Rosemary Goring

IF Trainspotting had never been written, would the country feel different? In more ways than you can count. Without it, the 1990s would have continued to be illuminated as if by a candle. Readers and filmgoers would have peered at page and screen, seeing the nation’s escalating social problems, of which Aids was only the most shocking expression, represented with hesitance, reluctance, or repugnance.

Trainspotting arrived like a comet, in a blaze of fire and fury. Suddenly, the drug-addled denizens of the middens and squats of the capital were caught in the full beam of Irvine Welsh’s profane, zinging imagination. For the middle classes, it was a mark of street cred to be as familiar with Renton and Begbie as with Miss Brodie or Rebus. For the post-industrial and working classes it was a reflection of a milieu they lived uncomfortably close to or, if they were really unlucky, inhabited. And for thousands who had been rebuked by their schoolteachers for speaking like Leith dockers, it was vindication of their sparky speech.

It was also funny. As Renton said, of humouring “psychotic” Sick Boy, “the trick wis tae indulge the radge withoot being seen tae be too much ay an obviously crawling sap.” By drip-feeding black comedy into excruciating vignettes of the world of junkies and no-hopers in Thatcher-era Scotland, Welsh made his setting if not appetising, at least palatable. Outsiders’ perceptions of Edinburgh as a white collar hub of banking and higher education that came alive only in August during the festival, were shattered. The city, and by extension all of the country, was revealed in its often dangerous, deeply disturbing complexity, at the centre of which was the tragedy of lives shattered by addiction and exclusion.

There had been realistic novels and films before, but none that captured the giddy mood of the fair that Welsh created. After the book’s runaway success, the film reached places that Scottish fiction had never gone before. From being a picture postcard destination, the capital was now seen as rough and edgy. Trainspotting did for Edinburgh what David Simon’s The Wire was later to do for Baltimore: lift the stone and show the specific and the universal problems of cities at risk of being swamped by drugs and deprivation.

It also introduced Scotland to those who would otherwise never have heard of us. When cinemagoers walked out of a New York showing at the scene where an American tourist is beaten up, at least they now knew the name of the place to avoid.

Welsh’s triumph inspired a generation of copy-cats. Publishing catalogues were filled with dropouts in deadbeat dives, books commissioned by London editors who would never dare walk Great Junction Street after dusk. Middle-class writers either changed their spots, or headed metaphorically for the hills. Meanwhile, by so vividly capturing the zeitgeist, Welsh had his cake and scoffed it. “The last thing I want is all these f*****s up in Charlotte Square putting on the vernacular as a stage-managed thing,” he said in an early interview. “It’s nothing to do with them.” Soon, however, he was a big draw at the square’s annual book festival, treading the fine line between resistance and capitulation like so many before him.


Barry Didcock

IF the twin measures of cinematic success are recognition at Cannes and access to Hollywood – respectively the soul and the beating heart of the western film industry – then Scotland was flying high as the 21st century dawned, and could look back on half a decade of unparalleled achievement.

In America in 1997 Ewan McGregor joined fellow Scots John Hodge and Andrew Macdonald, and honorary Scot Danny Boyle, on the set of A Life Less Ordinary. A black comedy, it teamed actor, writer, producer and director with actress Cameron Diaz, then one of Hollywood's hottest properties.

A year later, at Cannes, Peter Mullan took the Best Actor award for his performance in Ken Loach's Glasgow-set My Name Is Joe. Six months on, Mullan's first film as director, Orphans, screened at the prestigious Venice Film Festival, and a year on again Cannes thrilled to Ratcatcher, set in 1970s Glasgow and the debut feature from 29-year-old Lynne Ramsay. In 2003, at the same festival, David Mackenzie unveiled his first film, Young Adam.

As this homegrown band of directors was wooing Europe's film festivals with their dark, gritty, bleakly funny but socially enquiring films, a wave of Scottish acting talent was heading out into the world of big budget movie-making. Chief among them was McGregor, of course, but joining him were others: Robert Carlyle, Dougray Scott, Shirley Henderson, Kevin McKidd, Tilda Swinton, Douglas Henshall, Kelly Macdonald and Ewen Bremner to name a few.

Two decades on, we can identify wide-ranging reasons for this explosion of Scottish cinema in the 1990s. Among them is the cultural renaissance that accompanied the swelling nationalism finding expression in that decade, first through the Scottish Constitutional Convention and then the 1997 devolution referendum and the subsequent political settlement.

But if you want it distilled into a word, here it is: Trainspotting.

