The film channel here in Japan likes to show things in sequence, so it was that I spent a recent winter’s evening getting a shot of pure 90s nostalgia right into the vein from reminiscing over Trainspotting, followed by the head-thumping, murky grey comedown of T2 Trainspotting. It was quite the jolt going from misspent youth to middle-aged aches and pains so fast.
Trainspotting has always meant a lot. Passed a copy of the book by a mate in the call centre we were working in and being told, ‘Takes a while to get into it, but you’ll love it,’ I was sucker-punched by the first page but once the accent clicks in your head, that’s it and the next couple of hundred or so pass in a blur of bad toilets, worse squats, Iggy Pop, death, betrayal and scoring: scoring heroin, scoring with the girls, Archie Gemmill putting one past Holland. Trainspotting was the book that made me think there was a slim chance that someone like me from where I am from could write down what went on around me and someone might find it enjoyable. It wasn’t a book, it was the world. I read everything of Welsh’s I could get my hands on, which at that point was Maribou Stork Nightmares, The Acid House and, slightly later, Ecstasy. I went off on a hunt for similar highs, finding Morvern Callar by Alan Warner, James Kelman’s You Have to Be Careful in the Land of the Free and Kieron Smith, Boy.
Even if Trainspotting had never been filmed, its influence would have been strong, but the film sent it into orbit. It was everywhere, it was adored, Ministers of the Crown talked about it on the news. We watched it after many a night out, the soundtrack was ever-present, from the John Digweed and Nick Muir produced For What You Dream Of to the beered up university lads shouting ‘MEGA MEGA WHITE THING,’ and of course, the ubiquitous, ‘LAGER LAGER LAGER,’ with an unabashed unironic swagger, although they would have been terrified by the sight of a needle, or even a pill or a line. All the lads in the clubs thought they were Sick Boy, recreating a certain scene with a partner resulted in them mislaying quite a few pills. Later still, I read Glue, with its tantalising glimpses of the Trainspotting characters on the fringes of Juice Terry’s group and then Porno – a proper sequel at last – and one which satisfied the cravings well enough. The wait for a second film went on and on, but when it was finally announced there was an air of, ‘Don’t mess this up,’ under the anticipation.
In the second film to be made about Irvine Welsh’s crowd of Leith ne’er-do-wells, former junkie Mark Renton returns from Amsterdam to Leith, wearing the kind of premium sportswear brands that befit a man who spends his weekdays in suits, the end of his marriage and a portent of mortality having sent him scurrying for home. He is searching for – what? forgiveness? redemption? – it is never made entirely clear as he heads towards the people in the world most likely to want to put a fist in his face, the friends and family he betrayed and ran out on. He finds Sick Boy running the pub he inherited from his aunt more out of habit than because of a vibrant clientele, Spud coming very, very close to ending it all and Begbie – well, it is fairer to say that Francis is looking for Mark – the sting of the missing cash not diminishing through 20 years as a guest of Her Majesty.
There is a review of this sequel somewhere on the internet that laments the fact that the 40-year old vintage of these much-loved characters have lost the fun and – if you will – the ahem, Lust for Life of their 20-something counterparts. And I was grumbling as I read, in a similarly middle-aged way, ‘Well, what did you expect?’ Of course, they couldn’t be in exactly the same place and personally, I thought T2 reflected the appropriate amount of moving on, i.e. not much. There isn’t much to look forward to for the middle-aged former junkie. You are either clean and bored, like Mark, or not clean and a bit pathetic, like the character I suppose I must learn to call Simon (still Sick, still pretending he’s a Boy), or vaguely clean but so messed up with it that you’re liable to fall off the wagon when any justification presents itself, like Spud. Their old crony Mikey Forrester, played by the author himself, is the only one who looks to have done all right for himself, getting a blinging warehouse which I guess Welsh couldn’t resist. Begbie remains an outlier, the unrepentant psycho of old, but even his shtick is diminishing and the only tablet we see him ingesting is the inevitable Viagra.
As Mark arrives, Simon is running a blackmail operation with sex-worker Veronika, but a violent encounter with a would-be punter on discovery of their webcam leads to a rethinking of tactics and they are soon hellbent on turning the pub into a brothel, utilising Spud’s construction skills for the project, which seems ambitious. This leads to a hilarious side-jaunt into the territory of committees and regeneration as the pair use Mark’s accountancy patter to avail themselves of £10,000 of Scottish Government grant money, exploiting the exact nostalgia for an industrial past to scheme their way in that they used to be so lyrically disdainful of. It is a perfect moment and you know before Mark finishes speaking that the cheque will be in the post, so eloquently does he speak the language of local bureaucracy.
