Young Scotland applauds the crude, aggressive scenes of "Trainspotting." Respectable, middle-aged Scotland is at ease with anti-English xenophobia. Kenneth Roy wonders what has happened to the rough decency of the working class culture of his youth and yearns for a gentle, civilised nationalismby Kenneth Roy / June 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
The possibility that there might be something wrong with the Scots-that we might be mentally unwell-occurred to me, not on the day of the Dunblane murders but several weeks earlier in the darkness of a cinema. It was suggested by the sound of laughter.
The audience in our local Odeon for Trainspotting, a film about Edinburgh drug addicts based on a novel by Irvine Welsh, was predominantly young, heterosexual and fashionably dressed. Judging by the buzz of conversation, it was also of reasonable intelligence. People held hands in a sweet, old-fashioned way and devoured huge quantities of popcorn. All in all, you could not have hoped for a more reassuring cross-section of boys and girls next door. Still, I began to wonder if they were altogether sane.
The film is a nasty bit of work, brilliantly executed as nasty bits of work often are. It begins with a highly charged diatribe against consumerism, delivered at stinging pace by its young anti-hero, Mark. “Choose starter homes,” he sneers, “choose DIY, choose mind-numbing fucking game shows, choose old people’s homes, choose…”-and so on in the same vein for several minutes. “But why would I want to do a thing like that?” Mark concludes rhetorically. “I chose something else. And the reason? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you’ve got heroin?”
The restless camera moves to an Edinburgh squat where we observe a young woman, Alison, having the drug injected into her arm and her ecstatic response. “Take the best orgasm you’ve ever had,” she says, “multiply it by a thousand and this is still better. Beats any fuckin’ cock in the world.”
You may assume without further example that, whatever the strengths of Trainspotting, a love of the word is not one of them. The film derives its effect, not from any verbal dexterity or wit but from its ability to shock. The techniques it employs are crude and disgusting; and the more crude and disgusting they are, the more audiences lap it up. The young people around me were-so to speak-hooked. But their degree of identification with the material on screen was disturbing. It became almost as repellent as the film itself.
The two scenes which provoked the most approving reaction were both excremental. In the first, a man suffered a violent bout of diarrhoea in “Scotland’s filthiest public toilet.” In the second, one of his friends shit himself in bed and the next morning sprayed the contents of the soiled sheets over people eating breakfast. That the audience responded to these scenes by laughing was perhaps not surprising: laughter can be a useful safety valve. But as it filled the cinema and convulsed the audience, there was a quality in this laughter that made me uneasy. Clearly it was not motivated by embarrassment. It had a crueller resonance-hinting at actual pleasure in personal humiliation and degradation. It was the laughter of inmates in an asylum.
Laughter should be used occasionally as a weapon. “It’s shite being Scottish,” wails one of the characters let loose in the Scottish hills. “Ruled by effete arseholes, and all the fresh air in the world won’t make any fuckin’ difference.” A healthy response to this Socratic outburst would have been an irreverent belly laugh. Instead the audience remained reverentially silent, as if the secret of the holy grail had just been revealed.
Predictably, Trainspotting has been lauded by the critics. Philip French in the Observer dared to mention its author in the same breath as Chekhov and noted that the script “has the unsentimental ruthlessness of much recent Scottish writing.” French is almost old enough to qualify for a bus pass. If he sincerely believes that Irvine Welsh is a soul mate of Anton Chekhov, it may be time to give up film reviewing and devote the rest of his life to his stated recreation: the picking of wild strawberries.
Welsh, who plays a small part in the film and looks far from endearing, appears to be no spring chicken himself. He could be as elderly as 40. He might be even older judging by the sociology department jargon of his prose style. He is venerable enough to use the phrase “bourgeois cultural fascists of the media and arts establishments,” though it is the same cultural fascists who have slavishly promoted his work and ensured his present bankable status. Talk about ingratitude.
In an article (in that last resort of the liberal conscience, the Guardian newspaper), he refers to “the entire psychic terrain an individual operates in,” “the whole life process,” “resource allocation,” “the increasing marginalisation and criminalisation of people by the state,” “attendant sub-cultures,” “collective interactions destroyed by 1980s community devastations,” and “diverse multi-cultural society.” In other words-and you will forgive me if I prefer other words-Welsh is the embodiment of Dave Spart, the politically correct trade union activist lampooned by Private Eye magazine.
I don’t know whether Welsh is a user of drugs, nor do I care much, but here is a dreadful confession: having lived on this planet for half a century, I have never taken an illegal substance. This is not boast but fact. Watching Trainspotting makes me no more likely to start now, though, if I were dying, I might be tempted to reach for the ciggies or even a joint. To that limited extent-the extent that it has not corrupted one viewer’s intentions-the film has done no harm.
