Aidan Smith: What would the Trainspotting crew make of Edinburgh, 20 years on?

Ewan McGregor as Renton in the new Trainspotting movie.
Ewan McGregor as Renton in the new Trainspotting movie.
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The changing face to the capital city would not have impressed Francis Begbie and Mark Renton, reckons Aidan Smith

Twenty years ago he sprinted along it as shop security gave chase. In the vernacular of Trainspotting, Renton had been “choreying” and as a result of being rumbled he was required to do a fair bit of “nashing”. Now he’s back on Edinburgh’s Princes Street only this time he’s on the tram and he looks worried.

What could be bothering Irvine Welsh’s hero, again played by Ewan McGregor, in the sequel coming in the new year? Possibly the tram itself is unnerving. Renton never thought it was going to become a reality and now it’s here it just doesn’t feel very “Embra”. He’s going to get a shock in a few stops’ time when he finds out it isn’t very Leith – the service doesn’t go down to the port, having been halted abruptly uptown when the money ran out. And as he hurtles along the thoroughfare poor Rents might be asking himself: “TK Maxx? Where’s John Menzies? And come to think of it, where are the other passengers on this much-agonised-about tram? It can’t be that folk are scared of me. I was the cute one in Trainspotting, unlike ... ”

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Francis “Franco” Begbie, who turns up elsewhere in the trailer for the movie, and is once more portrayed by Robert Carlyle. He clambers up the wall of a toilet cubicle and screams at the occupant of the neighbouring booth. What’s irking him? Maybe similar to his pal, he despairs at what’s become of Scotland’s capital: “F*** me, how many f****n’ hotels does the place need?

“Would you look at these bams, spewing out of Waverley Station in their pressed jeans and wheeling their trolleybags to check in for their mini-breaks. They’re here to sample the ‘Embra Experience’, whatever the f*** that is. Don’t they know that this city’s motto is: “You’ll have had your smack?”

It would be nice to think that in the intervening decades the reprobates have turned into passionate protectors of Edinburgh but I’m not sure that’s how the new film is going to pan out.

Still, the state of Scotland’s capital is on the minds of many.

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David Frost has signed off as chief executive of the Scotch Whisky Association with a damning critique of the city where he’s lived and worked these past three years. “I will take away as images from Edinburgh not just the castle and the New Town, but sadly also filthy streets, overflowing refuse bins and Georgian terraces ruined by endless, brightly-coloured recycling skips,” he wrote.

Princes Street, the former diplomat said, should be “the most beautiful in Europe” but he would remember it as “permanently clogged by buses and street furniture”. Why did the tram not stop at the station? How had the planners pulled off the “difficult trick” of making the city unfriendly to cars and pedestrians? “This won’t be good enough in future,” he added.

Frost’s last point is about complacency. Edinburgh cannot smooth down its petticoats and think that the world will always want to come and live, work and play here. Other cities are beautiful, too, and they may be smarter at planning as well.

Not that you could accuse Edinburgh’s planners of being inactive. The Old Town has world heritage status but Unesco, which hands out the honour, is worried that the historic heart isn’t being protected and has “strong concerns” about the pace of city centre development. Of proposals for the prime gap-sites – the so-called Edinburgh 12 – as many as seven are believed to be rated as “deeply worrying”.

Locally, there’s a campaign called Edinburgh Against Gentification. In the Old Town, the opposition to over-development talk of the city’s “Age of Endarkment” in sharp contrast to its Enlightenment heritage. At a recent City Chambers protest, the banners read “Not another hideous heartbreak hotel”.

On that occasion the fight was against a £65 million hotel plan for land in the Cowgate bequeathed to the city for a possible extension to the Central Library. Criticisms of the already-approved “ribbon hotel” at St James were re-enforced last week with the Cockburn Association labelling it “ghastly” along with the developments at Caltongate and St Andrew Square.

If cities are living, breathing entities rather than museums then they will change. New buildings will appear, some old ones might disappear.

We get that. But Edinburgh is a special case requiring special care – world-class planning simply not being seen down among the medieval closes or up on the crescents of Robert Adam’s masterpiece.

The desire to tear down a crumbling hunk of 1970s brutalism might be a strong one but in Edinburgh you can’t simply replace it with something “modern” and “hip”.

Maybe some architects find Edinburgh’s glorious cityscape intimidating. They should, but it should also inspire.

Edinburgh is in the grip of hotel mania.

Like the tram line – not to be confused with a tram network – this smacks of municipal vanity. But the people will only keep coming if the city stays small and perfectly-formed. They might want to stay but they want to see the old ones. At least the city fathers rejected plans to turn the Royal High School into a hotel although this hasn’t deterred the developers who’ve produced a redesign and hit back at critics for having a romantic view of the neoclassical gem. In what Sir Walter Scott called “mine own romantic town”? Fancy that!

The site, say the hotel people, has “become a hotspot for kids revving cars and hanging about”. To that I’d like to think the bold Begbie would retort: “What the f***’s wrong with that? Some of us happen to live here!”