’s why the book’s still so important. It’s about what happens to a generation who’s squeezed, told that they’re worthless and that they’ll never amount to anything. The main difference, as I see it, is that they went ‘Fuck you, I don’t want what you’ve got’ and stuck needles in their arms, whereas the main criticism of my generation is that we go out to breakfast too much.
So if you’re pissed off and tired of housing affordability, royal weddings and getting told what you should be doing by a generation who was gifted everything (education, livable wages, affordable housing, the list goes on) and has still left us to inherit a world in literal ruins, take a trip with Begbie, Spud, Renton and the gang. If nothing else, it’s reassuring that the gripes of our generation aren’t exclusive.