When Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting was released in 1996 I was 18, and a first year undergraduate at Cardiff University. I had read the book a few months before the film’s release as I had been embroiled in a love affair with a fellow literature student 7 years my senior. Our love was a bit like My Fair Lady in the sense that he kind of gentrified me, educating me in the works of the Romantic poets, Renaissance drama and Pre-Raphaelite art.
One day my beau handed me a well-thumbed copy of Irvine Welsh’s seminal work and told me to drink it in. I did – once I had gotten past the fact that it is written entirely in the Scottish vernacular. It demanded dedication to get through Trainspotting at 18, kind of like reading a modern-day, dysfunctional Chaucer. It required real engagement from the reader to persevere with all the foreign Scottish terms. But once I had gotten to grips with it I was, like so many of Welsh’s characters, utterly hooked.
When the movie was released in the February of ’96 we all went to see it in trepidation, worried that the big screen wouldn’t do justice to the book du jour. We needn’t have worried; it blew everyone away. As soon as the opening credits rolled to the sounds of Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life with Ewan McGregor’s now famous soliloquy about ‘choosing life’ we all fell a little bit more in love with the four skagheads from Edinburgh.
The nineties were a strange time to be a teenager, we had already had grunge and the suicide of Kurt Cobain in 1992, teenagers wandering around in tee-shirts emblazoned with “I hate myself and I want to die”, there was a nihilism about my generation. An irreverence toward the established order of things.
The emergence of illegal raves had resulted in the Criminal Justice Act of 1994, which, in section 63, afforded police powers to shut down events with music “characterised by the emission of a succession of repetitive beats”. This caused wide scale street protests, ravers dropping pills before they marched, fighting for their right to party.
But ravers weren’t the only people targeted by the Act, travellers were also vilified, with councils repealing their duty to provide permanent sites, and new unsupervised stop and search powers afforded to the police, the right to silence was impinged and ‘disruptive trespass’ became a criminal act.
By the time Trainspotting was released in ’96 we were at the tail end of two decades of Tory rule, the sense of disillusionment was tangible, but so was the energy. We were all raging against the machine, we were all a little manic; which is why when Trainspotting’s opening credits rolled to Mark Renton’s feverish sprint down an Edinburgh street, misappropriating the well-meaning ‘choose life’ rhetoric of an ‘80s anti-drug campaign it was like a call to arms.
A peculiar thing occurred, the fate of four drug-addled anti-heroes from the Edinburgh underworld spoke to a generation of similarly disillusioned youth who had grown up under Thatcher’s ‘greed is good’ ethos of morally bankrupt social vandalism and rampant consumerism.
Trainspotting so powerfully and provocatively tapped in to the zeitgeist of the ‘90s. Just like Rent Boy, Sick Boy and Spud we didn’t want that “fucking big television; washing machines; electric tin openers, leisure wear and matching luggage”, we realised we’d been sold a consumerist dystopia by the baby boomers. The narrative of Trainspotting spoke for an entire generation who, like the protagonists in the film, chose not to choose life.
And even the kids who did ‘choose life’ still related to its message. You’d have been hard-pressed in those days to find a halls of residence in the land without the ‘choose life’ poster adorning its walls, or Iggy Pop and Blondie blaring out of the stereos as students everywhere played the hell out of the Trainspotting soundtrack.
As literature students we revelled in director Danny Boyle’s cinematic nods to other counter-cultural works such as Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange – a film also about a group of disenfranchised youths on the margins of society and at the mercy of their addictions. In A Clockwork Orange the addiction was rape and violence, in Trainspotting the addiction was heroin.
The references to its cult predecessor were everywhere in Trainspotting – from the Clockwork Orange-inspired slogans onto the wall in the now-famous nightclub scene, to the use of Heaven 17’s Temptation in the soundtrack – the ‘80s band of course taking their name from the fictional band Heaven Seventeen in Anthony Burgess’s novel A Clockwork Orange.
