“Well, ah choose no tae choose life.” What I’ve learnt from Irvine Welsh’s whirlwind novel, ‘Trainspotting’, and Danny Boyle’s groundbreaking film adaptation.
A bustling Edinburgh street. Mark Renton’s foot hits the ground. Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life blares out. Renton’s sprinting, fleeing from two security guards. “Choose life.”
That was the best opening to a film I had ever seen. The first seconds of Danny Boyle’s take on Trainspotting propel us into the heart of an overlooked youth culture, capturing all the energy, rebellion, depravity and reckless abandon that comes with it. This is a film that shies away from nothing, a film that doesn’t let up for a second, throwing in our faces a cast of characters who are high on just about everything you can imagine and addicted to far more than drugs. It’s a film about addiction and, at its heart, about a young man trying to escape. Renton is trying to escape his addiction, his “so-called friends”, his life in Leith, and society as a whole. It’s a story of the people who are ignored and forgotten by everyone else, but who remain trapped in the same cracks society has dropped them down.
Perhaps Trainspotting‘s greatest victory is that, in a story about amoral drug addicts who find themselves digging through clogged toilets, who pump all manner of poison into their bodies, leave a baby to die, steal from everyone and anyone, sleep with underage girls, and spray shit across dining tables, the most disgusting element is one that’s hardly there at all – everybody else. Somehow, these vile delinquents still engender our sympathy. We get it. We get why they’re fed up with the rest of the world, we get why they’ve turned to such a sordid life, and all that angst and rebellion doesn’t seem anywhere near as naive or as idealistic as perhaps it should. What Trainspotting showed us, by giving a voice to the working class young junkies, is that society is every bit as disgusting as they are. The civilised world is full of vile, amoral, apathetic people filling their bodies with poison and numbing their minds. But Renton and the other ‘skagboys’ all indulge in an addiction society cannot abide and, as such, are cut off from the rest of the world. So they isolate themselves, exist in their own bubble, laughing at a society that is blinded by its own moral relativism.
Society, then, comes up a lot in Trainspotting – both book and film. One line that stands out in the film adaptation comes when Renton has moved to London, his first attempt at starting a new life, and he tells us “There was no such thing as society and even if there was, I most certainly had nothing to do with it”. There’s an obvious echo here of the words of popular she-devil, Margaret Thatcher, from around the time the book was published: “There is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women”. Of course, a story like Trainspotting is only using this line to spit (quite rightly) in Thatcher’s industry-destroying face and in the face of the entire neoliberal nightmare she unleashed. In the film, the line seems at odds with the fact that Renton has just started a job in London, the very heart of British society. And why has he moved to London and taken a job there? Because that’s the path society was telling young people to take if they wanted a fresh start and the chance to make “cash from chaos”. As if to ram the point home, Renton’s working in an estate agents, literally helping people find their place in the world. He thinks he’s escaped society’s clutches because he’s traded in the underground, underclass sub-society to which he belonged for vast and impersonal London. The final undermining of his words comes, then, when Frank Begbie knocks on his door, needing a place to stay while on the run from the law. A while later, Begbie’s followed by Sick Boy. Renton cannot escape the societal subsection from which he hails. The message is clear. Society is very much a real and inescapable force and, under the tyrannical reign of a conservative ruling class, it constantly thrusts the working class back into a life of depravity, no matter how many of society’s shining opportunities they take. The only way Renton escapes (if it can be called escape, considering T2) in the end, is by once again defying society’s rules, dealing drugs and stealing from his friends.
The story is a statement of defiance from the people who had been robbed of a voice, empowering a generation to fight back with every disgusting detail that had been forced upon their lives by the political elite. Voice was such an important element of Welsh’s novel, which is largely written in the Scots dialect, rich in slang and colloquialisms. A working class voice permeates the entire book. As a novel, Trainspotting was about the working class reclaiming language, reclaiming literature, and reclaiming the national narrative. It challenged perceptions of what a novel could be and, perhaps more importantly, challenged perceptions of what a great novel could be. It redefined the laws of literature while reintroducing to the world a section of society that had been robbed of identity and buried beneath judgement and stereotype.
Renton was a character at odds with the perception of a junkie, more educated and more intelligent than anyone would expect of him. He was a thief, yes, stealing to finance his drug habit, but he also stole books purely to read them and frequently exhibits his well-read nature. In a chapter in which Renton is visiting psychiatrists to help him kick his habit, he ends up dissecting their minds and habits far more than they do his. This same chapter is the origin of the infamous “choose life” speech, delivered in narration by Renton as means of demonstrating the mundane and undesirable existence his doctors intend to force upon him while dressing it up as choice. He counters by telling us he chooses not to choose life. The catch, of course, is that there is no choice. Choose us, or we’ll make you. Renton is painfully aware of the game the world is playing with him, robbing him of all freedom, punishing and demeaning him for not taking the path that has been deemed socially acceptable, all while pretending the choice is his. “There is no society,” said Thatcher, because that is what she needed to be true to justify the suffering of millions on her watch. It’s the same ideology that is being propagated by the same capitalist elite that still run our nation today. If everything’s down to the individual, you can only blame yourself for your struggle. If people realised how utterly they were at the mercy of a societal machine, they would have also realised Thatcher had just weaponised that machine and turned it on them.
Trainspotting was, to me (and I’m sure countless others), utterly revolutionary as a piece of storytelling. It is undeniably radically political, while rarely ever addressing party politics. Instead, it focuses on the people. The forgotten, downtrodden, demonised people who are left to deal with the fallout of politicians’ decisions. It gives its reader pause for thought on the politics that are governing our nation and controlling our lives simply by showing the ugliest facets of working class reality. That’s what gives it such power. It is a story born of the proletariat. It offers a counter-narrative to the national narrative written by the elite and, in doing so, establishes itself as a postmodern masterpiece. It serves to utterly undermine an established understanding of the societal order and stands as the polar opposite to the worldview being force-fed to the nation by the ruling class.
With Trainspotting, Welsh gives the ultimate lesson in writing what you know. This isn’t just about drawing on your day-to-day experiences, but representing your own truth, showing a side and order to the world that you have experienced and juxtaposing it with the filter through which those in power would have you view society. Welsh reminds us that writing is power. In constructing a narrative, choosing a protagonist, finding and characterising your setting, and conveying a view of the world, you are adding to a wider discourse. Your writing can undermine false truths, challenge perceptions, and give a voice to those who have none. Writing is power and with it comes a tremendous responsibility. So write the stories that only you can write. Write what nobody else is writing. Write the stories you know will inspire people. And definitely write the stories you know will piss people off.