Journalism

Drug Cultures in Trainspotting and Porno

8th October 2006

On a recent visit back home to Edinburgh I ran into an old acquaintance who looked a bit the worse for wear since I last saw him. He was shuffling down the road, sweating heavily, but as he registered my presence his eager eyes ate me up. I knew he was going to try and hit me for some cash for heroin. As he prepared his pitch, I was simultaneously struggling to get my excuses together. I needn’t have bothered. What Don (not his real name) wanted was not money -he had enough for his immediate needs -but heroin. I have to confess that I felt a bit surprised at his moan that ‘the students have the all the skag now.’ This didn’t ring true: the well-to-do Home Counties students who dominate the University scene in Edinburgh had never shown a propensity towards heroin consumption on any scale in the cultural life of our city. Cocaine perhaps, yes. Ecstasy in clubs, okay. But smack… But then again, people were doing a lot of things they wouldn’t do before. There was the erudite, professional friend of mine who had never20shown any interest in crack cocaine, but who now rocked for Scotland. And there was the housewife who, a few years previously, would use bicarbonate of soda to bake scones, not wash cocaine up. I tried to explain to Don, as sanctimoniously as I could, that I was a bit out of that particular scene these days and had been for many years. Looking at him, I was very glad of that. I’d always regarded Don as a pragmatic self-medicator, someone just that bit naturally out of equilibrium, which he then restored with heroin. Like many long-term junkies, he’d stabilised his habit through methadone. However, a recent separation from his long-term partner had effected him adversely and had started to use heavily. That’s one of the great problems of heroin, it always wants that bit more commitment from you. Even after you’ve been off it for years, it’s still nesting there in your emotional vocabulary, just waiting for you to slip up, anticipating your next relationship breakdown or bereavement. When I embarked upon my first novel, Trainspotting, about twelve years ago, I was writing in response to several factors. The most important one was the city I grew up in and came to understand as a very different place to one portrayed by the media and the tourist industry. Edinburgh had developed a complacent culture based around the international arts festival, where the indigenous population was believed to consist solely of New Town barristers. Self-evident nonsense perhaps, but this received wisdom had achieved such a hegemony that it took Europe’s biggest heroin-fuelled AIDS epidemic to give somebody attempting to write about the city’s working-classes any sort of credibility. Allied to this was a shortbread-tin tourist industry that had changed little since the days of its inception when Sir Walter Scott obsequiously tried to ingratiate himself to the bloated, alcoholic Prince Regent. But there was a more personal reason for writing Trainspotting, as is probably always the case with writers. I was trying to make sense of my own period of heroin abuse and my then current involvement with ecstasy through rave and acid house culture. After heroin, I20was disinclined to take any drugs, with the exception of the socially and legally acceptable alcohol, and initially resisted what was called ‘rave’ or ‘acid house’ culture. Apart from the potential danger of the drugs, it was difficult to see the attraction of driving for miles to stand in a cold field for a party that might not happen or that might be broken up at any time. Of course, I hadn’t taken a pill then. Once I did it made perfect sense and I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. I watched repressed, inhibited people become tactile, love-struck superstars in the space of a few minutes. The interface between the drug, the music and the event was amazing; just what we needed at the time. What struck me though, was that the people who were raving and popping ecstasy pills were not hard-core druggys. Sometimes you would see a ravey face in the street, or in the office or on the bus, and you’d exchange a knowing smirk. It was a true invisible empire, and a real social revolution. Of course, there’s always a downside. As well as breaking down barriers between people, ecstasy could also erode the natural social and psychological boundaries we set up to protect ourselves. It probably, in the long-run, ruined as many healthy relationships as it brought new, exciting ones into being. Additionally, many people began to live for the weekend and the ‘comedowns’ during the week – the listless depressions – only made straight life even less appealing. People’s tolerance to the drug increased, for many even huge doses of ecstasy’s active ingredient MDMA simply didn’t do it anymore. Dance music styles multiplied and diverged, a lot of the sense of unity in the scene evaporated. But the characteristic of house music was that it belonged to a certain group of people in the know; it was ours. Supposedly clued-up, cutting-edged youth publications like The Face and the NME simply didn’t get it and thus ignored dance music culture, so it spawned its own press. At that time, culture and sub-culture were to my mind crucial in understanding why certain people took certain types of drugs. Trainspotting concerned itself with a sub-culture of working-class Edinburgh junkies. The characters were basically innocents, kids from the generation where any drugs ‘education’ -such as it was- came from that failed, discredited but still resilient ‘just say no’ school. The ‘Trainspotters’ would have likely been told by an assortment of authority figures; parents, teachers, social workers and health officials: ‘don’t take drugs –they’ll kill you.’ Unfortunately, this advice didn’t tally with the actual experiences that generation had. People took cannabis and lived. They drank alcohol and survived. Popped and snorted amphetamines and were still around to tell the tale. The authority figures had demonstrated nothing except how ignorant, frightened and out off touch they were. Then the Edinburgh streets became flooded, first with pharmaceutical heroin from the local plant, then the cheap brown stuff imported from Pakistan. Coming along at the same time as mass unemployment, heroin was accompanied2C20yet again, by that same old lament of imminent demise. I was told by my own parents that smoking grass would kill me (wrong) or would lead to taking heroin, which would kill me. This second contention was probably correct, though not for the reasons they imagined. Pot-heads and smack users tend to be very different types of person, and smoking and enjoying weed won’t make you want to take heroin any more than drinking tea will. Dealers though, will deal anything, and perversely, it’s the very illegality of the controlled drug supply chain that brings people into contact with substances they may not normally choose. Of course, by the time this heroin epidemic arrived, the authority figures had cried wolf once too often, even though, more by accident than design, there was some truth in their mantra. People started getting sick, overdosing and contracting HIV –thought at the time to be a gay male’s disease - through sharing injecting equipment. Ten years on, my new book Porno, revisits the same places and characters. Although the book is primarily about our other big addictions -sex, money, fame and power - drugs still play a large, though not central part in this. (I’d contend that it’s not feasible to portray contemporary British social life in fiction without some reference to them.) Yet comparing the two books, it’s interesting to note how drug behaviours have fundamentally and perhaps irreversibly changed over this period. I think that when I was writing Trainspotting, I was addressing the drugs culture of the eighties, probably through to the early nineties. The crucial difference then was that there were definable drug-cultures or sub-cultures. What comes over in Porno, and what I’d now contend, is that there is now no real drugs culture as such, only the culture of consumerism into which, and increasingly so with the spread of globalisation, all other cultures have been subsumed. Music, for example, now addresses a market in a much more naked way. It’s less about coming from a certain place, more about being packaged as a commodity and sold in that way. Popstars and Pop Idols are the20ultimate way to market music. In the past, the culture or the ‘scene’ produced its own sound. Now the music and the artist are presented according to a perceived notion, usually based on market research or what is currently fashionable, as to what ‘the kids’ want. So you have sterile, passive consumption instead of vibrant scenes and the drug cultures that used to go along with them. Looking back over my own lifetime, very roughly; the hippies had their pot, the punks had speed and cider, a few beatniks then people from peripheral housing schemes had smack, the ravers had their ‘e’, the yuppies their coke, the poorest had crack and the rest had alcohol. Now that everybody is a consumer, the individual merely chooses what meets his or her needs on any particular night out. Drug choice now is determined by availability, associates, lifestyle (and we can have as many of those as we can afford), and a self-image which again, is flexible. In short, drug behaviour mirrors what’s happening in the rest of society, while at the20same time undoubtedly influencing it. Substances once seen as elitist and carrying a certain kudos are now common across the social spectrum. Nowadays, football hooligans probably consume more cocaine than yuppies, the price of a gram of coke having fallen from about £100 to £40 in the last ten years. Many of the same hoolies, in turn, would now disdain ecstasy because at one or two quid a throw, it simply can’t be up to much – just a kid’s drug. While many of the young wealthy seem to want to imitate the working-classes in speech and dress, the reverse is also true with people from humble backgrounds adopting the old forms of conspicuous success, which, naturally, means conspicuous consumption. If you saw a stretch limo pulling up in a London street ten years ago, your head would turn because some coked-up rock stars would lurch out, bottles of champagne in hand. Now the occupants are more likely to be a hen party from Dagenham. But back in the ‘Trainspotting’ era, you would generally take what your friends and peers had. Again, baldly stated, if they drank pims at a garden party, your glass would be outstretched. If they threw back pints of lager, you probably did too. If raving on ecstasy was their thing, then you’d most likely have some of that. If they were sitting in a grotty flat sticking needles in their arm, the chances of you getting caught up in that scene exponentially increased. When culture was culture though, a true punk wouldn’t smoke hippy weed, while ravers disdained that ‘violent, old man’s drug’ alcohol. You would never expect to run into a gang of Stoke City fans in a crack den on New York’s Lower East Side, which happened to me a few years back. Now anything and everything goes, peer groups acting with drugs in much the same way as advertising does with the health-threatening fast-foods we consume in increasing volume. The problem with this, of course, is that drugs are now everywhere, not where they should be, in the underground, because the underground doesn’t really exist anymore. It gets appropriated into the commercial20mainstream almost as soon as it’s aware of itself. So drugs are no longer contained in their culture or sub-culture. When house music went ‘overground’ and the superclubs took over, they inadvertently exported a culture of drug-taking into mainstream entertainment. Every television advert for the latest Ibiza dance music compilation featuring bug-eyed babes writhing on the dance-floor is effectively an ad for ecstasy, cocaine and other drugs. Advertising, films and television now seem to be saturated with ‘trippy’ imagery. In the case of the former, the suggestion is that the designated promoted product has mind-altering or