In their downtime, Mark also tries to drag Simon and Spud through the highs and lows of their youth – the cine film of the younger characters is heartfelt and poignant, the young actors a perfect match for their jaded counterparts – but they are not as keen as he is to trip down memory lane.
Simon: We were young, bad things happened. It’s over. Can we go home now?
Renton: Two hours to the next train.
Simon: Oh, for fuck’s sake.
Mark is bewildered by the Edinburgh he returns to, the streets have never looked cleaner and more inviting, even if the welcome at the airport does come via an Eastern European girl in a kilt and tartan heels. Next to the glitz of the city centre, Leith, shown via Spud’s block of flats, the old train station or the derelict land surrounding Simon’s pub, is still grimy. While the suburban club where the Loyalists meet to try not to sing the old songs shows up the UKIP/isolationist fantasies. There isn’t much mention of Scottish independence, which you could argue got an adrenaline push from the ‘It’s shite being Scottish,’ speech of the first film. And, despite the demographic changes of the last couple of decades, there are not many people of colour with speaking roles in this story.
The Millennials, Simon’s partner in sex-crime Veronika and Begbie’s son, are coldly appraising, not nostalgic at all, knowing that choosing life and a sensible career is the only way to survive in this economy. Plus, post smartphones, there’s no easy way to ‘go straight’ when your drug days can be all over social media within seconds. Imagine Renton posting a post-toilet dive selfie. The sign of the times is Frank Junior, instead of following the future Mark imagined for him in the first book:
That kid’s name wis doon fae HM Prison Saughton when it was still in June’s womb, as sure as the foetus of a rich bastard is Eton-bound. While this process is going on, daddy Franco will be whair he is now: the boozer.
Instead, to the father’s horror, the son is suited and booted, despite his old man trying to show him the ropes, he dreams of a hotel management qualification, ironic given that most of the former industrial towns now survive on tourism.
Mark was always the one with the best chance of getting out – the brief spell at university, avoiding going to jail with Spud over the shoplifted books, the job in London – they knew it and hated him for it, giving an added air of menace to the scene after Tommy’s funeral where they made Mark give up his savings for the drug deal of a lifetime. He was always the one of the gang most likely to end up in accountancy (although Porno, the Trainspotting follow-up that lends a couple of its plot-lines to T2, had him running an Amsterdam nightclub). His ranting, so cool and funny at 20, the much-copied indictment of everything we didn’t want, appearing on millions of 90s bedsit walls in poster form, is, at 40, the desperate rage of a Question Time audience member or the randomised block capitals of a below-the-line commenter. Veronika knows it and we do too, cringing as she lets him vent before killing him not so softly with a pause and, ‘Anyway…’
Diane was similarly always too classy to stick to these lads for long, she hardly features, despite being a significant character in Porno, where she was less corporate and doing a PhD on sex work. She only makes it into a couple of scenes, so perhaps they couldn’t afford more of Kelly Macdonald. Mark’s mum, meanwhile, is a literal shadow. Also, it is nothing short of criminal to have Shirley Henderson reprise her role as Gail and then not use her to do much more than sniffle over Spud. She is the emotional heart of the film, she gets one line that pulls it all together, but it is still a travesty that she is so under-utilised. Veronika is a great part, clacking around Leith on Minnie-Mouse heels, taking no prisoners, but even she doesn’t get the film to a place of passing the Bechdel test, which feels like a chance missed, as Welsh’s books certainly do.
Spud: First, there’s an opportunity. Then… there’s a betrayal.
Spud is deserving of an essay of his own. It is a nice touch that the filmmakers have Veronika encourage him to write down all the stories of the old days, the pages multiplying all over the walls of his flat as he spews out the words. Redemption for Spud seems a long-shot, as demonstrated by his loss of a job and benefits sanction due to ignorance of the way clocks function in the UK. And I was sweetly pleased that the trainspotting scene itself – the justification for the title – made it in to the sequel as part of Spud’s storytelling. If it’s possible for Spud to find redemption, maybe it is for any of us. It has often been depicted as hedonism for its own sake, but the series of Leith novels are perhaps one of the best depictions of how friendships forged in clubs and bars can shift and shatter, as well as how it is the people you love most who are given the opportunity to do the most damage.