The 90s — sometimes referred to as classic years by anyone who wasn’t old enough to remember them well— was a hollow pit of despair. Well, it was if you happened to be working class. The 80s were all about excess in all forms — driven by the rise of yuppiedom and neoliberal politics — throughout which we witnessed the decade of the ID: big glam metal hair, big coke stash, everyone driven to fuck and consume. For all of its faults, the damage it did later on, it was at least colourful and vibrant in a lot of ways — but then stimulants and uppers were in vogue. But then came the 90s, summoned in by wailing grunge droning, the cries of which were swallowed up by recession as the bubble burst and people fell into even more poverty, more deprivation. Even the poster boy for the decade’s misery Kurt Cobain decided it was time to blow his own brains out before things really got going. It was the age when lumberjack shirts were supposed to be cool, and the plague of heroin addiction took over. If you believe Friends, we were all sitting around in coffee shops (supposedly working minimum wage jobs), chatting to our middle class mates, or hanging out in our spectacular loft apartments. What a bag of fucking lies.
Things were grim the world over, but it was a particular sense of grimness when it came to being poor and living in the UK. My generation, the generation that reached teenagehood at some point during the eighties, were Thatcher’s lost generation. We were raised on slogans like six million unemployed, whilst being pummelled by the fear of AIDS, domestic terrorism, and the threat of nuclear war. We were never offered a future beyond working a 40 hour week in a menial job for £29.50, in the name of ‘youth training’. We were told, at school, through work, we would amount to nothing, so to want nothing. And so we tried to take the power back: through the free party movement, through the rave scene, through drugs.
None of us were ever in control though. All it did was deaden us to the fact we were going nowhere fast. And many more of us didn’t survive it at all — succumbing to overdose or suicide before developing into maturity and adulthood, where all of this would fade away into a bad dream. If there’s one film that portrays aspects of this culture, its cynicism, its decay, its utter hopelessness, it is Trainspotting. I consider author Irvine Welsh to be a key voice of our generation for this very reason. Through his books — like the one on which the aforementioned Danny Boyle film was based — he spoke our anger, our depression, our loss.
Trainspotting is considered a great film because it’s cool. The Blur/Iggy Pop soundtrack is cool. Mark Renton’s speeches are cool. Hot boy Jonny Lee Miller is cool (nobody looked that good on a daily smack habit). Actor Ewan McGregor getting his cock out — something he was always very free and easy about doing in his early career; an aspect I will always appreciate him for — is cool. But there’s something about the picture that’s not entirely true, something missing, and so while I will always love the film to absolute bits, I always die a little inside when people’s sole takeaway centres on the more glamourised aspects. The other messages from Welsh’s book are also there — although slightly sanitised (maybe?) for cinema — but it takes a little more digging to find them.
At the time of release, the film was very popular with middle class hipsters: the exact same people Pulp sang about in Common People. The people who could always call their mum to be rescued when things got too tough. The kind of people who observed the more colourful elements always from the comfortable safety of the outside. The kind of people who wouldn’t have dared step foot on any council estate in a major city. They weren’t stuck there. And I get it, it’s easy to romanticise it if you’ve never been around addicts, if you haven’t seen your friends fall to addiction, if you have never had to sit in a room full of people dribbling into their own laps. We have romanticised drug use for centuries in art, music, writing — the decadent writers from the fin-de-siecle will never not be in fashion; the sixties will always be swinging; punk will always be exciting; the rave scene will always be about free love and fun. But the fact is, it’s boring in reality.
So, I watch Trainspotting with my tongue stuck firmly in my cheek, remembering the time I got stuck with a van load of recovering heroin addicts talking about their methadone script for seven hours, the sheer tedium of that day, and how I wanted to run away like Reggie Perrin, screaming into the distance, never to be seen again as long as I didn’t have to hear the word milligram again. I remember the time a bunch of us took acid, and thought a bottle of lemonade was the most fascinating thing in the world — wondering now, just how fascinating it appeared to any outside observer… probably not very. I remember the stoned conversations, which in reality were just a meaningless free-flow stream of barely-conscious-consciousness, and therefore incredibly banal. I remember the fact any time anyone shoots up, they just sit there like a statue, staring into space, and so make the worst company. In order to be interesting on drugs — I guess like the creators of all of this drug culture in art and fiction — you have to be interesting in the first place. Sadly, most people aren’t. And so they become even more insufferably boring once they have a couple of lines of coke in them. The only difference is, they are more determined to make you suffer through their company with them.
If you were on that scene, it’s likely you knew at least one Begbie — likely a lot more than one. While Robert Carlyle is electric in that role, incredibly funny, Begbies are never funny in real life. It’s horrible to be stuck with one. Nobody ever talked like Mark Renton, or Spud. None of it was remotely amusing, unless you were off your face. For that very reason I have never understood the appeal of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas; in my mind a more hollow version of Welsh’s work. The entire book is just some bellend cataloging his drug use. “Cool story, bro.” But drug use doesn’t make a good personality. Sorry, next…
There is something to be said about stories like Trainspotting though. For all the decay, the hopelessness, it reminds us, for better or for worse (and sometimes it was the literal worst), we had each other. Some of us fell, some of us never made it back, but for a little time a least, when the rest of society didn’t want us, we found a certain sense of power and belonging amongst ourselves. This is the real reason why Trainspotting is a great film — and book — not because it’s cool, but because at its core it conveys how that sense of community — no matter how brittle — helped us navigate the absurdities of life, and made us feel like we weren’t so alone. If The Prodigy’s Music for the Jilted Generation is the album that defined that movement in music (which I firmly believe), Trainspotting is its literary and filmic equivalent. The messages of that jilted generation might be lost now, but for some of us they still remain vivid and alive like a big solid middle finger, never to be forgotten.
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