It certainly seems to have done Welsh a power of good. The Scotsman has boldly suggested that he is the most successful Scottish writer ever-though it did have the grace to add a question mark. Choose articles in the Guardian, choose bestselling novels, choose smash-hit film adaptations, choose royalties… And the reason? There are no reasons. Who needs reasons when you could be the most successful Scottish writer ever?
“The main issue for me,” Welsh pontificates, “is that so many people are using drugs negatively, to get as far away from the horror and dullness of straight, mainstream life as possible, rather than positively, as life enhancers.” Try telling that to the parents and friends of the dead. But there is an issue more important than the grotesque hype of Irvine Welsh; an issue more important even than the life-enhancing possibilities of heroin addiction. It is to do with the mental wellbeing of the popcorn junkies in the Odeon.
Although the film is morally vacuous, nothing in it is quite so depressing as the sheer joy of the audience’s response. At the end of the film, the audience applauded. Applauded. What in God’s name did they find to applaud?
A second small incident just before Dunblane confirmed that I know my fellow countrymen less well than I thought I did. I went for a haircut one Saturday morning in February and was surprised to find the shop full of middle-aged, middle class men in a state of barely suppressed excitement.
“They were in the pub last night,” one said. He added with unpleasant emphasis: “Arseholes.” Perhaps he picked up the word at the local Odeon, in the same way that you pick up a virus.
“Yeah,” nodded the man in the next chair.
“We’ll bloody show them, though,” said the first man.
“Got a ticket?”
“Na. Watching it on the box.” The significance of the day dawned on me at last: the lawyers, accountants and architects of the district, the round table chaps who dress up as Santa Claus and collect money for sick children, the ones with the gold-rimmed specs and the briefcases who audit our chaotic lives and keep us in order, the solid citizens who wouldn’t vote SNP in 1,000 years, were preparing for the Battle of Murrayfield.
Something called the Triple Crown was at stake; the Grand Slam too, whatever that was. But best of all, we would get to leather those English arseholes. We would send them home to, er, think again.
The lucky few had tickets for the slaughter. The night before, at a dinner in Greenock, I sat next to a man who boasted of having four tickets. He was universally envied. Others, who had no tickets, would drive to the field of battle anyway. They would sit in the car park drinking champagne and nibbling at New Town canap?s and when it turned cold they would cover their hairy knees in tartan shawls. The rest, like the short back and sides nationalists at the hairdresser, would watch in darkened rooms, their feet resting on suburban coffee tables awash with Tennents Speshul. And, oh, how our patriotic breasts would swell at the clean and manly sound of Bill McLaren, the most Scottish voice in the world next to Mel Gibson Hissel’.
An old lady who was fortunate enough to be in Edinburgh that glorious day said that she would never forget the sight of thousands of tall, kilted Scotsmen, their blood up after a fourth whisky in Jinglin’ Geordie’s, marching to war along Princes Street. When was there last such a cause? It may be a choice between Culloden, 1746, when one famous Scottish army was vanquished, and Argentina, 1978, when another tartan army-our national football team and its hapless band of supporters-was memorably humiliated in the World Cup.
Now that food and sex are both public health risks, commercialised spectator sport is possibly the last major recreational activity which is safe and socially acceptable. Yet the national obsession with a public school game, an interest once confined to fee paying Edinburgh and parts of the borders, strikes me as rather strange. What is certainly new is the hysterical atmosphere generated by rugby internationals and the anti-English sentiment which increasingly disfigures these events.
Arseholes. It is true that the word could be justly applied to some Englishmen of my acquaintance. But the English have no monopoly on this part of the anatomy: it would be relatively easy to compile a list of our very own Scottish arseholes, effete and otherwise. The arsehole respects no national boundaries. It is ubiquitous.
The tone of voice is what counts; and the tone of voice in this case was malevolent. Bourgeois society in Scotland now appears to be at ease with the language of xenophobic insult and hatred. Indeed this is so common a form of casual conversation that the people who engage in it understand instinctively that they are most unlikely to be challenged: a consensus has developed, more threatening than the ritualistic, vulgar abuse on football terraces or the rabble cries in the streets of small towns on a Saturday night. Poverty and ignorance explain if not excuse the rancorous prejudices of the economically disadvantaged. But most of the people who follow the game of rugby enjoy the advantages conferred by higher education, affluence and social status. These people should know better.
Since no good ever comes of racial intolerance and triumphalism, I will admit the inadmissible: I was glad, patriotically glad for Scotland, that we lost the match and that the streets were subdued that night. But a bitter aftertaste lingered: could the emotions brought to the surface by a sporting fixture be a symptom of something larger and darker?
