Trainspotting – Irvine Welsh

No. of pages: 430. Read time: Too long.

Trainspotting is not a happy book. Nor is it particularly pleasant.

That, along with the fact that it took me months to read, is not to say that this is necessarily a bad book or poorly written; it’s absolutely not.

This book is a collection of stories and events in the lives of four Scots: Renton, Spud, Sick Boy and Begbie. It follows them through the consequences of their addictions, violence and poor life choices with almost no overarching storyline whatsoever. This book works to create character profiles which allow you to understand why these men do what they do which, after realising this, is thought provoking and challenging, however it was a difficult read.

This was mostly due to Welsh writing in the Scottish vernacular and accent. Being English myself, it would have been useful to know that ‘ken’ means know and c*nt is a term of endearment… as well as its standard, colloquial meaning. For this reason I soon found that it made heavy bedtime reading; struggling through a translation exercise isn’t ideal to wind down. However the language did bring the characters to life and enforced the important ‘Scottishness’ of the book. These are lads from Leith facing working class issues under the cover of imperialist ideologies, hammered home when a family member is killed as a soldier in the British army:

‘This f*cking walking abortion says that his killers will be ruthlessly hunted down. So they f*ckin should. Aw the wey tae the f*ckin Houses ay Parliament.’


The fact that Welsh has covered so many important aspects of Scottish life in the 1980s almost flippantly through these characters is remarkable and the way they interact with each other, their families and the Establishment makes these characters down to earth and real.

Like I said, Trainspotting is not a happy book. It is difficult to read this with any shred of hope still in tact as each character fails in turn and puts forward their bleak attitude towards the life their trapped in.

‘- Basically, we live a short, disappointing life; and then we die. We fill up oor lives wi sh*te, things like careers and relationships tae delude oorsels that it isnae aw totally pointless. Smack’s an honest drug, because it strips away these delusions.

– It’s also a f*ckin good kick.’

It’s not cheerful, let me put it that way. But even though their lives, in the grand scheme of things, is rather depressing, the way each character interacts with the others is endearing, seeing their friendship sustain years of chaos and criminality with the banter still in tact. Creating believable, down to earth characters with multifaceted relationships is something Welsh has truly succeeded in and gives what could have been a very heavy book a light-hearted feel.

What I loved most about this book is the intelligent, sharp-witted writing style. For a group of heroin addicts and criminals they speak with remarkable grace and wit, tackling big topics like abortion and HIV with a droll humour, whilst still addressing their severity. Perhaps that is why the characters are so disappointing. Speaking so intelligently you hope that there is hope for them, and yet they continue to spiral downwards.

As this book took me so long to read it will be a while before I read the sequel,  Porno, however it is on my list. For now I’m diving head first into chick-lits – no heroin addicts in sight.

– Helen Worrall

Spoiler review –
Heroin is not good for you.

6 quotes that may or may not change your life –

  • ‘On the issue of drugs, we wir classical liberals, vehemently opposed tae state intervention in any form.’
  • ‘The f*ckers will huv tae wait. Lesley comes first, eftir me. That goes without saying.’
  • ‘Iggy Pop looks right at me as he sings the line: ‘America takes drugs in psychic defence’; only he changes ‘America’ for ‘Scatlin’, and defines us mair accurately in a single sentence than all the others have ever done…’
  • Choose us. Choose life. Choose mortgage payments; choose washing machines; choose cars; choose sitting oan a couch watching mind-numbing and spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food intae yir mooth. Choose rotting away, pis*ing and sh*teing yersel in a home, a total f*ckin embarrassment tae the selfish, f*cked-up brats ye’ve produced. Choose life.’
  •  ‘Now there is apparently a causal link between heroin addiction and vegetarianism.’
  • ‘Renton looks at her and sees her pain and anger. It cuts him up. It confuses him. Kelly has a great sense of humour. What’s wrong with her? The knee–jerk thought: Wrong time of the month is forming in his head when he looks about and picks up the intonations of the laughter around the bar. It’s not funny laughter.
    This is lynch mob laughter.
    How was ah tae know, he thinks. How the f*ck was ah tae know?’

Some of these seem random but if you do read the book you’ll see why they’re in this list. For example #2, in the context of the chapter, tells you everything about Mark Renton that you would ever need to know.

3 word review –
Witty walking disasters.


Welsh, Irvine, Trainspotting, (London: Vintage, 1999).



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