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Leith goes to London’s West End

First there was the book The pundits panned it, or, more to the point, ignored it. It wasn’t polite. It wasn’t a nice subject. Tim Bell does not agree

It was a tale of heroin addicts careering around the streets of Leith causing general mayhem; thieving, shooting up, indulging in nuclear amounts of swearing.

And it collided with the dreaded new virus HIV. At first HIV was strongly associated with gay men, but it was making rapid progress into the wider community through a combination of injecting heroin and the Leith sex industry.

This was only thirty years ago. And you’re right – the book was Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting.

There was a stage play of the book within a year, and Danny Boyle’s film within three years. By any standards, that’s a meteoric rise to fame and fortune.

You would think that’s enough, but no – there’s enough raw honesty in the book to fuel another iteration, this time Trainspotting the musical. Which is preparing for a launch in the West End, followed by a UK tour.

Welsh has said it will be ‘darker’ than the film, which sounds to me like it will have a campaigning edge. And there’s plenty to campaign for.

Illicit drug-related deaths in 2022 were four times higher in Scotland than they were in 1996, when Trainspotting the film was released.

The setting up of a safe, supervised consumption space, coupled with a no-prosecution zone, in Glasgow is a step in the right direction.

Glasgow should learn from Leith’s experience in the 1980s. Following the murder of sex worker Sheila Anderson in 1983, the police, with the Health Board and the council, co-ordinated a so-called Tolerance Zone for on-street solicitations.

Diluting the stigma and the risk of prosecution, it was intended to put vulnerable people – especially some sex workers – in better touch with health and support services. It worked well.

Too well. It had a honeypot effect. Sex workers from further afield, seeing the easier opportunity to ply their trade in Leith, had no commitment to the local arrangements.

The situation deteriorated and got out of hand, again. The police withdrew their restraints, saying the scheme could only work with a public consensus.

A combination of nimbyists and naysayers could take the Glasgow experiment the same way. For it to work it needs to be fully resourced, with robust political support.

Meanwhile, my Trainspotting walking tours continue. Every tour is different, and increasingly I have put the heroin epidemic into the context of the social and economic inequality of the 1980s.

We always go to what was the taxi rank at the Foot of the Walk, the first location to be mentioned in the book. Directly opposite where the ramp up to Leith Central Station was, the most emphatically identified location, towards the end of the book.

This is where the eponymous word is uttered – an old jakey pulls out the local joke about being there to spot trains, 37 years after the last train pulled out. What a waste of time! The similarities with a life of addiction are there for the reader to make.

One of the most moving tours I ever did was with a recovering alcoholic. Standing on the stump of the ramp, I talked him through the literary situation. I had to leave him alone with his thoughts as he considered the implications for himself of being brought back to the start-point, with damage done and losses incurred.

We always call at the statue of Queen Sticky Vicky, as Spud calls her, at the Foot of the Walk. When I first read that I thought it was an excellent piece of youthful insolence.

A party on the tour picked up on my innocence. “Don’t you know?” they asked. “Don’t I know what?”

The several references to Benidorm in Trainspotting put it in a different light. In a Benidorm night club in the 1980s there was a nude stage act in which Queen Sticky Vicky produced an astonishing range of solid objects from her vagina.

It’s Welsh’s equivalent of the Sex Pistols’ God save the Queen and her fascist regime, deliberately released ahead of the weekend of the queen’s silver jubilee in 1977. Pure punk, man.

Stuff happens on tours. We usually finish in the Dockers’ Club. Once, walking through the main bar with my clients, a hand was thrust out in greeting.

“This lady’s from Italy” said I, helpfully. “I’m no caring where she’s frae” came the reply, “I just want a good look at these gorgeous blue fingernails.”

There’s always room for a laugh in any iteration of Trainspotting. It is, after all, upbeat and assertive on behalf of all of us, even – especially – victims of seductive, addictive drugs that the authorities are unable to keep off the streets.

But it’s more than transgressional entertainment. Which is where the musical comes in. Every crusade, cause and campaign needs a sound track.

A rallying cry. An anthem. Bring it on. ■

Info: The 2nd edition of Tim Bell’s acclaimed book Choose Life Choose Leith: Trainspotting on Location is due out February 2024, Luath Press


Tim Bell out on his Trainspotting Tour & his book Choose Life, Choose Leith: Trainspotting on Location

Welsh has said it will be ‘darker’ than the film, which sounds to me like it will have a campaigning edge



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