T2: Trainspotting. All Our Yesterdays.
I saw T2 a couple nights back, at an advanced screening in Bundaberg, almost a month after the film’s 27th of January UK release. I’d been waiting a long time for this film and Scotland had been waiting a long time; it scored 26% of its gross in Scotland and it’s top 16 highest grossing cinemas were, unsurprisingly, there. It felt a little strange to be at an advanced screening in a cinema 16,000 odd miles away from Edinburgh’s Fountain Park, a cinema I’d frequented as an Edinburgh resident, and where the premier was held.
I had purposefully read very little about the film, though in the lead up to release, it had felt like the film had very little to say for itself anyway; it seemed to me that no sooner was the film announced than they had started filming, and subtly too. I remember in the filming of Filth, Welsh’s last book to film adaption, it was hard to avoid the crew as they filmed around Edinburgh. This time however, they managed to sneak in under the locals’ noses even closer to home, to film scenes in Blackburn, where I went to school and where my father grew up. No one knew they were there. And then all of a sudden, everyone knew that T2 was coming. Just last June, a post was shared on Facebook and friends of mine were lining up to be extras in scenes filmed around Edinburgh, in particular a scene filmed in Cav nightclub. Merely 6 months later it was released and the buzz was palpable. Everyone, it seems, has a stake in this franchise.
I felt so too; myself and the two friends who accompanied me to Bundaberg have been travelling in Australia now for 4 months, and had felt that buzz even here, so far from home. We could not look at social media without some mention of the film, and are long-time fans of Irvine Welsh’s work. We were only 3 years old when Trainspotting was released in 1996, but the book and film had a reputation that crossed generations. My father lived in the North Edinburgh area, Leith in his early 20s, around the time that Welsh himself (read, Renton, Spud, Sick Boy, Begbie) was at large, and always felt that he knew the book and the film from experience. Very few people in the area at the time could escape the effects of the heroin epidemic Welsh wrote about, and I’d wager that some of the more enterprising sort were attracted to the area as a result. Dad had many stories to tell from that time and I drank them up. Fast forward to 2011 and myself and one of the friends who accompanied me to the screening, were moving into the area ourselves. As fans of Welsh, we looked for landmarks from the books, and found we were living directly across the street from The Volley, a regular haunt for Begbie. The inside was destroyed in a fire one week after we moved in, and, like the rest of Leith, resurfaced amid a wave of gentrification. But the Leith that Welsh described is plucky and won’t disappear so easily. Despite the time gap, we could still see the Begbies, the Spuds, the Rentons, on The Walk, and we still felt the energy that he described. In fact, I regularly served Ewan Bremner (Spud) in the supermarket I was working in at the time.
That’s our stake in the franchise; to some extent, most working class Scots feel like they’ve lived it. Of course, very few of us will ever or have ever used heroin, but one of the strengths of Welsh’s book is that that he describes real life in such detail and in such realistic voices that, even in describing such a tiny subculture, one can find something that they know in it. What Danny Boyle’s vision of the book did was incredible; where other Scottish media can be criticised for being cliché, kitsch or twee, Trainspotting the movie was just fucking cool. It showed young, working class Scots and the music they listened to, the clubs they went to, the clothes they wore, the drugs they took, their humour and wit, like any other film about youth from anywhere else more commonly shown in film. And it showed Scots themselves that they were fucking cool. Trainspotting didn’t dwell on being Scottish either, it just was. That’s why it is such a cultural phenomenon at home; we lived in this world and we knew it and it (despite the darkness of the subject) was translated so attractively to film.
So, sitting in the cinema in Bundaberg, with so much invested in this sequel, I felt that the Australians in the audience could not be getting as much out this film as we would. Of course, I’m glad that they were on board to enjoy a part of my culture, and I recognise that they might have said the same had this been, say, a sequel to a similar film about Australian youth, like Two Hands. But when a lady in the lobby remarked on hearing our accents that we ‘could translate the film’ for them, I realised that actually this film could be a distant experience for them. Of course there are enough more general themes in this film for people from anywhere to enjoy it; it deals with the vulnerability of adulthood in contrast to the invincibility of youth described in the first film, for example. However, the most prevalent theme was Nostalgia. Maybe this is too obvious, maybe reviewers were worried that the film would be mired in its own nostalgia. But how could it be about anything else? The act of watching the film itself was an act of nostalgia; we read the books, Skag Boys through to Porno, and we know what happens (generally, as the film is not a direct retelling of Porno), we’re just coming back to see these characters’ fates depicted in film.