The 1996 adaptation of Irvine Welsh's novel wasn't the first film that Ewan McGregor, Danny Boyle, Andrew Macdonald and John Hodge had worked on. That was 1994's Edinburgh-set Shallow Grave. But it was the first film to be based on a game-changing work of literature which held up a mirror to urban Scotland and let it find in the reflection something it had never seen in print before. And it was the first film to have an iconic poster, an ace soundtrack, brilliant performances, whip-smart dialogue, unforgettable images, ink black humour and real Scottish accents. It was brave and funny and rude and vibrant and, though the period setting is deliberately unclear, it felt thrillingly modern.

Because of all that, it was a success domestically and internationally. Rolling Stone hymned its “raw power” while the Los Angeles Times praised McGregor's “magnetism”. Boyle was compared to Martin Scorsese, the film was nominated for an Oscar and its gleeful drug use saw it become a controversial talking point during the 1996 US presidential elections (result!).

Scan the cast list today and you have a who's who of modern Scottish acting greats. Boyle and Macdonald, meanwhile, have both gone on to Oscar success. But it was no accident: track the trajectories of all these careers back to a common source and you'll find that it's Trainspotting. Collectively, the Trainspotters put Scottish cinema on the map and collectively they've kept it there.

Now, I've never passed out on skag in a Leith tenement with a rubber hose round my arm or dived into the world's filthiest toilet to retrieve a suppository. But I can remember seeing Trainspotting the week it came out in 1996 and relating to it completely. And I can remember feeling that, for the first time in my life, I was watching a Scotland on screen that felt real.

Sure, people like Bill Douglas, Bill Forsyth and Peter McDougall put Scotland under the microscope in previous decades. But if you want a cinematic representation of modern Scotland that still feels fresh, urban, youthful and, in its own warped way, joyful, there's only one option: choose Rents, Begbie, Spud and Sick Boy. Choose Trainspotting.


Brian Beacom

RENTON’S speech was, without doubt, a sharp, sudden injection of self-awareness directly into the vein of our collective arm. “It’s s**** being Scottish! We're the lowest of the low. The scum of the f****** Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some hate the English. I don't. They're just w******. We, on the other hand, are colonised by w******. And all the fresh air in the world won't make any f****** difference!"

Why did Irvine Welsh’s soliloquy hit home? Well, he underlined the notion of built-in arrogance, that being Scottish suggests we’re better than other nations, that being Scottish is enough in itself.

Yes, we may have given the world penicillin, tarmac and Robert Louis Stevenson, but we’ve also given it deep-fried pizzas, Lorraine Kelly and, if you check his DNA, The Donald.

Renton errs, however, in suggesting we’re victims. We may have been attached to England’s apron strings since 1707 but that’s because we choose to be. We’re not victims, we’re perpetrators. Glasgow was the second city of the Empire and built on tobacco trade slavery.

Renton’s treatise is right. The English aren’t the enemy. It’s us. The English didn’t give us sectarianism or a rotten national football team. The English did create the myth of the canny Scot but it wasn’t the English who took the Scottish Parliament 10 times over budget and created the farce that is the Edinburgh tram system. And the English haven’t placed the dunce's cap on our education system.

Renton’s 1995 speech was a reminder, a jolt, a need to look at ourselves, to reboot. His bellowing voice reminds us we are a political nation: Red Clydeside and Singers and rent strikes and all that. But how should our voice be heard? The continual argument for a Scottish Six news agenda prompts the thought: "But what the hell will we fill it with?"

Renton’s rant is also a reminder Scottishness in itself isn’t always a positive. That we need to halt the Braveheart nonsense and not become a nation of (figuratively speaking) woad-wearing men with severe anger issues with, paradoxically, a collective inferiority complex. It’s a tartan warning: why channel Harry Lauder, who built a career singing about his Heilan Hame when he lived in Lanarkshire?

But most importantly, Renton reminds us we need to look at ourselves in the mirror. And that’s not something we like to do. If we did we would realise we are not as great as we think we are.

The exception being Andy Murray, of course.


Marianne Taylor

GLASGOW, 1996. A poor but spirited city where it seems everyone is in a band. Scotland has been under the Tory yoke for 17 years, and you can feel it. I’m a 21-year-old student at the University of Glasgow and most of the folk I hang around with are, like myself, a bit angry, awkward and under-confident. We’re mostly from working-class communities that were decimated by the ruthless Thatcherite policies of the 1980s and, in this time before the Scottish Parliament and any realistic prospect of independence, we struggle to know or express what being Scottish means. But whatever being Scottish is, it is certainly not “cool”.

