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 Table of Contents    
Year : 2019  |  Volume : 61  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 322-324
Golden Brown Jubilee: 25 Years of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

Department of Psychiatry, Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, Maharashtra, India

Click here for correspondence address and email

Date of Web Publication16-May-2019

How to cite this article:
Ratnam A. Golden Brown Jubilee: 25 Years of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Indian J Psychiatry 2019;61:322-4

How to cite this URL:
Ratnam A. Golden Brown Jubilee: 25 Years of Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh. Indian J Psychiatry [serial online] 2019 [cited 2021 Oct 23];61:322-4. Available from:

When Irvine Welsh's debut novel was released in 1993, a prominent counter-culture magazine declared it “the best book ever written by man or woman” and claimed it “deserves to sell more copies than the Bible.”[1] While clearly an overstatement, the book became a publishing phenomenon and a mainstream modern classic – it has sold over 30 million copies in the UK alone, been translated into thirty languages and was declared the Scottish Book Trust's favorite book of the last five decades.[1],[2] It is also by sound estimation, the most famous book about heroin use ever written.

Trainspotting is written from inside a chemical holocaust. It is as hellacious and devoid of hope as anything in Dante's Inferno, only far more believable. The novel chronicles life as it was in the narcotic wasteland that Scotland had become in the 1980s. It truly does feel, look, and smell like a bleak, defeated place. By the 1980s, Thatcher's doctrine of large-scale deindustrialization had turned once-thriving mining and docking towns into hovels of redundancy and stagnation.[1] To put things into context, there were approximately 5.1 million people (of all age groups) in the 1981 Scotland census.[3] Of this number, by 1983, 3.8 million were unemployed.[1] Life was at its most dire in the failed peripheral housing schemes (where the novel is set) – these places became notorious for their vandalism, crime, substandard amenities, unsound town-planning, and monotonous housing architecture. Even official government documents would designate them “centers of social deprivation” and “areas of need.”[4] Describing the times in an interview to The Guardian, Welsh says “it tells its own story-you've got a lot of people with a lot of time on their hands. The government was basically creating demand.”[5]

The supply and the beginning of the end for Scotland came in the shape of cheap Pakistani heroin that flooded its streets in the late 1970s. Grown in the North West Frontier Province, this new product was funneled through India into the UK.[1] Its price and fake probity meant no other drug, and no other way of life, stood a chance. In the midst of economic meltdown, the prices of alcohol and tobacco soared while this sudden supply glut saw heroin prices plummet.[1] Second, a bizarre hoax was widely mongered of how because Pakistani heroin was “smoking” heroin, it would therefore not be addictive.[6] Ignorance, availability, and a want of alternatives or prospects came together to produce that one truly malignant consequence – heroin was now being taken by “people who wouldn't normally be involved in the heroin scene.”[5]

Trainspotting is the story of such a group of friends living in such a time in such a place (Leith, Edinburgh, one of the worst-hit settings). Their collective lives are chronicled as this anthology of weakly jointed and fleetingly intersecting short stories. They angrily rationalize their drug use, all the while dodging an ongoing biological game of chance – one which eventually sees the newest and least “deserving” of the addicts contract HIV. They indulge in petty crime to support their habit, and take an assortment of drugs to either substitute or source the emotions any given situation requires. Ecstasy is required to make an outing in the park a tangible enough experience. Alcohol provides social lubrication when time has to be spent with one's parents. If a job interview needs to be sabotaged so one can continue to live off welfare checks, one shows up plastered on amphetamine.

Dealings with heroin, however, do not serve any such covert use –

“Ah (I) love nothing (except junk), ah hate nothing (except forces that prevent me getting any) and ah fear nothing (except not scoring).”

However vocally it may be claimed as the case, heroin use in a clearly and swiftly dying Scotland was not an act of rebellion. Instead, it became the only way to escape this complete hole of hopelessness while trying to keep a smug face. This sense is voiced perfectly in a now legendary monologue by the novel's central character, Mark Renton:

“Choose life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players, and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol and dental insurance…. Choose fixed-interest mortgage repayments…. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends….. Choose DIY and wondering who you are on a Sunday morning... Choose life... But why would I want to do a thing like that?”

