Everyone knows Trainspotting, the book that became a film that became a iconic cultural moment in the mid-Nineties. Even if you’ve never read or seen it, I bet the word causes certain associations in your mind: Ewan McGregor, skinny and sweating on the film posters; that orange-on-white text, beloved of student posters; that quote. You know the one. ‘Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.’
So it’s written in the original book, anyway; the film Anglicised it somewhat, but it remains one of the defining quotations of that particular moment. As well as one of the most mis-used.
When I was in high school, the humanities departments put up posters encouraging would-be historians, geographers and so on to take their subject at GCSE. I don’t remember the history department’s poster, but the geography department came up with “Geogspotting”, a concept that’s always stuck in my mind for being so completely out of touch.
Their poster aped the Trainspotting promotional material. ‘Choose wading about in rivers. Choose learning about the world. Choose trips to France. Choose geography,’ the poster somewhat cringeworthily suggested. It was the marketing campaign equivalent of your dad attempting to dance to dubstep.
Since then I’ve seen Trainspotting’s most memorable quote bastardised for everything from election campaigns to student posters (‘Choose beer’. Makes me shudder. And not just because I don’t like beer). But I’ve never seen it used in anything near the right way. And sure, I’m a pedant, but it irritates me to the point of sending me off an incredibly long and impassioned rant. And making me less than popular with anyone else who happens to be around. (Especially if it’s their poster).
See, the thing is, as I’m pretty sure most of us know, that quote isn’t the whole story. It’s got a couple of lines before and after it which are crucial to understanding it. So crucial, in fact, that the purveyors of Geogspotting and Beerspotting and whatever-you-really-want-that-can-be-shortened-to-one-syllable-spotting have completely missed them.
So here we go. In the interests of education and correcting cultural myths, here’s the whole paragraph:
‘Society invents a spurious convoluted logic tae absorb and change people whae’s behaviour is outside its mainstream…They won’t let ye dae it, because it’s seen as a sign ay thir ain failure. The fact that ye jist simply choose tae reject whit they huv tae offer. Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fuckin junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pishing and shiteing yersel in a home, a total fuckin embarrassment tae the selfish, fucked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.
Well, ah choose no tae choose life. If the cunts cannae handle that, it’s thair fuckin problem.’
Basically, then, as we should all be aware, when Renton gives this speech – or, in the book, has these thoughts – they are not intended to be a representation of a life that he wants. If the use of ‘mind-numbing and spirit crushing’ doesn’t give it away, that final ‘choose life’ is immediately followed by ‘Well, ah choose no tae choose life.’ In the film, he adds, ‘I chose something else’ as he injects a syringe full of heroin into his bloodstream. It’s a pretty clear message.
It’s interesting, then, just how far Geogspotting and Beerspotting and what-have-you missed the point. They didn’t just ‘not quite get it’; no, the points they were trying to make are the direct opposite of the quotation they used to make them. In actual fact, what my geography department was telling me, by implication, was ‘Don’t do geography, take heroin!’
(I mean, you know, they probably didn’t realise that. But still)
What I’ve been trying to get round to, in an admittedly long-winded way, is this. Trainspotting has become such a cultural moment that it’s often referenced and appropriated by people who have absolutely no idea what it’s even about, other than ‘that Scottish drug book’.
When I was fifteen, my mother banned me from reading it because ‘it glamorises heroin’. Obviously, I immediately went and bought a copy, because I was fifteen and listened to too much Pete Doherty. When I read it, though, I was so taken aback – not to mention nauseated – that I went back to my mother and demanded to know exactly how it glamorised heroin addiction. This is a book, mind you, which begins with two of its supposed protagonists in the grip of heroin withdrawal: ‘Bad cramps wir beginning tae hit us as we mounted the stairs tae Johnny’s gaff. Ah wis dripping like a saturated sponge, every step bringing another gush fae ma pores. Sick Boy wis probably even worse, but the cunt was beginning no tae exist fir us. Ah wis only aware ay him slouching tae a halt oan the banister in front ay us, because he wis blocking ma route tae Johnny’s and the skag. He wis struggling fir breath, haudin grimly oantay the railing, looking as if he wis gaunnae spew intae the stairwell’. It’s vivid, it’s shocking in places, but it’s never sensationalised; these two misfits in an Edinburgh stairwell are hardly junkie rock-stars playing to a crowd of millions. If anything, Trainspotting does more to de-glamourise heroin addiction than any other depiction in popular culture.
When I pointed this out, though, my mother had a confession to make: she’d never actually read it. Which, I think, is something of a microcosmic view of how this book is received. It’s required reading for quite a few English Literature courses; but it’s still somewhat looked down on as gross, graphic sensationalism by parts of the Establishment. It’s by turns a genuine depiction of a certain unemployed, drug-addicted, barely-coherent sector of society, and an over-exaggerated piece of tabloid journalism. It’s brave, or it’s lurid; affecting or sickening; exhilarating or impossible to read.
The book has been so overtaken by the controversies surrounding it – as, to a lesser extent, has the film – that sometimes it goes rather underappreciated, for all the superlative praise it receives. Because the best things about this book aren’t the scatological scenes we all remember – they’re just the grotesque icing on the cake. The best thing about this book is its portrayal not of heroin addiction but of hopelessness. When you’re talking about Trainspotting, it’s interesting to remember that only about half of its cast are actually heroin addicts, and the book as a whole by no means focuses solely on them. Look at the psychotic Begbie, whose thoughts on heroin he succinctly sums up: ‘Fuckin junkies. A waste ay fuckin space’; or Sick Boy, who kicks his habit as early as page 55 of the book and never goes back to it. It is a book about heroin, yes, but it is not a book only about heroin. It’s a book about escape; a book about despair; a book about making bad choices. It is a book about choosing not to choose life, in all the permutations of that phrase.
It’s also well worth a read, whether or not you’ve seen the film. (If you’re relatively strong of stomach, that is.)
Next Week: About the Death Penalty: Vernon God Little