High Society

By Reynolds, Simon | Artforum International, Summer 1996 | Go to article overview

High Society


Reynolds, Simon, Artforum International


In Britain, pop culture and drug culture are almost synonymous these days. From Oasis' anthems of coked-out glory-lust to Pulp's number-one hit "Sorted for E's and Wizz" (a brilliantly ambivalent evocation of the dream and lie of rave), from the ganja-delic paranoia of Tricky to jungle's journeys into the dark side of Ecstasy culture, British pop is all highs and lows, uppers and downers. Other sectors of the culture industry lag behind music in reflecting what every British kid takes for granted: the sheer omnipresence and banality of recreational drug use. Which is why Irvine Welsh, chronicler of the "chemical generation," has become such a cult figure, and why the movie of his 1993 debut novel Trainspotting has become such a sensation in England, a sort of UK counterpart to Kids.

A big source of Welsh's appeal is the shock of encountering a writer who deals with British drug culture in a matter-of-fact, nonjudgmental way, while never concealing either its physical and psychic costs or the desperation that fuels it. The backdrop to his tales of lumpen-prole life in the deprived "housing schemes" of Edinburgh is postindustrial unemployment and the humiliation of a socialist Scotland within a Tory-ruled UK. He seldom confronts this political deadlock explicitly, but when he does, his anatomy of curdled idealism and hope is unsparing. In the novella A Smart Cunt (part of the story collection The Acid House, published in England in 1994), a left-wing militant tries to recruit Brian (Welsh's most autobiographical protagonist). "I'm thinking, what can I do, really do for the emancipation of working people in this country, shat on by the rich, tied into political inaction by servile reliance on a reactionary, moribund and yet still unelectable Labour Party?," muses Brian. "The answer is a resounding fuck all. Getting up early to sell a couple of [political pamphlets] in a shopping centre is not my idea of the best way to chill out.... I think I'll stick to drugs to get me through the long, dark night of late capitalism."

In Welsh's world, even nonravers are on drugs, literally (state-sanctioned chemicals like alcohol or tranquilizers) or metaphorically (TV, videos, computer games, the adrenaline rush of football violence). But Welsh - an ex-junkie and still a fervent raver - is mostly preoccupied with illegal forms of raising and razing consciousness. The Acid House, Marabou Stork Nightmares, published in England in 1995, and the forthcoming Ecstasy: Three Chemical Romances largely concern the rave scene's drugs of choice: MDMA, LSD, and "jellies" (slang for the downer Temazepam). And Trainspotting focuses on Edinburgh's heroin subculture of the mid '80s, when Pakistani smack had glutted the UK market, becoming, for thousands of ordinary people mired in unemployment, a cheaper means to oblivion than alcohol.

Welsh captures this moment by contrasting the "honest" junkies Renton, Spud, and Sick Boy with their mate Begbie, a sociopath who boasts that he "wouldnae poison ma body with that shite" while consuming gallons of booze, smoking like a chimney, and finding his own twisted form of release in gratuitous violence. But Welsh's junkies aren't just renegades from the "hard man" mentality Begbie represents; they're also in revolt against Scotland's "work hard, play hard" regime. Welsh describes the smackhead as a "closet romantic," someone who refuses to accept life's limitations. It is from this one among many of Welsh's stray insights that director Danny Boyle and writer John Hodge (the team responsible for the 1994 film Shallow Grave) launch their movie. Putting a mischievous spin on the slogan "just say no," their version of Trainspotting fanfares heroin as a romantic renunciation of mediocrity.

In a monologue superimposed over an exhilarating chase scene after a bungled shoplifting, Renton (Ewan McGregor) sarcastically itemizes the meaningless options available to the good citizen. "Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing junk food into your mouth. …

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