consciousness- raising powers, even if its active ingredient is only caffine. Red Bull, Tango and Coke are therefore bound to be a disappointment for anyone looking for ‘wings’ or that real explosive hit. No wonder people soon move onto ‘the real thing’. Now people are taking more drugs, they’re taking all kinds and they’re taking them at a younger age, probably just because they are there and they can. But now small children are dying through swallowing ecstasy pills that are left lying around. At one pound a go, as opposed to fifteen ten years ago, it’s hardly worth worrying about if a stray tab flies out off somebody’s pocket as they pull on their handkerchief. This sort of thing never happened when pills were securely in their proper place -‘in the culture’. Now that they are no longer in the culture but everywhere, the last effective method of controlling them has been removed. The sub-cultures provided a framework or ideology –the mindset of being an ‘outlaw’ – for most transgressions from mainstream society. Much of the time this was fanciful, harmless posturing, indeed probably even politically conservative. It was best summed up by the self-defeating slogan: ‘the revolution starts at closing time.’ However, the rebel pose, from James Dean to Che Guevara, is a good aid to shifting product in the youth market. So now everybody comes in a transgressive wrapper, even ‘maverick’ all-American Hollywood heroes20who only really want to kick Commie or Arab butt so that good suburbanites can sleep safely in their beds. The irony is that genuine transgression is less tolerated than ever. It’s now also much harder to meaningfully transgress, because it’s difficult to find a group to do it in who can serve as a reference point. As a society we seem to be more socially proscribed and monolithic than ever, our freedom increasingly co-terminus with our purchasing power. The last genuine British youth cultures were ravers and football casuals, following a long line from Teddy boys onwards. They were also the two youth cults that arguably generated the most hard-edged response from the state, from the covert police operations around football to the Criminal Justice Bill. It’s harder to be tied to a culture now, so kids generally aren’t. What they are tied to is a global market, which ensures that the same hip-hop that is going down in Brooklyn will be listened to in Brixton. Young Asian gangs in Bradford aren’t interested in their parent’s culture or the ‘British’ ones going on around them. They listen to the hip-hop and rap of dispossessed blacks from South Central Los Angeles and Compton. So do wealthy, white west London trustafarians. Now you can be a punk one day of the week, a mod the next, a casual at the weekend. All you need is a credit card to buy the correct clothes and music. And a wad of cash for the drugs. What you won’t have is a posse of like-minded souls into their own scene with fervour, vibing on being something different, something apart. That something was the sense, or alternatively the false conceit, of being part of an outlaw culture. That’s dead in the Porno age. And so the drug highs chased become hollow, desperate, more hedonistic and less social, not a part of anything. From feral sink-estate kids to foul-mouthed ‘whoring’ city traders, we are all consumers now. In the Trainspotting era the people who didn’t die, go to jail or get sectioned, usually just settled down. They become loving partners, dutiful parents and diligent workers. They mostly stopped being ravers or clubbers or football thugs. But now there are only consumers and we never stop being consumers. We’re constantly told that we’ve got to have it, and have it now. And we will never stop using drugs: either as a validation of the joy of life, or as a means of escape from its horrors. We never will because we never have, the only change from prohibitionist Chicago in the thirties being that the menu has got more extensive. It’s called consumer choice. In the western world we have accepted, albeit reluctantly in some cases, that intoxication is a basic human right. We manufacture, sell, market and advertise products specifically designed to get people out of their heads. Having de facto recognised this right, it seems churlish in the extreme of the nanny state to then specify which particular substances can and cannot be considered legitimate tools in this pursuit. Particularly so when the legal framework we use seems hopelessly irrational and ridiculously culturally biased and bears little relevance to the real issues of evaluating drugs; immediate and long-term harm20on health, effects on society and addictive potential. While drugs are obviously dangerous, that factor alone hardly makes them stand out amongst our modern addictions. We know that hamburgers sold in the big fast-food chains are fecal-ridden and infected with diseased animal feed, of the type that shouldn’t be feed to ruminates. Yet we still consume them, largely because they taste good due to being saturated with aromatic chemicals from a factory in the New Jersey Turnpike. We still exercise this freedom of choice negatively, even though as a society, we’re becoming fatter and less healthy as a result. We know that children become addicted to fatty foods and that it’ll do them no good at all in the long run. Yet we still allow those dangerous products to be advertised, knowing that many kids will become obese and die of heart disease at an early age as a result of ingesting this crud. The primary model for the development of globalisation is the American one of the internal combustion engine, low oil prices, motorways, fast food outlets, poor educational opportunities20for service workers and low costs (or wages). And this in a de-politicised and de-spiritualised, post-democratic society where a trivialist, sensationalist media constantly urges us not to defer gratification. Bearing this in mind it would seem almost inevitable that the outcome is going to be more guns, more crime and more of what we seem to insatiably want and need: drugs.

 

Originally featured in the Sunday Telegraph.