A few days after I wrote up my ideas about anomalies in Munro’s classification in a blogpost about climbing Bidean nan Bian, I linked the post during a discussion about anomalies in Munro’s classification at a mountain climbing group on the Facebook. In reaction to this, somebody told me to keep politics out of things and demanded that group admin remove the “offensive” post. I was rather taken aback, for I was not aware that these opinions would be so controversial. Then I was reminded that for those unencumbered by any sense of irony or unfamiliar with Trainspotting, the blog’s title, It’s shite being Scottish, was maybe a bit pungent.
This is the updated version of my response.
At the time of writing the post in question, the design of the blog displayed prominently the entire tirade uttered by Renton immediately after his exclamation that it’s shite being Scottish. It was perhaps this that had caught the attention of the one so offended. It does after all contain two fuckings and a few minor expletives, and makes reference to an imperial relationship between England and Scotland. I had simply forgotten that not everybody knew that the title of the blog is a quotation from Trainspotting, nor that not everybody would get the irony of using this phrase as the name of a blog about climbing mountains.
Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting follows the adventures of a group of friends from Edinburgh as they negotiate the squalor and depravity of heroin addiction, poverty and urban deterioration. It is a ground-breaking book at many levels: it confronts directly issues faced by working class youth abandoned by authority and the state; it is predominately written in phonetic transcription rather than correct English, faithfully representing the actual language people use with extensive use of words that only a few decades earlier were considered so shocking they broke the law; the grammar and punctuation are idiosyncratic; there is no strict narrative but rather a series of tableaux or fragments which combine together to tell the stories of the characters; and, perhaps most importantly, despite the subject matter often being harrowing and distressing, it is absolutely hilarious.
The book was published in 1993 and arguably inaugurated a shift in Scottish Culture away from a kind of elitism, within which being properly Scottish involved some kind of heroic connection with the landscape (materially, linguistically or symbolically) and towards something more historically relevant and demythologised. Certainly it stands as a testament to the troubled times these islands suffered during the transition from the 1980s into the 1990s. It is a book about progression, renewal and hope in the context of a world careering towards the millennium without any clear sense of purpose.
Trainspotting was made into a film with Ewan McGregor playing Renton and directed by Danny Boyle, which manages adequately to convey the spirit and humour of Welsh’s writing without becoming trite or sensationalist. The phrase it’s shite being Scottish appears only in the film, at the start of what became, or at least so I thought, a well-known tirade, which is a sanitised version of a much darker passage in the book. It is filmed at a familiar spot for mountain people, just to the northwest of Corrour Station on the path to Leum Uillem, a hill that fails only by a few feet to make it into Munro’s tables, and is a favourite of Corbett baggers.
At this point in the story, Tommy is not yet using heroin and is keen to get his friends clean; the character will later die horribly from toxoplasmosis because addiction has compromised his immune system, while the actor will become typecast in a hospital drama set in Seattle. He has persuaded three or them, Spud, Renton and Sick Boy, to take a train out of the city to investigate the great outdoors. When he turns from marching purposefully towards the hill to see his companions unenthusiastically still hanging around a flat wooden bridge, nursing hangovers and taking a hair of the dog, Tommy remonstrates with them for their lethargy, to which Spud responds shivering, “this is not natural man!” Tommy then sweeps his arms around, exclaiming: “it’s the great outdoors, it’s fresh air!” After some banter from Sick-Boy about Tommy’s precarious relationship, he asks almost rhetorically: “does it not make you proud to be Scottish?”
At which point Renton holds forth:
It’s shite being Scottish! We’re the lowest of the low. The scum of the fucking Earth! The most wretched, miserable, servile, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Some hate the English. I don’t. They’re just wankers. We, on the other hand, are colonised by wankers. Can’t even find a decent culture to be colonised by. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. It’s a shite state of affairs to be in, Tommy, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fucking difference!
Tommy then shrugs and walks away from the mountain led by the others. Here is a link to the scene from the film.
It is a short, slightly absurd scene that perfectly illustrates Welsh’s dark sense of humour and dense irony. The viewer is suddenly transported to the middle of nowhere, without any context or preamble and in complete contrast to everything else that is going on in the narrative. The great outdoors is presented as something alien and irrelevant to the lives of characters who are suddenly thrown into it inadequately prepared. Commonplace notions about the benefits to health of being outside, of the challenges of both extreme sport and traditional outdoor recreation are rejected summarily. Representations of Scotland based on this empty land and its beauty are suddenly held in suspension. Any ideas we might hold about national identity that are based on this landscape, or on our ability to eke out an existence from its soil, or to climb to the summits its spectacular peaks are dashed against the reality of Scottish consciousness.