In all its gore and grimness Trainspotting was breathtakingly clever, and multi-layered. The black humour of scenes such as Spud’s poonami – covering his in-laws with faeces over breakfast, contrasting with the straight-up blackness of the cot death scene in which we see a neglected infant meet her untimely end whilst her caregivers shoot up heroin around her tiny corpse. It was the juxtaposition of gritty realism with bizarre surrealism that gave it its power, its punch.
Perhaps symbolically 21 years later T2 Trainspotting also opens with a shot of Renton running, but this time he is isn’t running away from the establishment following a shoplifting spree, he’s a 46 years old and he’s on a treadmill. Just as we all are in our own ways, two decades later. It turns out that he did choose life, but even though he’s still running, nowadays he’s going nowhere fast.
If the original Trainspotting was a study in anarchic youth, T2 is a film about middle age. About growing older and making sense of where the choices we made have taken us. And it is also about friendship. We learn through flashbacks that the friendships of these four men was not just about drugs, it predated heroin, their collective narrative began in childhood. Their identies entwined way beyond the sharing of needles.
Twenty years on the pace is slower, more sedate, as it is for all of us in our forties, and our four protagonists’ lives are tinged with disappointment and regret. The more things have changed, the more they have stayed the same. Sick Boy is still a dealer and a pimp who, symbolically, lives next door to a scrap heap, Renton is still directionless, Spud still an addict and Begbie still a violent criminal.
But as much as the original Trainspotting saw Renton and Sick Boy take centre stage, T2 belongs to the characters of Begbie and Spud – whose narratives are poignantly fleshed out, giving the audience insight into the men behind the caricatures.
In Begbie we see threads of fragility – the alcoholic father and developmental delay in his youth that contributed to his present-day sociopathy. We see the irony of the sexual impotence that hides behind his machismo. And we also see the emotional reckoning, his heart-breaking realisation that he is no better than his own father, and that he has failed his own son who has no common ground upon which to relate to his father.
For Spud there is an equal reckoning – an acknowledgment of a life lost to the needle. Another parental failing with the son whom he still calls “wee Fergus” even though he is now a teenager. Reminding us of the years that drug abuse steals, and the way in which users become somehow frozen in time.
And yet Spud quite literally find his voice in this sequel, taking on an authorial role, much like Irvine Welsh himself did, in telling stories about dysfunction. In detailing the minutiae of their lives Spud becomes the master of his own narrative.
There are frequent nods to millennial life, in Renton’s updated ‘choose life’ speech in which he references modern-day obsessions with social networking and the isolation that accompanies it. And in the cinematography which uses Snap Chat filters and selfies and CCTV frames, perhaps commenting on how public, and staged, our lives have become.
But it is also self-referential, shifting back and forth in time, recreating scenes we all know and love from the first film; the Worst Toilet in Scotland, Renton almost getting run-over, the pilgrimage to Corrour Station site of the famous “It’s shite being Scottish, Tommy” speech.
The power of this is just as these four middle aged men reminisce about their visit there with the now-deceased Tommy twenty years before, so do we as the audience. We knew Tommy too. We felt the tragedy of his descent into heroin addiction and HIV infection just as they did.
And this is T2’s strength, it is not as riotous or shocking as the original, but it’s not meant to be. It is a film about what becomes of us. It is a film about what happens after you choose not to choose life. And its magic lies in what the audience brings to it, as much as what it gives to the audience. Because those of us that saw this movie in their youth have grown up in real time alongside the characters.
A sequel that had been made 5 years after the original couldn’t have commented in the way that T2 does, because it needed those two decades in between. Haven’t we all had our own emotional reckonings since the ‘90s, since the days of raving and protesting? Don’t we all, to a greater or lesser degree, wrestle with our own forms of existential angst about what our lives mean and what we have achieved?
Don’t we all wonder at some point if we have travelled far from the people we thought we’d be by our forties? It has been a twenty-year rail-ride with these characters, a journey that has run in parallel to our own lives, our own choices. T2 is just another stop along the way…