Addictions and trains


Most of what you need to know about addiction is contained in the film Trainspotting, which now has a sequel, Trainspotting 2 (the title is the only thing about it that’s banal), which opened here in March after a January UK release. The story takes place in Edinburgh, Scotland, twenty years after the action of the first film. Mark Renton (Ewan McGregor) returns to town after years living in Amsterdam. Mark’s return is half-heartedly redemptive: he seeks reunion with Simon, “Sick boy”, from whom he’d stolen money twenty years earlier, and from Daniel, “Spud”, whom he’d abandoned to continuing heroin addiction. Though seemingly healthy and well-adjusted, Mark is adrift, suffering from a recently diagnosed heart condition and a mid-life crisis: he is jobless and divorced, and still wearing on his sleeves the guilt of his past mischiefs.

It’s as if they never went away. One of the melancholic themes of Trainspotting 2 is the terrible slide of time. It has drained away and yielded nothing that lasts or has meaning. The music they liked in 1995 seems only slightly different now. The nightlife of pubs and clubs looks and sounds more or less the same, only now Mark and the others are older, flabbier and more vulnerable. In some ways, Mark is just like he was in the first film. He is thoughtful, capable of remorse and caring behavior, despite a self-centered core. He saves Spud from a suicide attempt, and agrees to help Simon with his darkly comic scheming, which has moved on from petty drug dealing to more creative territory: blackmailing of Johns with the help of a Bulgarian prostitute (also Simon’s girlfriend); a later plot to pilfer credit cards from drunken patrons of a Glaswegian, unionist pub*.

There are moments that mirror the joy and reckless spirit of their earlier days. Mark and Simon remind me of how I am with certain friends: nostalgic for a past when hair was darker, waistlines were trimmer, and the circles beneath eyes betrayed fewer miles. While fooling the foolish, dashing from danger, inhaling powdery fuels and then slumbering on mornings after in messy bachelorhood, Mark and Simon reenact their twentysomething fantasies (actually, Simon never really left them) and fall into old patterns. Ever looking for quick success, they devise plans to start a brothel, securing an EU loan on the pretext of resurrecting a derelict pub of alleged historical significance. Meanwhile, they overlook predictable flies in the ointment. Firstly, Simon is arrested for his blackmailing exploits, which leads Mark to seek a lawyer on his behalf, which in turn leads Mark back to his old girlfriend, Diane, who is now a lawyer willing to help, but who will charge a sizable fee. More ominously, they proceed with their plans unaware that Begbie, a former nemesis, has broken out of jail and is on the path of revenge, having also been ripped off by Mark in the first film.

The reunion with Diane affords Mark a glimpse into the life of someone from his past who trod a different path. She is someone who grew up, avoided addictions, the emptiness of modern life, plus the enduring bitterness resulting from a diffuse cultural malaise. This is where the title comes in, sort of. The original Trainspotting featured numerous commentaries on vacuous yet consuming lifestyles; on an oblique vision of Scotland in the late twentieth century; on class, gender, sex, and history. Trains and the obscure hobby that is trainspotting are metaphors for life bypassing the mediocre. That reverie continues twenty years later. For the benefit of Veronica, Simon’s Bulgarian girlfriend/prostitute, Mark reprises the “choose life” beat poesy that informed the friends’ once vital and anarchic spirit. This is a fuck-life speech that decries all that is shallow and false in the modern world, and thus posits drugs and/or intoxication as one’s “only friend”. Such diatribes invariably lead to relapse or just continued use, which leaves casualties. Mark gave his friend Tommy his first hit, and Tommy contracted AIDS and died. Simon, more thick-skinned than Mark ordinarily, once sobbed over a crib, staring down at his dead infant daughter—neglected while he languished in a nearby squat, doped-up and out of it. For what it’s worth, Mark has largely managed to stay clean in the years since, unlike Spud or Simon. As he counsels Spud, who is trying once again to kick heroin, and who extols the virtues of another detox as his chosen solution, “it (the addiction) is in your mind, not your body”.

All is going to its sloppy, unlikely plan until a chance meeting finds Mark and Begbie sat in adjacent toilet stalls in a nightclub. The ensuing chase is a mad duel, made barely plausible by Mark’s relative fitness and Begbie’s…well, his plain madness. As a villain, for me, Frank Begbie makes Darth Vader look like Ward Cleaver. He’s right up there with Hannibal Lecter and any one of Tarantino’s baddies as one of the scariest heavies of 90’s cinema. As he recognizes Mark’s voice in the bathroom stall, the theater audience audibly shuddered. The protracted chase takes up the latter third of Trainspotting 2, interspersed with glimpses into Begbie’s sad psychology. Here, actor Robert Carlisle out does himself, adding depth to the violent sociopath whose frothing vitriol in thick Scots dialect makes subtitles necessary. After he breaks out of jail, Begbie returns to his wife and son, a comparatively effete teenager who wants to go to college, and whom Begbie forcibly enjoins into a burglary only to discover that the mild-mannered boy has gentler aptitudes. Ultimately, Begbie is contrite, and delivers a sad farewell message to wife and son just prior to one last showdown with Mark and the boys. It’s one of those I was never raised to show my feelings laments that occasionally inspire patriarchal dinosaurs into therapists’ offices. The awkward scene nonetheless softens him, and elicits sympathy amid his later defeat.

And defeat is a core theme in Trainspotting 2. Another one of the boys’ asides is a fond recollection of seventies footballers, reprised from a similarly musing passage within Trainspotting. George Best, the focus of this rapture, is literally the first public figure and athlete I became aware of as a small child. Gifted, with a cartoon hero’s name and Paul McCartney looks, Best was the golden boy of British sport in the early-to-mid seventies, but a taste for night life and too much booze addled his career, which declined over the second half of that decade. By the time I emigrated to the US in 79’, Best had emigrated also, to collect a late-career paycheck playing soccer for Americans who barely knew his name. In the ethos of Trainspotting, Best tops a list of sad, one-time legends whose addictions collapsed talent and fame.

If only the boys could be more like Diane, whose diligence and relative normalcy enabled good fortune, a reaching of her personal potential. Happily, not all of the boys are without hope for something real or normal. Ironically, it is Spud, the likeable loser of the three Scots lads, who discovers a latent talent: he writes. He writes well, and furthermore writes the kinds of stories I couldn’t write, because I haven’t lived dangerously, which is less entertaining, apparently. The price of normalcy, perhaps. People enjoy drunken stories, but don’t necessarily understand addiction. Recently I listened to a loved one suggest that recovering addicts were not so worthy of admiration as many seem to think. Why should we celebrate someone who once caused a lot of damage and pain, simply because they later curbed bad habits so they could live a civilized life, just like the rest of us have all along? The argument presumes the capacity to choose, but choice is elusive for some. Sometimes I envy those with bad habits, because bad habits are fun and generate good stories, like Trainspotting, and Trainspotting 2. The thing is, I chose life and potential, and I’ve got work tomorrow.

  • Unionism: in this context, it pertains to the politics of Northern Ireland, whose centuries old conflicts pit Catholics against Protestants. In the film, Mark and Simon’s impromptu song, “1690” lampoons a hate song about the Battle of the Boyne, in which William of Orange conquered Catholic Ireland

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