“Last year,” says Irvine Welsh, the bestselling Scottish author, “was the year of misery for everyone. Obviously it started terribly with Bowie’s death. And we had Trump and Brexit.
“But for me,” he pauses, “it was absolutely fantastic.” For Welsh, his euphoric outlook can be boiled down to one spring weekend in Glasgow last year.
On 21 May, Welsh and his oldest mates witnessed his beloved Hibs Football Club win a historic Scottish Cup. Welsh beams: “114 years since we last won it.”
The previous night across the city, the 59-year-old reprised his cameo role as drug dealer Mikey Forrester in T2 Trainspotting, the long-awaited sequel to Danny Boyle’s 1996 adaptation of the 1993 debut novel that brought Welsh fame and fortune.
We’ve never been shy to highlight The Big Issue’s part in bringing the Trainspotting follow-up to life. In 2013, the magazine in the UK commissioned Welsh to write a story. He came through with a Christmas tale called ‘He Ain’t Lager’, about one of his most memorable characters, Trainspotting’s unpredictable violent psychopath Francis Begbie. It was, he says, crucial in setting the wheels in motion. “I always associate Christmas with psychopaths,” explains Welsh, who had first-hand experience of the poverty and drug addiction that his novels depict. “Then when you got in touch, I decided it was time to update Begbie. I thought, what if he was the calmest person in the room? Then I began to think, what would make him this way?
“I was spending time with Danny and John [Hodge, who wrote the Trainspotting screenplay] and it set me off on the path of thinking about these characters again.”
After this reprise generated a rapturous response, Welsh announced Begbie was getting his own novel, The Blade Artist. “I didn’t really think anything would happen with it but I got interested again and began to think, what if he’s not this reformed guy, he’s just faking it? What if he’s just become more cold-blooded and he’s still a killer?”
Around the same time, Welsh, Boyle, Hodge and Trainspotting producers Andrew Macdonald and Christian Colson got together to flesh out two decades’ worth of notes and ideas for T2. Finally, it was reality. “Being back in there with these characters again, it was very interesting,” Welsh recalls.
Coming out of nowhere, at the height of Britpop in 1996, the film adaptation – starring Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Ewen Bremner, Jonny Lee Miller and Kelly Macdonald – was the defining British film of its era. It saw Boyle dubbed the “British Tarantino”, transformed Welsh into a household name and catapulted its stars to Hollywood. A sequel, loosely based on Welsh’s 2002 book Porno, struggled to get off the ground for more than a decade, beset by various spats that included McGregor, who played central character Mark Renton, and Boyle at odds.
“Obviously people had fallen out with one another and had their differences, which has been patched up now,” says Welsh. “But far more significant is that everybody has been so busy. It had to be the same creative team, the same actors. Once you decide on that, it becomes difficult, as you need to get everyone to say yes at the same time. To sync up these people, with the best will in the world, becomes very hard.
“No-one wants to trash the legacy and there was a bit of trepidation,” Welsh adds. “We had to find something that wasn’t going to make people think we were in search of a quick buck.”
Naturally, Welsh waxes lyrical about his other cinema adaptations, which include The Acid House (1998), Ecstasy (2011) and Filth (2013). Nothing, however, came close to catching fire like Trainspotting. T2, he enthuses, hits the spot.
“I thought, all the ingredients are there, we can’t fuck this up. But I was blown away by how good it was. It’s much, much stronger than the first film. It’s got all that energy of the first film but it’s also got much more depth. It’s a film student’s wet dream. There’s so much subtext to it, so much going on, they’ll be looking at it, talking about it and debating it for years.”
Where Trainspotting was set in Edinburgh’s mid-80s heroin culture, T2 finds Renton, Begbie, Sick Boy (Miller) and Spud (Bremner) older and greyer. The Cool Britannia hedonism and chaos of Trainspotting makes way for a theme we can all relate to: ageing.
“Trainspotting was fundamental to so many people’s culture growing up,” Welsh says. “When people see T2 they’ll think about what they were doing when they saw the first movie, how their lives have gone.” He believes viewers will identify with the characters as they go through the same things.
“We’ve lived in such a narcissistic, individualistic culture for 30 years,” he says. “I don’t think that people get old in the same way now. We rebel and fight against it. You go to a rave these days and there’s three generations of the one family jumping around. But we do age. There’s a reality of the looming mortality.”
He points to what he describes as a “disintegrating society” – citing unemployment, wages and politics as examples. “It’s facing up to these big existential crises. It’s very hard to say that one movie can capture all of this. But it does. And it captures it all on an incredible emotional level.”
by Andrew Burns (@andrewburns49)
» T2 Trainspotting is out 23 February.
This article first appeared in Ed#530 of The Big Issue. For more, including a Letter to My Younger Self from T2 star Ewan McGregor, grab a copy from your vendor today!