It is becoming quite important to know who they are, the young to middle-aged rugby supporters who will soon be running what is left of Scotland. They are a bit of a mystery-perhaps even to themselves. Considered too boring to be fictionalised, they lead largely unexamined lives. But I study them habitually in shops such as Habitat. Once I tried unsuccessfully to anatomise the new Scottish middle class in a single sentence:
“They vote Labour without enthusiasm, live in Hillhead or Stockbridge, drink two bottles of wine a week, are interested in the modern cinema, experiment with food, worry about the environment and the schooling of their young children, watch Cracker, and bring home paperback novels from Waterstone’s.”
A producer at the BBC said that he recognised himself in what I had written; my only error had been to underestimate his weekly consumption of booze. Now I recognise a more fundamental error: the sentence was a description, not of the new Scottish middle class but merely of a literate, liberal minority within it. This minority includes teachers and academics, BBC producers, keepers of bookshops and galleries, cultural bureaucrats of all kinds. But it does not include the men who join the round table, throw bread rolls at each other at rugby dinners, exchange dirty jokes, play squash, enjoy themselves while doing good, sustain the Conservatives in power for 17 years and call our nearest neighbours arseholes.
I used to know my fellow Scots rather better than I do now. Forty years ago, I felt at home in the improving working class culture of central Scot-land. It was an imperfect society in all sorts of ways, but it had a certain rough decency. People in the Bonnybridge barber’s shop in 1956 would not have used the word arseholes about the English. The barber’s shop was where you read tabloid newspapers containing words of more than one syllable, with real news on the front page, and heard old village men talk with a sense and knowledge that sounded to one adolescent boy very like wisdom. It was a slow and gentle place. You waited ages for a haircut in those days.
There were no rugby supporters in Bonnybridge. We had never heard of rugby. The people who owned the businesses led discreet lives in sedate houses. They could be surprising: one hid the Stone of Destiny under the floor of his factory. But I doubt that this man would have called the English arseholes or marched down Princes Street the worse for drink and looking perfectly ridiculous. He thought more deeply about his country. He ran a fund to assist the Highlands and Islands, created useful employment, inspired respect and affection. He had more genuine patriotism in his little finger than all the ludicrous, kilted ranks of the Murrayfield army.
Maybe there is still a middle class in Scotland that is humane, expansive and outward looking. All I can say is that I seldom encounter it. But of this I am certain: that improving working class culture of my youth has vanished and much of Scotland’s identity with it.
I didn’t read the newspapers in the week of Dunblane; I didn’t watch television. Spare me Kate Adie at the epicentre of the world’s grief, the loose emotion of chat show personalities, the lachrymose tendencies of journalists, the sympathy of Sally Magnusson, the “Scottish” Daily Mail yelling “Monster” across its deplorable front page, black headlines and purple prose, the profound understanding of Hugo bloody Young.
Apparently the press behaved “responsibly,” although the good behaviour of the British press is always a frail and comparative blessing. It means that journalists made only 60 telephone calls in 24 hours to one of the families. Soon the restless caravan moved on to fresh grief. It will be back for the first anniversary.
Once they had all gone and it was safe to read the papers again, Matthew Parris had a column about Dunblane in a right wing magazine. Parris admitted that he did not know the town, but had been impressed by reports in the press that it was a “close-knit community.” He argued that such communities are dangerous because they exclude people like Thomas Hamilton and drive them round the bend. According to this view, Notting Hill is saner than Dunblane: in Notting Hill nobody is excluded because nobody is included.
There are two misconceptions here. One is about the nature of Dunblane, the other about the nature of close-knit communities.
Unlike Matthew Par-ris, I do know Dunblane. Long ago, I even contemplated living there. If the press described Dunblane as a close-knit community, it was only because this is journalistic shorthand for any small town. It is not a close-knit community. On the contrary it is a growing commuter town, most of whose inhabitants do not know each other very well, if at all.
In a genuinely close-knit community-a few still exist in the Highlands, the northeast, and more especially in the Western Isles-the mad are not only looked out for, but looked after. They are, to use that quaint phrase, “given their place.” Nobody is excluded, because everybody is included. Thomas Hamilton might still have ended up a child molester and mass murderer. But it would have been less likely: that’s all.
I don’t often subscribe to the “We are all guilty” theory so beloved of the liberal mind, but I have come to the sad conclusion that for once we are all guilty. Scotland had become so aggressive in small ways that we had left ourselves open to the possibility of aggression in a big way.
When I think of that hateful man at the hairdresser, of those young Scots slavering over the manipulative depravity of Trainspotting, of Irvine Welsh and his kind, of the commercial cynicism of Taggart and Rab C Nesbitt, of the English critic celebrating our reputation for “unsentimental ruthlessness,” I shudder and mourn for my country; I feel that the idea of Scotland I have carried about with me for 50 years is already dead.
Where did it come from, this “unsentimental ruthlessness?” What is the purpose of such a diminishing culture? Where is it taking us? After Dunblane it is easy to define what we need in Scotland. I have no confidence that it will be achieved-it is almost a contradiction in terms-but I will say it anyway. We need a gentle and civilised nationalism.