He chose heroin instead. Just about everyone did.

Renton is no hero, and personates both the novelist himself (Irvine Welsh is very open about his time as a heroin addict) and the wasted opportunities the heroin epidemic left in its wake. Renton had been a scholarship-winning history student at Aberdeen University. He left after a year of spending all his grant money on heroin and prostitutes, and we find him sharing needles with drug dealers and total strangers. He has not been completely destroyed as a human being, but heroin has certainly left parts of his being beyond salvage. We are shown Renton having locked himself in his flat for a heroin binge. As his mother weeps and begs to him to open the door and let her in, he counsels himself –

“Ah love Ma, love her too much……So much that ah don't want her tae have a son like me. Ah wish ah could find her a replacement. Ah wish that because ah don't think change is an option fir us….”

He convinces himself that he cannot open the door, and instead picks the only viable alternative: to cook up a shot of heroin.

“Ma pain centers say that its yon time already.”

The book is by no means an easy read. To begin with, it is narrated almost entirely in thick Scottish dialect, with a vocabulary and grammar that initially seem insufferable. To illustrate, the book's first lines are is:

“The sweat was lashing oafay Sick Boy; he wis trembling. Ah wis jist sittin their, focusing oan the telly tryin no tae notice the ****.”

“Skag,“ meaning heroin, is one such frequent and at first unfamiliar noun, as are “swedge” (a fight), “poppy” (money), “flunkies” (condoms). I wrote these words with their translations as they came up on the inner cover jacket and referred back to this glossary of mine when required. Once you build reading momentum through a few sittings of such work, it becomes easy to contextually piece together what an unfamiliar word stands for.

It also brims with profanity and graphicness, certainly enough to put some readers off. Yet you wonder whether the honesty of these tales would survive such a sanitization. For example, the book contains among the most riveting and painful to read descriptions of withdrawal ever written. Ache throbs through every explicative. These are not words to fill up space or affect pugnacity; each letter demands to be paid attention to. The stuttering narrative may also seem problematic – characters and storylines disappear for chapters on end, and are taken up later at or in the aftermath of where they were left off. However, we see the lives of all these people have actually become the mad dashes and disconnected events between two consecutive hits of heroin.

For me, from a practitioner's point of view, the book had two standout sections. In the first, Renton attempts a cold-turkey detoxification whose strategy, setting, and inventory he describes with military precision. He plans on stowing himself away in a newly rented flat unfamiliar to his friends so they cannot tempt him with sponsored heroin. Sustenance during the campaign will be tinned soup and melted vanilla ice cream, and a trio of buckets filled with disinfectant will serve as the lavatory.

Renton makes clear he does not essentially believe this attempt will succeed.

“…you've got tae know what it's like tae try tae come off it before ye can actually dae it. You can only learn through failure…”

The undertaking begins with a shot of heroin to the left arm, “something tae keep us gaun during this period of intense preparation” during whose high he does the supply shopping. With such an inauspicious beginning, there is an uneasy certainty about how his day will end.

Another highlight is his recounting of experiences with Freudian Psychoanalysis, behavior therapy and client-centered counseling. He is able to give a surprisingly well-argued and balanced take on what he considers the merits or demerits of each. This really does make for a remarkable account – hearing a man whose bodily hunger for opioids will make him reach into a toilet bowl for a pair of methadone suppositories talk about how he entertains the idea that his “junk behaviour is anal in concept….instead of withholding the faeces tae rebel against parental authority, ah'm pittin smack intae ma body tae claim power over it vis-à-vis society in general.”

The same section also categorically spells out just how unimportant the mental health establishment seems from the insides of a life lived in addiction.

”Aw (all) this might or might no be true. Ah've pondered ower a loat ay it, and ah'm willin tae explore it; ah don't feel defensive aboot any ay it. However, ah feel that it's at best peripheral to the issue ay ma addiction.”

The discourse also serves a good demonstration of the method to heroin's attacks on the mind and soul. The intelligence and the ability to weigh consequence are left untouched. The will to do so is ravaged completely.

