A look back at Trainspotting, 20 years on

Robert Carlyle as Begbie and Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy in the film adaptation. Picture: Complimentary
Robert Carlyle as Begbie and Johnny Lee Miller as Sick Boy in the film adaptation. Picture: Complimentary
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EIGHT little words, no swearing yet – that would come within the next few pages – but simple words that would change the face of Scottish literature: “The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling.”

When Irvine Welsh sat down and wrote that opening sentence to his 1993 novel Trainspotting, he set in sequence a remarkable chain of events, a first trip-inducing shot in the arm for what would become a publishing, movie and social phenomenon unlike anything that had gone before.

Something within pages that careered from faeces-covered lavatories to pavement puddles of vomit, from fumbling sex scenes and expletive after expletive, lit a fuse which not only caused a literary explosion in Scotland, but right around the world.

It is 20 years to the day since a then unknown writer called Irvine Welsh was unleashed on a horrified Edinburgh establishment, brandishing a novel that would rock the city’s genteel fathers – and horrified mothers. For within the pages of Trainspotting was a new and outrageous Edinburgh, as far removed from the tartan shortbread tin image as could possibly be imagined.

Instead, the gritty drug-fuelled novel ripped away the city’s facade of posh cobbled New Town streets and atmospheric Old Town lanes, to shine a dazzling spotlight on grim, gritty and grotesque schemes, deprived dens awash with crime, abuse and poverty which until then, no-one had really cared to write about.

The rest, of course, is history. Trainspotting became one of the most talked about, most stolen, most copied and most acclaimed of modern Scottish novels, spawning film and stage versions, imitations and even, according to Scottish author Ewan Morrison, laying down the groundwork for music, fashion and a whole generation’s social attitudes.

“There are certain cultural objects in history that are significant and can influence everyone. If you look back at the ’90s, people talk about Britpop and heroin chic and lads’ culture. It all came from Scotland.It all came from Trainspotting,” he argues.

Morrison, whose novel Close Your Eyes has been shortlisted for this year’s Scottish Mortgage Investment Trust Book Awards, says the powerful opening scene where Renton and Spud are stealing books sums up Trainspotting’s place in modern culture. “Trainspotting is the most stolen book in the history of publishing.

“I have to admit that I have never bought a copy of Trainspotting, but I’ve stolen five copies of it in my life. I’ve not actually stolen them from shops, although that would be fine because Irvine would still get paid if I did that.

“But I think the first time, I was at a yuppie party in about ’94. I shouldn’t have been there – I was a scummy student arty-type, living on the dole. They had a copy of Trainspotting and I was so insulted that they had it I stuck it in my pocket and legged it.”

Of course, he’s not alone. According to Welsh’s student friend, fellow writer John Neil Munro, more copies of Trainspotting were sneaked out of libraries and branches of Waterstone’s than any other book – a sign, perhaps, that its fans crossed social boundaries unlike any other book of the time.

“A lot of people who would not normally read, people who lived on the schemes that Irvine wrote about, suddenly wanted to read a book. And it turned a lot of people on to writing too. His editor has said how after it was published, every second manuscript that arrived was an imitation of Trainspotting.

“When it made it on to the stage, suddenly people who had never been to the theatre before were on their way to the Traverse to watch it.”

John, whose latest book Lust for Life! Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting Phenomenon recalls his own friendship with Welsh, says the book threw light on real Edinburgh social problems – drink and drugs – which until then had never been explored in story form. “And it was very non-judgemental. One minute you’d be retching, the next rolling on the floor laughing.”

Critics had varying responses to the book. London critics loved it, but further afield one Australian reviewer condemned it as a “collection of quite incomprehensible stories from Edinburgh’s drug culture” which, with its street dialect and gritty tone, would demand “more perseverance than the hardiest Scot will give it”.

They were, of course, wrong. For against a backdrop of growing fear over the city’s HIV problems, dissatisfaction with Tory rule and the continuing loss of Scottish industry with the closure of steelworks Ravenscraig, along with war in Bosnia and three million unemployed, the novel struck a definite chord.

Bill Campbell, founder of Edinburgh-based publishers Mainstream, remembers the shockwaves the book created among the city’s establishment who quaked at the manner in which the capital was being portrayed and language used by the young upstart author. For his part, the only problem with Trainspotting was that he didn’t get the chance to publish it himself. “It was groundbreaking,” he recalls.

“There had been some writing at that time that took on the dimmer side and dirty side of Glasgow – William McIlvanney of course was the daddy of Tartan Noir. And Irvine basically picked up that torch and ran with it from the east coast. In doing that, he created a popular, new modern culture.

“There was shock from the establishment,” he adds, “but that was almost following a tradition set down by the angry young men of the 50s – writers like Alan Sillitoe and John Osborne, who set about creating a stir among the establishment whether they wanted to be enlightened or not.

“Trainspotting opened the door for a lot of young writers who were influenced by that style and that idea of social writing. It had social conscience. It was true to working class roots.

“And it inspired many to pick up the book and read.

“This was in their own patois, their own language of the streets and for them to have their home written about in such realistic terms was surprising and shocking.” Author Morrison, meanwhile, believes Trainspotting has earned a unique place in Scottish literature. “Trainspotting nailed something that is quintessentially Scottish, which is that kind of brutal honest.

“The book is sort of beyond financial value,” he says. “It’s almost like they should just hand you a f****** copy when you come over the Border. Welcome to Scotland – here, you’re going to need this.”

• Additional reporting by Dale Miller

The birth of a publishing phenomenon

TRAINSPOTTING was Irvine Welsh’s first novel, but within months of hitting bookshops it had become a publishing phenomenon.

Set in the late 1980s, it revolved around a group of heroin-users led by Renton, whose drug-fuelled lives careered through sleazy sexual encounters, crime and bouts of illness with devastating and sometimes hilarious consequences.

The book quickly achieved cult status, fuelled further by the 1996 movie based on it, which was directed by Danny Boyle and launched a new group of young Scottish actors – led by Ewan McGregor and Robert Carlyle – on the road to stardom.

Welsh originally received £1000 for the book. The original print run of 3000 quickly sold out. It went on to sell more than one million copies in the UK and four million around the world.

Earlier this year Welsh released Skagboys, the prequel to Trainspotting.

From Capital to Chicago

TRAINSPOTTING author Irvine Welsh, pictured below, was born in 1957 in Elsie Inglis Maternity Hospital. His family moved from Leith to West Pilton and eventually to a maisonette in Muirhouse Avenue.

He went to the now defunct Ainslie Park High School and left at the age of 16 to do a course in electrical engineering. He spent time in London working with Hackney Council, when he dabbled in the city’s property boom, renovating and then selling properties.

He returned to Edinburgh to work at the city council’s housing department and study for an MBA at Heriot-Watt University. As well as Trainspotting, he has written a string of other novels, plays and been involved in television productions.

He now splits his time between living in Chicago and Miami.