27 January 2017

Book Review | T2: Trainspotting by Irvine Welsh

When my teacher training was in its death throes, I’d regularly cite either this book - then known as Porno - or the author’s earlier Filth as being my favourite reading material whenever the topic arose in workshops or seminars. Not because they were, you understand; just because it provoked either an amused or judgemental reaction, the achievement of which was just about the only reason for my continuing, sporadic attendances (the other being the continued receipt of my bursaries and loan instalments). The thing is though, both truly are superlative titles, and whilst I’m not one for favourites, Irvine Welsh’s 2002 sequel to both Trainspotting and Glue is perhaps the one book in his canon that showcases a little of everything that the Scots scribbler brings to the table - a ‘best of’, if you will, rather than an outright best. 

It is nonetheless a very different beast to Trainspotting, most obviously because it is a novel in the traditional sense, with all the structure and plot threads that you’d expect thereto, rather than a series of snippets that are, by and large, capable of being enjoyed in isolation. Another significant difference is focus - Trainspotting will forever be synonymous with heroin, whereas in T2 it barely gets a mention, as most of its characters are now only partial to the peeve or a bit of ching. Indeed, as most would readily infer from the title, this book’s focus is the world of adult erotica, from Juice Terry’s stag movies shot in the upstairs of a Leith tavern, all the way up to the Cannes (Adult) Film Festival, and all the aspirant undergraduates in between.

“In your twenties you can do it on looks, your thirties on personality, but in your forties you need cash or fame. Simple fucking mathematics.”

And whilst many paperback editions of the book are emblazoned with the same names burned into Britain’s collective consciousness thanks to the fame that they found through the 1996 Trainspotting movie’s ubiquitous mock-identity parade posters, T2 actually focuses on just one of them: Simon David Williamson, the abovementioned ‘Sick Boy’. Whilst his three famous friends (four, if you count Dianne, who’s gained an extra ‘n’ since her silver screen days) all have pivotal parts to play, the novel formerly known as Porno is driven by Sick Boy - which is really quite fitting, given that it’s about Sick Boy’s drive. The plot focuses on Felinus Vomitus’s quest to make a “proper” adult “fillum” and the scams that he pursues in and around it. Time has marched on since his former best friend, Mark Renton, “chose life” and did a runner with drug money belonging to both him and their psychotic associate, Franco Begbie. Sick Boy’s been married since, and indeed divorced. The Beggar Boy’s inevitably in the nick, serving a murder-reduced-to-manslaughter charge. Loveable Spud is living unhappily ever after, off the junk and married to Ali, but trying and failing to write a book on the history of Leith. Erstwhile jailbait Dianne is at university, reading psychology and writing a dissertation of the sex industry. The Rent Boy, meanwhile, is running a nightclub in Amsterdam, and it is here that a chance encounter with an Edinburgh DJ (Glue’s N-Sign) leads to an unwelcome reunion with one of the men that he screwed over. Before long, Sick Boy and Rents are superficially as thick as thieves again, agreeing to put their differences behind them and form a porn-pedalling partnership. In truth, though, one man is trying to manipulate circumstances to get the other killed, who in turn is setting in motion an extravagant plan to rob his once-best friend for the second time in as many books, but this time on a much larger scale.

It’s refreshing to follow these events mostly through the eyes of the book’s antagonists, as both Trainspotting and its recent sequel, Skagboys, settle upon the generally more amiable Renton as their voice. Sick Boy dominates, Welsh’s first person prose allowing the reader to see the proud and prejudiced turning of every cog in his mind, but Begbie gets more exposure than he ever has too, offering a frighteningly narrow perspective that’s constantly flitting between terrifying and comically tragic. The reader can almost see the old psycho blossom into “a deep fuckin thinker” here, believe it or not, as those “blazing coals of enmity” set deep in his skull are finally opened to the fact that he may be the toughest son of a bitch in the old port, but ultimately he’s everybody’s mug; nowt more than a weapon to be wielded.

