Monday, May 29, 2006


Times change, eh?

This utterly banal and entirely unoriginal thought popped into my head as a result of a visit, on Saturday afternoon last, to the Theatre Royal, Bath, to see a stage adaptation of Irvine Walsh's novel Trainspotting.

Trainspotting was the author's first novel, and you can find an exhaustive discussion and description of it on Wikipedia. First published in 1993, the novel was both a literary success (longlisted for the Booker) and a popular hit.

There are two main points to be made about the novel here. First, parts of it were written in a phonetic version of English as spoken with an extreme Scottish accent. This form of speech is technically, I suppose, a dialect rather than a separate language, and for a scholarly discussion of it you should again dip into Wikipedia. But you should know that speech in this style is pretty difficult to follow, either in written or spoken form, unless you were born north of the border.

Second, you should know that the book deals with a group of young Scottish low-lifes, drug addicts, layabouts, psychopaths, and general no-goods, with associated shocking events. Well, potentially shocking.

The book was turned into a film, in 1996, but that need not detain us here. And earlier, in 1994, Harry Gibson had done an adaptation of it for the theatre. One succinct description of his play version sums it up as follows: a 'bleak , black, tragically funny tale of a wasted generation destroyed not by madness but by heroin.'

It is a new touring version of this play that Mrs GOB and I saw on Saturday afternoon, at the odd time of 4.00 pm. Presumably the producers hoped, by putting on the matinee performance at that hour, rather than the usual 2.30, to attract a younger type of audience. And in that they succeeded: Mrs GOB noted that the audience included quite a number of young women in pairs (for company, I think, rather than because of any lesbian relationship), and a number of young men who had made only irregular, and not recent, visits to the shower room.

The play features a flexible set, easily converted to represent quite a number of locations, and five actors sufficed to cover considerably more than five characters.

There are several things to be said about the play (in case you're thinking of seeing it). The first is that, as with the novel, the language is so Scottish as to be more or less incomprehensible unless you're used to it. The second is that it is unrelentingly filthy. I could recognise about three words in ten, on average, and two of those words were usually fuck and cunt. If there was an adjective employed other than fucking, during the entire evening, I missed it. And cunt was used as an all-purpose noun, meaning man, woman, friend, enemy, idiot, bright boy, and so forth. All the other four-letter words made their appearance at regular intervals.

Since the play is about a bunch of drug addicts, we got plenty of on-stage shooting up, with all the usual paraphernalia: belt round the arm to raise a vein, candle, spoon, and so forth. We had some nudity: at one point a junkie came on stage naked, failed to find a vein in any normal part of his body, and in the end injected himself in his penis.

Then we had some set pieces:

There was the one at the start, where the main character describes how he woke up in a strange bed, not knowing where he was, and discovered, to use his terms, that he had shat himself, puked up, and also, for good measure, soaked the bed in piss. The character then embarked on an account of how he gathered together the soiled sheets, set off to try to get them clean, but only succeeded (if I followed the story correctly) in showering his girl friend's parents with the contents.

Another set piece occurred (again I am assuming that I followed the drift of the story correctly), when a girl who was working as a waitress in a restaurant took offence at the manners of someone she was serving, and found an opportunity to mix the contents of her thoroughly soaked tampon with the customer's food. Another disliked customer was served profiteroles. the chocolate sauce on which had been liberally dosed with 'shite'.

There was a third story (just by way of example -- there were others) when one character described how he obtained some opium suppositories to dampen down the side-effects of his various drug-related aches and pains. Overtaken by a sudden and absolutely catastrophic attack of diarrhoea (copiously acted out), the young man eventually realised that he had unwittingly disposed of his two opium suppositories in the toilet bowl. Fortunately he had not yet flushed his prizes away, so he got down on his hands and knees, and groped about, up to his shoulder in shit (amusingly splattering the front rows of the audience as he did so), until he eventually found what he wanted. Then he shoved them back up his arse again.

Now... However appalling these stories may sound -- and they certainly are appalling -- they were performed on stage by some very skilled young actors who managed to make them funny. Even to me. And sitting behind me were some middle-aged women, of Scottish descent, who could clearly follow every word, and who cackled away like mad things.

