To begin at the beginning
In 1991 a young fellow working in the city Housing Department had a short story published in a pamphlet, Tim Bell tells us more…
The story was reflective autobiography, set as a narrative on location. The fictional character, a young Leither, Mark Renton, is coming home from London for Christmas. Leaving Waverley station by the Calton Road exit, he walks up to Leith Street.
He overhears ‘middle-class Edinburgh c***s’ coming out of the Playhouse appreciatively chattering about the show, on their way to the restaurants over the street. He reflects: ‘it’s downhill all the way’ (to Leith).
At Pilrig he thinks about getting into a taxi with an old pal he meets, getting out near his mum’s place on the way to Newhaven.
But the call of Tommy Younger’s bar (now The Harp & Castle) is stronger. Later he goes further down the Walk with Frank Begbie, and into Leith Central Station ‘for a pish’. Here it becomes clear that the fiction is set firmly in history. Renton reflects that the station is about to be demolished and replaced by a swimming centre and a supermarket.
It’s Christmas 1988. The demolition squads arrived in early 1989.
In contrast to Edinburgh, the characters in Leith piss amid dereliction and impending demolition/oblivion. It’s the end of the year, the end of the line, the end of the station. A great big metaphor.
And an old jakey makes the ridiculous suggestion that they are there to spot trains - a full 37 years after the last train pulled out.
At the end of this short story Renton is heading east along Duke Street, the wrong direction for home, in bad company and with no plans. His homecoming has gone wrong. Begbie makes an unprovoked assault on a stranger, and they leave him, ‘neither ay us looking back once’.
The Proclaimers’ Letter from America, released in 1987, accompanies the theme: Scotland in the song, Leith in the story, are for losers. Everything of value has been demolished. If you have ambition, if you want a future, now is the time to leave. The 20th century Urban Clearances. Bathgate, Linwood, Methil, Irvine… no more, sang The Proclaimers. If Leith had two syllables, it might well have been in the song.
The author of this short story, titled Trainspotting at Leith Central Station, was Irvine Welsh. It later became a target episode in his larger book Trainspotting. He asked a friend, Dave Todd, to make an image on the theme of his story. It appeared in The Big Issue in 1993: Edinburgh yuppies are partying on a train passing through while skeletal figures look away; as Welsh remarks, ‘a ghost train in reverse’.
Who are the skeletal figures? Leithers who had never used the station and had moved away? The poor who remained? Victims of the newly arrived heroin? Who is spotting whom? Or are they in different worlds, unaware of each other?
Welsh was quoted: “I wanted to… attack… the perception of [Edinburgh] as a bourgeois city… a playground for the Guardian/Hampstead middle classes. There’s another reality…” He said he was writing in a working-class voice that happened to have a Leith accent.
During Welsh’s lifetime in Leith there had been widespread demolitions, with no attempt to preserve community strengths. Around half of the 1960s new builds haven’t lasted fifty years – were they ever fit for families and communities to thrive in?
Big employers – Henry Robb’s shipyard, the whisky bonds, Crawford’s bakery, Edinburgh Crystal (a Leith firm) all left, taking smaller businesses with them. Hundreds of dock workers dwindled to dozens. Much-loved Leith hospital closed, leaving a big gap in community life.
Tidying up for the 1984 Commonwealth Games, Edinburgh swept the on-street sex industry down to Leith. It got out of hand until a Tolerance Zone was established, which had the perverse effect of attracting sex workers and punters from further afield. Heroin arrived, and with it the entirely new HIV/AIDS. Sex and needles met in a deadly embrace.
Now this – magnificent Leith Central Station, useless as a railway terminal, could have been something special: a transport museum, a small sports stadium, a concert hall and arts complex, or even a Guggenheim. It was to be demolished.
The publisher’s blurb read: ‘Trainspotting is a jarring, fragmented ride through the dark underbelly of Edinburgh, the festival city. There is not an advocate, a festival performer or a fur coat in sight…’
On the front cover of the first edition is a preview by Jeff Torrington, winner of the Whitbread Prize for his Swing Hammer, Swing, a fictionalised account of the demolitions of the Gorbals: “Irvine Welsh… mounts ferocious attacks on the body state.”
In Danny Boyle’s adaptation film Trainspotting (1996) Leith disappears. Boyle made a five-part Overcoming-the-Monster epic, with Heroin as the Monster. It works because the heroin experience is universal. Heroin finds a ready home in urban distress, poverty, lost heritage, broken community, thwarted ambition.
What we read in Trainspotting actually happened here in Leith. ■
Info: Signed copies of Tim’s acclaimed book Choose Life Choose Leith: Trainspotting on Location are available from Logan Malloch on Leith Walk
Illustration by Dave Todd, appeared in Big Issue, 1993