Our 4 months in Australia obviously do not equate to Renton’s 20 years in Amsterdam but it felt like returning home, quite literally for my two companions who lived just streets away from the filming location for Renton’s parents’ home. Renton’s return is much more about a nostalgia trip than the death of his mother, an issue that is handled very concisely, but very well. Shots from the first film are reimagined to emphasise her absence. Edinburgh is changed and Renton appears a little lost as he arrives, but it’s not changed enough for Sick Boy and Spud, and it’s not long before Renton and Sick Boy (revenge plots and anger aside) are back reminiscing of their childhood, Hibs and old Edinburgh. We found ourselves discussing the scene in question and how we wish sometimes that we could be doing the same, back in a flat in Edinburgh, full of it and talking shit together. The writers are aware of the ridiculousness of their rambling though; the scene is played for comedic value and the pairs’ exotic, foreign love interest, Veronika, remarks “Why don’t you get naked and fuck each other?” You’d be pushed though, to find a Scot who, when drunk enough, doesn’t move on to the ‘all our yesterdays’ routine. Veronika’s an outsider though, how could she understand?
The film references its own nostalgia again later when the boys take the same trip to the highlands forced on them by Tommy in the first film. The scene is just one example of many that mirror scenes from the first, and it was one of the firsts most iconic. Renton remarks “We’re here as an act of memorial,” but Sick Boy observes, “Nostalgia, that’s why you’re here. You’re a tourist in your own youth.” They use nostalgia to emphasise the strength of their relationships, and their span, but also to take digs at each other. Sick Boy reminds Renton of how he sold Tommy his first hit of heroin. Renton reminds Sick Boy of the death of his daughter as a result of neglect while he used, both examples prompting flashbacks to the previous entry.
In terms of content, nostalgia is at the forefront of the agenda, and examples are plenty. The boys use archive footage of Leith to convince the Government to give them a grant. At the height of their resumed romance, in an incredibly uncomfortable scene, they return to heroin just once, for old time’s sake. They tell stories of their youth, accompanied by grainy flashback scenes with child actors filling in their roles, to further their own agendas against each other. Irvine Welsh indulges in his own past by suggesting that Spud is in some ways a vision of himself; he is prompted by Renton’s return to look back on his life, and with encouragement from Veronika, begins to write down his story, beginning ‘The sweat wis lashing oafay Sick Boy’, the first line of Trainspotting. After reading Spud’s stories, even the unshakeable Begbie looks back on his past, and his relationship with his father, prompting him to make amends with his own son.
However beyond these obvious examples the film works its nostalgia in much more subtle ways. The soundtrack itself was a fantastic tool, as expected after the original’s stellar OST. The stripped back, instrumental versions of Lou Reed’s Perfect Day, and Underworld’s pulsing, building, Slow Slippy, as opposed to the full on Born Slippy, amongst newer tracks from the likes of Edinburgh outfit Young Fathers serve to cast the mind back. Blondie’s Dreaming plays while Renton goes to bed with Veronika, while Sleeper’s version of the Blondie classic, Atomic, sound tracked his relations with Diane in the first film. A fantastic scene filmed at an 80s themed event in Cav nightclub, a venue that we frequented regularly ourselves, used throwback tunes from Queen and Run-DMC to put Renton and Sick Boy, and ourselves, back in the good old days, before it all goes (went) wrong. Iggy Pop, a stalwart of the first film and the source literature, has his Lust for Life merely teased at until the very end of the film where it is replaced by a Prodigy remix. The music returns but it is not quite the same, as though it has lost some fidelity in the act of remembering. Renton, in returning to his old bedroom attempts to play an old Lust for Life record, but has to lift the needle after one note, not quite ready to face his past. By the end, he has confronted it, in all its ugliness and revels in playing it, seen dancing in the same room. By the time the credits roll, I was desperate to hear it myself, a chance to revel in that nostalgia.
Our own tendency to indulge in nostalgia was enough to remove us from the film at times. The film is kind to Edinburgh and showcased it in some beautiful shots, of The Royal Mile, Cockburn Street and The Castle. Again we found ourselves looking for landmarks, this time from our time there, rather than from the book. A CCTV shot of Begbie entering Cav prompted memories of walking in ourselves. We even viewed a flat on the same road that Sick Boy’s pub is supposed to be located on (although it was filmed elsewhere), and lived up the street from Veronika’s flat in Bruntsfield for a little while. Whilst being removed from the film might be seen as a negative effect, how could we view it any other way? We lived it. I don’t believe many Scots watching could not have found aspects of their own lives in the film. I might have been removed at times but I also forgot I was in Australia for those two hours, and enjoyed being at home.
Beyond the nostalgia I found the film to be a slower, more sombre affair. It’s definitely more playful, but Trainspotting found its humour in pure wit and style. The first deals with some horrifying and dark images and themes, but it’s wrapped up in itself and moving at too much of a pace to notice. T2 is more about facing those darker parts of yourself, your past and what you’ve become, and is slow enough to actually consider the repercussions. I loved it. I laughed out loud, I was scared, I was uncomfortable, I was elated. And I, like many other Scots of my age and older, have an immense love for these characters. They’re ours, and we’ve lived the past 20 years alongside them.