A middle-aged couple sitting next to us did not return after the interval, but Mrs GOB and I are made of sterner stuff. We had found it just a tad tedious, frankly, being bombarded with this endless stream of obscenity, simulated sex, pregnant women being kneed in the stomach (and also shagged from behind in the toilet, a process graphically referred to as putting one's cock in the baby's mouth), junkies' babies being found dead, and so forth. But we had hopes that act two might be better.

It was. Considerably. Aided by some outstanding acting, the characters began to assume a curious kind of stature which somehow made them tragic and impressive. And, while I couldn't say that I had a very clear idea of what happened to them in the end, one felt somehow moved to have made their acquaintance. On the whole I was quite glad to have seen the play.

Which brings me back to my first point.

Times change, eh?

You won't remember, and you probably won't care, but censorship of stage plays was not abandoned in the UK until 1968, when I was nearly thirty years old. Prior to that date, every British play performed in a public theatre had to meet with the Lord Chamberlain's approval. And it is absolutely inconceivable that the Lord Chamberlain would ever have allowed even one mention of words such as fuck and cunt. Totally inconceivable. In the first production of Waiting for Godot, the word fart was found unacceptable, and belch had to be substituted. Homosexuality could not be mentioned on stage, and neither could Jesus. Anything remotely smutty, religious, or political, was banned.

So, in the 1960s, Trainspotting would never have got off the ground. The language, the nudity, the occasional blasphemy, the simulated sex, and the drug taking, all of these would have rendered it impossible of production.

Compare that with today. I have just re-read the review of this play which appeared last week in my local paper, the Wiltshire Times. This, you should understand, is a strictly regional newspaper devoted to reports of weddings, accounts of meetings of the Townswomen's guild and the like, and the local football scores. Short of something exciting, such as a stolen car, 'Dog cuts paw on canal bank' will be a front-page story.

What did this paper make of Trainspotting?

Well for a start the review said nothing about the language or the nudity. True, it did refer to a 'rollercoaster ride of drug-induced highs and unsettling lows', and 'black humour, with detours into tragedy and despair'. But there was no hint that you might get a short training course in how to use heroin, that you might hear some fairly revolting stories about getting your own back on rude customers, or, indeed, that you might see anything on stage which might perhaps cause any shock or offence. Not a whisper to the effect that this play might be anything out of the ordinary, or that it might provide a theatrical experience rather different from that of, say, Private Lives.

And who wrote this review? One Amy Watkins.

Well, all I can say is, she must be young.


Anonymous said...

Just a little on accents in Trainspotting.

I haven't read Trainspotting and I never will. I found it utterly unreadable.

Well, here we have an 'extreme' Scottish accent. Perhaps I'm just not up to it?

But the problem with trying to phonetically represent accents is that the writer surely has to take the host (reader) position. How do people with different accents themselves read Trainspotting? It is impossible to phonetically represent accents properly because the reading requires a reader, and the reader's 'inner voice' decides how it sounds, and if it sounds 'wrong' then what's the point?

Not only would I say that Trainspotting is the same old dreary tale of all drug addicts that I'd heard a thousand times before this novel; the accents do not even work for people who actually come from the area where the story is set.

It received huge critical acclaim, the movie was watchable, and a rather famous American politician even commented on it (providing Mr. Welsh with a living despite his subsequent novels).

But I find the whole accent thing strange because the writer claims to come from Leith and one would suppose that he knows how a Leith accent sounds.

Did anyone 'really' read this book? I can read and, unlike Welsh himself, I grew up in Leith, so one would think I'd be able to read it at least as easily as anyone else.

I'm sure there must be people reading this who read the book. But I can't figure how they would do that. The Leith 'accent' may not be a separate language but it has to surely qualify as a dialect. I know almost every word of that dialect (outside of the very new) but turning myself into a four-year old child isn't my idea of how to read a book for fun. How can that be entertaining? I mean, it is a novel, no? It isn't a textbook so it's supposed to be fun. Or is that naive? Is there another reason to read a novel? Will I be a better person if I force myself through pain?