This deep-rooted inferiority complex comes out in predictable but grim ways – we drink too much from a very young age. We talk about stuff, of course, read books, go to gigs and plays – some of which are even Scottish. We are engaged with the world but ultimately we think of ourselves as small and insignificant; we assume and are constantly told that we’ll have to move to London if we want to be somebody, to “make it”.

Into this melee comes a film that invigorates, scares and challenges us all at the same time: Trainspotting. The eye-catching poster campaign in the weeks before release has worked a treat. This is event cinema like nothing we’ve ever experienced before and my four flatmates and I go to see the film on opening night. One of them is actually in the film, having been recruited as an extra for the nightclub scene, filmed at the much-missed Volcano at the bottom of Byres Road (soon everybody you meet will claim to have been in Trainspotting).

We cannot quite believe what we see that night, or the countless repeat viewings in the weeks, months and years to come. Despite being about a group of Edinburgh junkies during one of the blackest periods in our country’s recent social history, Trainspotting, with its smart dialogue, dizzying camerawork and pounding soundtrack, has made Scotland cool. For once, we are the zeitgeist. That summer I go to New York and the young people I meet are interested in me because, not despite of, the fact that I’m Scottish.

Back at home, for many young people in 1996 the film goes deeper than being just cool. It gives us the perfect excuse to grapple with the issues of Scottish identity, belonging and nihilism plucked out of Irvine Welsh’s novel by director Danny Boyle. Renton’s “it’s s**** being Scottish” speech resonates with and moves us because we recognise it to be true. But instead of just allowing it to feed on our deep-seated inferiority, it inspires many of us to think about how we can change things. We perhaps don’t realise it at the time, but Trainspotting, a film about junkies, is one of a clutch of cultural and political moments that kickstart a journey of self-discovery that will eventually lead us to redefine ourselves and our nation politically, intellectually and artistically. I am one of the young people of the mid-1990s that owe this film a debt of gratitude; it made me think, and that should never be underestimated.


Phil Miller

TRAINSPOTTING changed my life. I am sure it changed other people's lives too. It may sound like a cliche ... but it's not often a single book can, I see in retrospect, re-route your life.

In 1994, when I read it, I was miserably attending the University of Edinburgh, living in a windowless box room in Marchmont and not feeling connected to either the city, the university or life in general, apart from student journalism. I wasn't reading fiction, only the music papers and history texts.

Then a good friend lent me a copy of Trainspotting with the men in skull masks on the cover. It had the mysterious Rebel Inc quote on its cover (I didn't know what Rebel Inc was) which said the book "deserves to sell more copies than the Bible".

The Bible still looming large in my life, I read Trainspotting in a blur of days. The language was intoxicating. It told a tale of lives unknown to me in part of the city in which I was living, which was both familiar and strange. I had not grown up in contact personally with heroin addiction, but I knew from my youth people a bit like Renton and Spud, Davie Mitchell and Tommy. I had not read a book written about people like them written in this way – about a modern life, and specifically about the lives of people outside what I took to be the literary world. It was about an Edinburgh of which I was dimly aware, but which I still knew better than the stone edifices of Old College or the Royal Mile – housing estates and pubs, isolated lives, poverty and boredom. Had this been written about before, and so well? I had not encountered anything like it. My friends were all talking about it, too.

Trainspotting reignited my interest in fiction– which at school had been bogged down in Jane Austen and DH Lawrence and other (I then thought) dreary tomes that smelled of death. I was not studying literature, so the book's structure and formal trickiness was all new to me: it's mind-bending impact was like hearing My Bloody Valentine for the first time, or seeing some genre-shattering work of visual art.

The film? I saw and enjoyed it but it seemed removed from the book. It was the same-ish story, but stripped of some of its subtleties and sadness (and characters). It was the superlative soundtrack that made more of an impact – I had not listened to Eno before, or thought much of Blur before I listened over and over again to Sing. I knew Iggy Pop because I loved The Stooges but for some reason had not heard Lou Reed's Perfect Day before. The film did have some of the same impact as the book: it was modern and abrasive, it was set in a real place which was not often – or ever – depicted. And Ewan McGregor was terrific.

But it was the book that led me to read again, to seek out The Acid House and Ecstasy, Kelman, Trocchi, Bukowski and, in the long run, much more. If it did that for one miserable student, it must have done the same for many, many others.