We are riven by sectarian conflict not of our making, which we allow to continue because it has become normal. We find ourselves at the rough end of an imperialist relation which encourages us to be servile and pathetic. But it does not matter because we can still get hammered and we will still be mates. This scene is not written in order to champion this opinion. Neither Boyle nor Welsh believe the words that Renton speaks. They work together in order to display, to document and to reveal. So we are left wondering as viewers why we see only this very short glimpse of the mountains, why Boyle took Welsh’s characters to this place to give Renton this epic rant, only to have them all walk away, why they put in this scene at all, if not to expose more of the hypocrisies that intersect Scottish consciousness.
I did not believe that linking my blog would disturb cyber ethics or offend anybody. The reaction of this one person illustrated perfectly why sometimes it really is shite being Scottish. It was as I had suspected; the reaction was to the header, not to the content, describing it as “nationalistic tripe” and demanding that admin remove the link, since this was a site about mountain climbing not politics, emphasising that if I wanted to talk politics I should go to a political site. It was pointed out by others that this person had missed the irony, that it’s shite being Scottish is a quotation from Trainspotting and that, if anything the sentiment expressed in the tirade is profoundly anti-nationalistic. Anybody familiar with the passage in the book upon which it is based will have little doubt about this:
[…] It’s nae good blamin it oan the English fir colonising us. Ah don’t hate the English. They’re just wankers. We are colonised by wankers. We can’t even pick a decent, vibrant, healthy culture to be colonised by. No. We’re ruled by effete arseholes. What does that make us? The lowest of the fuckin low, tha’s what, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat intae creation. Ah don’t hate the English. They just git oan wi the shite thuv goat. Ah hate the Scots.
I pointed out that the imputation of this sense of political as opposed to apolitical was itself a political move, which was summarily rejected as sophistry. Somebody so privileged as to be able to fence off politics from ordinary life and turn it into a competition between parties for power, so sure that this position is good, true, natural and right that any attempt to relativise or challenge it is simply unthinkable. As far as this person was concerned I was introducing politics into matters that are properly not political thereby sewing division, which is more or less what appeared from where I was sitting what the other had already done by demanding that my post be removed, without ever having read it.
Here then was a perfect example of why it is shite being Scottish; exactly the point of Renton’s tirade. It is possible for a person to pick up a mere snippet of any text or film, to denude it of its context, rip out its irony and take it to mean whatever purpose it can fulfil in some battle against an imaginary evil enemy. We have come to accept this as normal and it has become necessary, from time to time, to engage with accusations based on absolute fantasy, dreamed up in the warped imagination of British nationalism or some other delusional ideology, and to become sucked into pointless arguments with those who either do not listen, or have already firmly made up their minds. Events are so often orchestrated and described deliberately to separate and divide that those standing on either side are blissfully unaware of their complicity. Reason and logic are irrelevant to discussion. Discourse takes place for other reasons.
Welsh says that he writes in order to find out about his characters, to see what makes them tick and to understand why they act as they do. I cannot think of a more honest, civilised and humane approach to writing fiction, nor a more compassionate attitude to the multiplicity of consciousness to which human being can become subject. It does not matter if Boyle or Welsh first came up with the exclamation that it’s shite being Scottish, maybe it was Ewan McGregor, it encapsulates Scottishness completely and it has served me well. But it is ironic! I regret the necessity of the parenthetical (not), just because somebody missed the point. It’s shite being Scottish. Spoken by an angry young man going through cold turkey, dragged unwillingly to the margins of an imaginary wilderness and who has not the faintest idea where he is? Aye. Right enough.
Not everybody realises that some of us understand the irony of our own condition, that when we climb mountains we already know that we are only able to do so because they are denatured; denuded of their natural covering of forest to make way for sporting estates, to which we are granted only restricted access. It is Spud who directly speaks the truth for this landscape really is not natural. Not everybody sees this condition as the direct consequence of political decisions made by those in the past who called themselves master, and those in the present who have taken on the responsibility of government and authority. And because some realise this and others do not, our culture remains riven.
I make no secret of my support for Scottish autonomy nor for radical land reform. I am also a civilised human being and I believe that it is not only possible but also absolutely necessary, to discuss anything with anybody without allegiances getting in the way, which is as far as I am concerned the very essence of reason. I refuse to engage in sectarian argument and when confronted by accusations from people who should know better, I try to explain their errors and persuade using example and argument. Which is precisely why it is shite being Scottish, for people do not on the whole respond to reason, but are trapped inside disputes and conflicts not of their own making, without realising this to be the case. Renton’s tirade expresses this condition perfectly, while its setting in the so called “great outdoors” points to the inescapable fact that there are vast tracts of empty land out there, bare mountains available to all, waiting for anybody with a mind to do so, to discover that on the contrary, it is not at all shite being Scottish, that actually it’s fucking awesome!