‘I wanted to tell the truth behind Trainspotting’ - Ex junkie who survived heroin and Aids era sees his documentary aired on BBC
LOST in a fog of drugs, violence and despair, junkie Garry Fraser’s life was like a scene from Trainspotting. A veteran of the children’s care system and prison, abused and a self abuser, he staggered from one drugs hit to the next and, just like a character from the Irvine Welsh book and the film, he watched drugs claim the lives of friends and relatives and then wandered off to score another hit.
Hooked on heroin and crack cocaine, dealing drugs and living a life consumed by violence and abuse, chances were it was a matter of time before he joined them.
Then, just like Ewan McGregor’s Trainspotting character, Renton, Garry reached a point where he realised something drastic had to change.
Now the former addict is preparing to show his own real-life take on Trainspotting in a gritty documentary film which reveals the truth about growing up in notorious Muirhouse during the height of the Aids and HIV epidemic, at a time when the city estate helped drive Edinburgh’s infamy as so called Aids Capital of Europe.
My Lives and Times will be screened on BBC2 on Sunday. It throws disturbing and sometimes distressing light on the struggles faced by the estate’s families – whose lives are blighted by drugs – and goes on to question a social care and health system that struggles to cope with the fall-out.
And it follows Garry, now a married father of three young children who, inspired by their births turned his life from a junkie to a respected film-maker, as he waits for an HIV test to establish whether one day he could also fall victim to Aids.
The film – shot at various locations around Muirhouse – also reveals the traumatic and violent childhood that led to him being placed in the first of dozens of children’s homes aged just eight, the nauseating moment he was sexually abused in care and the dark periods of physical and mental turmoil as he battled to clear himself of the scourge of drugs.
One of its most poignant and emotionally-charged moments is played out as Garry visits his father’s home in Dalkeith to question him about physical punishments he endured as a child and his parents’ turbulent relationship that paved the way for his downward spiral.
It all unravels against the depressing backdrop of poverty, deprivation and despair that haunts the city estate – a dramatic contrast to the side of Edinburgh seen by many tourists and locals alike. It’s why, with its gritty story and ripe language, the film could be seen by some as Edinburgh’s own version of the controversial Ayrshire-based documentary, The Scheme.
“I wanted to tell the real truth behind Trainspotting,” says Garry, 34, who completed an HND in TV and video broadcasting at Telford College. “Because to me, that film is like a joke.
“In the 80s, 52 per cent of people in Muirhouse were HIV positive,” he adds. “Films like Trainspotting and Looking after Jo-Jo are based around that time and the place, but I’m the only one making a film about it who actually came from there and lived through it all.
“And I can tell you it wasn’t glamorous or fun, it was real life. I lived that stuff and so did that whole community. That’s why I felt that truth needed to come from me.”
Social workers took him from his home and placed him in care amid concerns about how his parents – his father, Garry, was an alcoholic – were managing to raise him. It was perhaps well intentioned at the time, but Garry struggled to settle and, surrounded by other wayward children, soon adopted disturbing habits.
“My mum never had much in the way of maternal instincts,” he shrugs. “Don’t think she does even now. So I was born in Muirhouse with heroin and Aids and it felt like everyone around me was dying.
“But to be honest I didn’t realise that wasn’t a normal childhood ’til I started to make this film. I didn’t realise people were shocked by the way I lived. Because to us, it was all just normal.”
For Garry, ‘normal’ was being beaten by his mother’s new boyfriend with the chunky rubber diver’s belt, constantly running away and getting into trouble.
While the care system was meant to protect him, Garry explains in the film that he believes it simply nurtured him into becoming a “multi-tasking criminal at 16 years old, heading straight for the revolving door system of Her Majesty’s prisons”.
He ended up being catapulted from foster care to secure units alongside young sex offenders and violent criminals, from where he would abscond and then be returned by police, sometimes after having been caught stealing.
On one rare occasion when he did find a family in Fife that he felt settled with and who were willing to care for him, he was suddenly uprooted and sent away to another unit, leaving the youngster confused and heartbroken.
In one harrowing sequence in the film, Garry tells candidly of being sexually abused after arriving in one particular care home – a reason, he believes, why he later sought the mind-numbing comfort of drugs.
“My first placement from Muirhouse was at a young person’s unit at Balerno. Within the first week I was sexually abused,” he recalls.
“I couldn’t talk to anyone in Muirhouse about that. I couldn’t tell anyone about that, they would think I let it happen. ‘Ha ha ha Garry.’ Within three months of that happening I was on self-destroy mode until I left care.”
Streetwise and cocky, he left the care system and considered joining the army or marines until someone offered him his first ‘DF’, dihydrocodeine, a powerful opiate-based painkiller. “My career in the drug world took off,” he shrugs.
With drugs flooding the estate, it was simply a matter of time before he indulged in harder drugs, eventually heroin and crack cocaine. Soon he found a flat in Dalry from which he dealt drugs, taking over the garden area outside his tenement block with junkie friends, fighting and getting stoned.
Despite violent outbreaks – he says he once used a hammer to smash another man’s leg – Garry avoided being caught by police, and spent only a few months behind bars as a adult for what he thinks was a breach of the peace charge. “I’m not sure,” he admits. “But when I was in, I kept getting into trouble, so they added to my sentence. But it meant that I got a chance to come off crack while I was in jail.”
His life turned around when he met his wife, Angie, and their first son, Garry Jay, now eight, was born. Determined to make sure his son had a better childhood than he did, Garry turned his full attention to completing a HND creative industries television course at Telford College, going on to win awards for his films.
Yet, as Sunday’s film shows, he still finds it hard to completely let go of his ‘DF’ habit. One distressing episode shows him lying in bed, shaking violently and later battling to stay focussed so he could pop his pills.
Yet Garry insists his behaviour was nothing to be ashamed of. “I don’t think drug dealing is that wrong, it’s what people have to do to survive. Go to Muirhouse, you can see no-one is giving you anything, everyone is unemployed, it’s easier and faster to get a takeaway delivered to your door than it is to get the police to come and deal with trouble. A lot of what happens there is never reported, because the police don’t want people to know this stuff goes on in Edinburgh in case it chases tourists away.”
The film, he adds, is his chance to reveal the city’s underbelly and the impact on the people living there.
“I come up to the city centre and I never feel so much of an alien as I do there,” he says. “People are healthy and they’ve got clean teeth.
“I go to the Meadows and I wonder why everyone is so happy. But the Edinburgh I see is a completely different one. A whole generation of people died through drugs and Aids, and they’re just forgotten.
“This film isn’t just about me, it’s about all of them.”
• My Lives and Times is on BBC2 Scotland on Sunday at 10pm
THE AIDS CAPITAL OF EUROPE
Edinburgh was declared the Aids Capital of Europe in the Eighties as heroin users sharing needles spread the HIV virus.
It was at a time when HIV and Aids typically meant death. As cases around the world soared, hysteria grew and people confirmed as having the virus could find themselves ostracised by others fearful of infection.
Initiatives such as needle exchanges and the introduction of methadone helped cut the numbers of new cases in drugs users to almost zero, with the focus now on targeting the city’s gay community with the safe sex message.
But concerns remain over the methadone programme, with some arguing it simply keeps users in a drug fog rather than tackling their addiction.