The mauling the heroin epidemic delivered was so fierce that Scotland's wounds still gape. The user demographic profiled in the novel has come to be called the “Trainspotting Generation.” Droves of them died of AIDS or overdoses, and of those that survived, large numbers never managed to give up either methadone or heroin itself. David Liddell, director of the Scottish Drug Forum, estimates that half of Scotland's 61,500 addicts are over 35 years old.[7] After 20 years of opioid abuse, they are among the most morbidly ill people in the country. Most are so sick and frail they require the same degree of home help as the most elderly sections of society.[8],[9] The National Records of Scotland endorses that the over 40 age group is the only demographic in which drug-related deaths continue to rise.[10] What to do with and what will become of this population are questions Scotland has yet not been able to answer.

This is why Trainspotting is not only a very good book but also a very important one. The novel provides a detached yet detailed portrait of heroin at work, ruining both a nation and its days to come. I say detached because it was difficult for me to muster any real emotion for these exotic, alien characters and their obviously foreign runs of affair. But, the familiarity in their stories and their ruination forced the feeling out of me. Parallels can and must be drawn between what happened to Scotland and the situation in our own border states. The representative Trainspotting addict “was a member of the socially deprived groups of teenagers living on inner-city housing estates who, despite being new to the drug scene, rapidly adopted a lifestyle of reckless drug-taking.”[1] Punjab's typical addict is “male, young….from a lower-middle class background.”[11] Heroin has long since replaced poppy husk as Punjab's go-to opiate.[11] In Manipur, heroin (14%) has overtaken alcohol (3%), cannabis (2%) and solvents (9%) and stands second only to propoxyphene as the intoxicant of choice.[12],[13] As Scotland was then, we are very obviously being hurt today. The tragic outcomes of the Trainspotting generation testify that once it begins, this kind of hurting runs on for a very long time.

   References Top

Munro JN. Lust for Life!: Irvine Welsh and the Trainspotting Phenomenon. Edinburgh: Birlinn; 2013.  Back to cited text no. 1
The Favourite Scottish Novel is Revealed. Available from: [Last accessed on 2016 Nov 18].  Back to cited text no. 2
UK Government Web Archive – The National Archives. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Feb 20].  Back to cited text no. 3
Drucker HM, Clarke M. The Scottish Government Yearbook: 1978. Edinburgh: Paul Harris Publishing; 1978.  Back to cited text no. 4
Edemariam A, Scott K. What happened to the Trainspotting generation? Guardian 2009. Available from: [Last accessed on 2016 Nov 18].  Back to cited text no. 5
Yates R. A brief history of British drug policy, 1950-2001. Drugs Educ Prev Policy 2002;9:113-24.  Back to cited text no. 6
Medics “Too Ready to write off the Trainspotting Generation.” Herald Scotland. Available from: Medics__too_ready_to_write_off_the_Trainspotting_generation_/. [Last accessed on 2016 Nov 18].  Back to cited text no. 7
Lost to Drugs: The Trainspotting Generation. Herald Scotland. Available from: Lost_to_drugs__the_Trainspotting_generation/. [Last accessed on 2016 Nov 18].  Back to cited text no. 8
Shaw A. Senior Drug Dependents and Care Structures: Scotland and Glasgow Report. Scottish Drugs Forum; 2009. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Oct 29].  Back to cited text no. 9
Drug-Related Deaths in Scotland in 2013. National Records of Scotland; 2014. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Oct 29].  Back to cited text no. 10
Punjab Opioid Dependence Survey (PODS): Brief Report. Society for Promotion of Youth and Masses; 2016. Available from: [Last accessed on 2018 Oct 29].  Back to cited text no. 11
Most Manipur Addicts Kids: Study. The Telegraph. Available from: [Last accessed on 2016 Nov 18].  Back to cited text no. 12
Lost in the Haze: A Study on substance abuse among children CHILDLINE India Foundation; 2008. Available from: https://www. [Last accessed on 2018 Oct 29].  Back to cited text no. 13

Correspondence Address:
Ashutosh Ratnam
Department of Psychiatry, Armed Forces Medical College, Pune, Maharashtra
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/psychiatry.IndianJPsychiatry_335_16

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