It has come to my attention that not everybody knows that the title of this blog is taken from the first novel written by one of Scotland’s greatest living writers and intellectuals.
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 groundbreaking book at many levels: it confronts head on the 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, in spite of the fact that the subject matter is often distressing, it is absolutely hilarious.
Arguably this book also inaugurated a shift in Scottish Culture away from a kind of elitism, within which being properly Scottish involved connecting in some way with the landscape – whether actually, linguistically or only symbolically – towards something more 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.
Famously, Trainspotting was made into a film starring Ewan McGregor and directed by Danny Boyle, which manages adequately to convey the spirit and humour of Welsh’s writing without becoming trite or sensationalist. In the film, the scene in which the title of this blog appears is filmed at a very familiar spot for mountain people, just to the north west of Corrour Station on the path to Leum Uillem – a hill which fails only by a few feet to rise to the magic 3000 for its inclusion in Munro’s tables, but which is a favourite of Corbett baggers.
At this point in the story, Tommy is not yet using heroin (the character will later die horribly from toxoplasmosis because addiction has compromised his immune system, while the actor will become typecast in a television drama series set in a Seattle hospital) and he is keen at this moment to get his friends clean. 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 that his companions are less than enthusiastically still hanging around on a flat wooden bridge, nursing hangovers and taking a hair of the dog, Tommy remonstrates with them for their lethargy, to which Spud responds: “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 with the following tirade:
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 gives up and walks back away from the mountain. Here is a link to the film version.
It is a short, slightly absurd, scene that perfectly illustrates Welsh’s dark sense of humour and dense irony. The reader/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 story. 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 Scottish 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 many spectacular peaks are dashed against the reality of Scottish consciousness. We are riven by sectarian conflict that is not of our making but 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 or wasted and we will still be mates. And here is the irony. Welsh does not write this scene in order to celebrate this attitude, he does not support any positions these words might articulate, or any alleged lifestyles the characters embody, he does not believe the words that Renton speaks. He writes in order to display, to document and to reveal. So we are left wondering as readers or viewers why we see only this very short glimpse of the mountains, why Welsh took his characters to this place to give Renton this epic rant, only to have them all walk away, why he put in this scene at all, if not to expose more of the hypocrisies that intersect our consciousness.
Recently at another bit of the interwebs, within a discussion about anomalies in Munro’s classification, I linked a post from this blog about anomalies in Munro’s classification. This is a common practice on the interwebs. I did not feel that by linking my blog in the discussion at this point it would disturb cyber ethics or offend anybody. One person’s reaction though illustrated perfectly why it really is shite being Scottish. For the first time ever somebody reacted only to the header, describing it as “nationalistic tripe” and demanding that I remove the link, since this was a site about mountain climbing rather than 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 is a quotation from Trainspotting and that, if anything the sentiment expressed in the tirade is profoundly anti-nationalistic. I pointed out that this imputation of the sense of “political” as opposed to “apolitical” was itself a political move, which was of course summarily rejected as sophistry. As far as this person was concerned I was introducing politics into matters that are properly apolitical and I was thereby sewing division. Which is more or less what appeared from where I was sitting what the other was doing – at an actual material level, by demanding that site administrators remove my post without ever having read it.
This is exactly why it is shite being Scottish and it is exactly the point of Renton’s tirade.
It is also the mark of Irvine Welsh’s genius.
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. It has perforce become necessary, from time to time, to engage with accusations based on absolute fantasy, dreamed up in the imagination of British patriotism and to become sucked into pointless arguments with others who either do not listen, or already have their minds firmly made up. Events are represented deliberately to separate and divide, while those standing on either side of division are blissfully unaware of their complicity. Reason and logic are irrelevant to discussion. Discourse takes place for other reasons.
Welsh himself always says that he writes in order to find out about his characters, to see what makes them tick and to understand why they believe what 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.
The irony is that not everybody realises that we understand the irony of our own condition, that when we climb mountains we should really know that we are only able to do so because they are denatured and open, 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 here: this landscape is not natural. The irony is that not everybody sees this condition as the direct consequence of political decisions made by those who in the past 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 necessary, to discuss anything with anybody without allegiances getting in the way. 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 reason, evidence and argument. Which is precisely why it is shite being Scottish, for as Irvine Welsh so powerfully observed, people do not on the whole respond to reason, but are trapped inside sectarian 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 “great outdoors” points to the fact that there are vast tracts of empty land out there, 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.