A commentary and resource on Law and Sexuality by Professor Chris Ashford and guests
The Trainspotting 2 premiere took place in Edinburgh tonight. The film revisits the characters who captured our hearts and minds back in the mid 1990s. If you’ve no idea what I’m talking about (seriously?), check out the plot here and then come back. Off you go…
With the film’s release, there’s the usual studio-inspired hype, nostalgia and media noise. The Sunday Times feature on the release observes that ‘…this sequel isn’t being made for millennials. It is for over-35s who danced to Born Slippy at a student disco, then clocked the film’s orange poster on the wall of their one-night stand the next morning.’
As someone who turns 37 this year (WTF is that all about?) , this is a film custom-made for my generation. When the film was released in 1996, I couldn’t get to see it in the cinema. Streaming had yet to be invented and we’d have the inevitable epic wait for the film to finally come out on VHS, although someone’s Dad probably knew someone down the local who could get it sooner. I remember the release of the film not for seeing it, but for reading the book. I went to a comprehensive school in northern England. Accrington Moorhead High School had previously been Accrington High School for Girls where the legendary lesbian writer, Jeanette Winterson would study. Yet Winterson would never be mentioned at our school. The one great success was – I assume by virtue of her sexuality – erased from school history. She would not inspire us to read. In 1996, at the age of 16, something extraordinary would happen at this working class comp that would inspire us. I vividly remember the people in my year reading Trainspotting in the breaks and at lunch. You might have needed to be 18 to see the film but we could buy and read the book. So off to Wardleworths (the long-standing Accrington bookstore, now gone) or John Menzies we went to buy a copy, or we asked parents and older siblings to buy copies for us.
The boys of Moorhead (and I do only remember boys reading the book) who were not literature’s natural allies were to be spotted with copies of the black covered paperback. Mine was the film-image version (pictured above). It has a wet Ewan McGregor looking – well, to me at the time anyway – ridiculously gorgeous. Heroin chic. We would grapple with the Scot-dialect text to discover the stories embedded in heroin, poverty and a curious strain of hope.
It was also around this time that the school playgrounds were evacuated one lunch time and the flying squad descended on Moorhead. I was inside with others in my year working on our history GCSE coursework when – I was to discover in the press reports and school corridor gossip later – a drug dealer had come on to the school fields with a gun demanding payment from someone else in my year who apparently owed him some money. I think it was the same boy accused of the theft who would later be hit by a large stone hurled by someone else one day travelling to or from school, and die. We were told in a special assembly amidst a mixture of shock and uneasy pleasure that he was gone. I would get a B for GCSE History.
Two years later, I made it out. University – as it had been for Winterson – was my ticket out of there; although in my case it was to the city of Sheffield rather than Oxford, and a former Poly rather than a Russell Group. I would soon find myself dancing to the music that had defined the Trainspotting soundtrack. Underworld’s Dark and Long would return as a trance anthem as the super clubs firmly established their cultural reign. Sheffield offered Gatecrasher on a Saturday and (my preference) Blessed on a Monday with the DJ Matt Hardwick. We were the chemical generation, with drug use normalised and accepted if not practised by all. As many of us grew older, the Ket and Coke would be replaced by Prozac and sex-enhancing Viagra. We would be a generation more outward looking, more international and more informed than the previous one. Sex and sexuality was something to be enjoyed and discovered once more in contrast to the older generation who had learnt it was to be something to fear. We are probably more fucked up than other generations too, or so our years of therapists and councillors tell us anyway. We remember a time of phones that would be rented from British Telecom (what colour phone did you have?) and of public schools that were dropping to pieces, and Victorian hospitals that seemed to have an over fondness for a particular shade of brown. We did not have mobile phones as children or the Internet but our arrival at University and the move to adulthood would chime exactly with the mass availability of affordable mobiles and ‘pay as you go’ payment plans. The Internet and email would be available on University machines if not at home. By the time we would graduate, dial up was being replaced by ADSL. You could miraculously speak to someone on the phone and use the Internet. Oh yes, we actually used our landline phones back then. Uniquely, we enjoyed all the features of the new information age whilst simultaneously remembering the world before.
Renton’s proclamation to choose life was to a generation that would discover the hollowness of the idea that if you worked hard you could achieve anything. We embraced the emerging experience economy with many of us re-making traditional families structures and challenging the norms that were so established. His famous speech (seen in the clip below) would adorn posters but for those of us who first encountered Trainspotting, it was less obvious in the book. Rather we would take away a broader and revolutionary spirit embedded in the pages of the book. The book does engage with issues of HIV and underage sex but it’s not really a book about sex or sexuality. Nonetheless, it is a book that would influence a generation that would re-shape our understandings or sex and sexuality and mould the world as we know it today.
When I arrived at University in 1998, there was a different age of consent but that would change in 2000, along with a lifting of the ban on LGBT folks serving in the UK armed forces. In the years after my graduation, adoption rights, fertility rights, employment protections, good and service protections, civil partnerships, hate crime legislation, and same-sex marriage would all follow along with revolutionary trans legislation.
Trainspotting 2 cannot hope to re-capture that spirit entirely, but for those of us so drastically shaped by the original film and book, this moment offers an important point to reflect and once again consider what it is that we choose.