The only people I ever met who say they 'like' this book (and I've met a lot of them) sound more like football fans than people who read a book. It seems to have the same kind of attraction as reading Proust or Beckett; like eating a witchetty grub or some kind of gonad to impress oneself. I just don't believe people who say they enjoyed this book.

I was brought up on the very streets where all of the action takes place and Mr. Welsh got the accents wrong. My own (Leith) accent was (apparently) so strong that on my first day at secondary school a wonderful teacher (of whom I had just asked "Where's the toilet, Miss?" in that rather desperate way only an 11 year-old can) informed me that I was 'scum' (because of my accent — and I hadn't even started on heroin by then).

But hell, drugs are trendy and controversial and we all like to see how these strange sub-cultures live, I suppose.

I once read an interview with top London agent, Georgina Capel, who sent Trainspotting to an American publisher with "I dare you to publish this." as the only words written about it. Wooooo. They certainly went out of their way to create the ‘right’ mythology.

I always thought that the reason we (writers) use just a slight suggestion of an accent now and again is that we just want to tell the story. We don't want to drive people crazy. Almost to a man, 'rough types' (such as myself) in Leith start sentences (often every single one) with the word 'cunt'. I know this; I even used to speak like this. If I decide to write a story set in Leith should I use the word authentically? Would that make me trendy enough to attract publishers? Would Georgina Capel dare a yank publisher to publish me, and if so would he do that without having any chance of reading me? (Just like Irvine.)

I suspect an industry got horny for this book. Right time, right place.

It all sounds like a crock to me. There was something afoot because this book (if I might use the Leith vernacular) is a lump of shite.

Sorry: Cun'i'za Lumpasheeyaee'.

(... the ' represents a guttural stop — for all the Trainspotting fans who have fun with funetix).

Francis Ellen
(embittered writer)

Anonymous said...

I really liked the book "Trainspotting", it had energy, verve etc. And it was short!
Unfortunately, as with other similar "groundbreaking" books (allowing things to be written that weren't previously), eg "Last Exit to Brooklyn", a host of poor imitators has ensued, big on the shock stuff and low on the talent. (Also, I have not liked Welsh's subesequent output as much as TS).

I thought the film was weak and romanticised.

Not sure whether I want to see the play or not based on your review. Did all those things happen in the book? I can't now remember (eg the waitress anecdote). I wonder if the author of the play added them in?

You are very right about times changing. Do you remember the fuss about that Edward Bond (have I got the author right?) play about the baby? Someone throwing a rock into the pram if I remember rightly.

Anonymous said...

How very different from the home life of our own dear Queen.

Anonymous said...


I think if you persevere with the book the accent gets easier to read, I found it hard to begin with but began to get used to it so much that it didn't bother me any more. I can't say anything about it being authentic or not, but I'm not sure how much that matters. Welsh used the accent rather than the dialect of Leith so that people who are not from Leith can nevertheless understand it, therefore he makes his point without making the text totally incomprehensible.

Welsh is, by using the Scottish dialect as the main narratorial voice, challenging constraints that have been put on almost everyone who does not have the middle-class BBC accent which is what books are almost invariably written in. Looking at Chaucer, Robert Burns and even Shakespeare you can see that language was more fluid then, and it is only due to coincidence and the way that the educated classes speak that language evolved like that. The dialect in Trainspotting is essential to it's core and message.

I'm not saying that using dialect is always a strong statement of identity in fiction; indeed it can often descend into stereotype, which I think is possibly the danger if you only give indications of accent as I think someone suggested earlier.

I would reccomend that you persevere with Trainspotting, you seriously do get used to the accent. Throughout the book language is used by the main character, Renton, to great effect. The use of accent in narrating the book is essential to it's themes, and I'd say it's well worth a read.

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Anonymous said...

Unreadable, you say.
Well, Francis Ellen, I'm Polish, never been to Scotland, don't know Scots, read it when I was 20 (that was 5 years ago, I did not know the language that well back then), had to read the first page about 20 times, but all in all managed to understand it.
It always amuses me when native English speakers say it's too hard... Perhaps you're a bit lazy, eh?