More surprising still is the attention given to non-Trainspotting characters. ‘Juice’ Terry Lawson and Rab Birrell of Glue fame both feature heavily in the first half of the book, though Welsh - much like Sick Boy, ironically - only uses the former as an eager prick, and the latter as a ready-made road into the undergraduate world of the book’s female players. This is a little disappointing as “the best-known aerated waters’ salesman” that Edinburgh ever produced, even when he’s purely there to find wood, is so relentlessly entertaining that he’s sorely missed once he falls by the wayside, while Rab’s storyline just peters out, left in desperate need of a coda. The female contingent, however, are used exceptionally well, from the studious and repressed Lauren all the way up to fiery Reading diva Nicola Fuller-Smith, who is in my view the book’s real star. Porno is, after all, all about the girls.

“It’s not the penises that are the problem, it’s the attachments; they come in varying sizes alright, varying sizes and degrees of annoyance.”

I knew a number of girls like Nikki in my university days - outwardly intelligent, independent, ambitious, fit as fuck and don’t they know it, yet silently tortured by well-hidden low self-esteem and jealously that leave them vulnerable to exploitation by the likes of our Mr Williamson. It’s been well reported that Welsh has a keen academic interest in the study of feminism (his MBA’s thesis was on creating equal opportunities for women), and to my delight this is often embodied by his strong female characters, but in a way that eschews cliché or even subverts expectation. Nikki might not be quite as indomitable as one of Welsh’s Wedding Belles, and she may have admittedly poor wanking skills for a part-time masseuse, but any male reader is sure to follow every male character in the book and fall instantly in love with her, and thus find themselves on a rollercoaster ride that takes in arousal, anger and utter vexation before she finally manages to have her cake, eat it, and then throw it up before it can damage her (you’ve got to give it to Welsh, he’s got a gift for squalid metaphor).

Perhaps the most remarkable thing of all about T2 though is that it’s actually quite light on how’s your father. For me, the images of Del Boy and Rodney conjured by the original edition’s blow-up doll cover aren’t all that out of place as, for all its base and shallow cruelty, T2 is quite a hoot. It mischievously toys with Begbie’s sexuality, for instance, running a little with the aspersions cast by the actor who played him on screen by bombarding him with “poof’s porn” in prison and then rendering him impotent upon his release when he tries to get a ride from his new squeeze. Poor old Terry, meanwhile, is treated like he’s in a particularly lewd Carry On film, enjoying only a few R-rated scenes as a “fly-in-shit with all his needs met” before his banjo string snaps, and doctors tell him that a hard-on during the healing process could lead to the amputation of his penis, leading to a hilarious procession of gags involving his female Seven Rides for Seven Brothers co-stars. When things do heat up, though, the man who’s called ‘Welsh’ despite his patent Scottish pedigree holds his own against the dominating mummy porn pioneers of today, vesting Sick Boy and Nikki’s nuclear war of a lovelife with a vividly-described physical passion that certainly wouldn’t have passed censorship had John Hodges T2 screenplay followed the book more closely.

“Sick Boy: vain, selfish and cruel. And that’s his good side.”

However, T2 was never going to find itself on a pedestal like Trainspotting because Trainspotting was such a specific and insightful thing; a cultural pipe bomb. This is a pity, really, as the erstwhile Porno deserves better than second prize - it’s just as thoughtful as its predecessor, in many ways, offering as balanced an appraisal of the sex trade, pornographers and prostitutes as Trainspotting did of hard drugs. And this time around, the appraisal is at least couched in the more familiar guise of a tortuous and relentlessly gripping narrative.

Irvine Welsh’s recently rechristened T2: Trainspotting is now available to download for £4.99 from iTunes or Amazon's Kindle Store

If this review seems familiar, its because I wrote and published it on here in August 2013. If Vintage can republish and rename Porno, then I can do the same with its review. I’ve even tidied up a few bits...