It may be August, but then again, this is Scotland. So if you gather outside the Leith Dockers Club on any given morning as the rain begins to fall in earnest and the wind blows it into your face, don’t be surprised. Leith feels a world apart from the Old and New Town architecture of Edinburgh to the south. It is here that you can take part in Tim Bell’s Trainspotting tour of Leith, the setting and grim motif behind Irvine Welsh’s monumental novel that pointed an unflinching spotlight at the dark crevasses of the seaport district. The tour, designed and narrated by Englishman Bell, takes us through a few of the surviving outposts immortalised in the book. However, if Leith is meant to be the hulled out remains of Thatcherian decay, it isn’t plain to see in an area that is now quoted as one of the hippest in the U.K. Still, for fans of the book or the 1996 Danny Boyle film adaptation, Bell does offer some unique insights into the history of the area masked by present gentrification.
As a guide, Bell is at once warm, didactic, and encyclopaedic. It is surprising though to find that when he isn’t reading foulmouthed passages from his well-loved copy of Trainspotting, he’s a church elder who studied divinity in his youth. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, he does an excellent job at describing selected scenes within the context of the surroundings. The starting point at the “The Dockers”, as it is known, plays both a part in the book and the author’s life as a cultural lynchpin for the working class. It’s here where the novel’s protagonist, Renton, and Welsh himself both felt the smothering closeness of the community, before leaving for better prospects in London. And just next door is the nondescript, third story walk-up where Irvine wrote the book which brought the novelist him so much fame. An elderly neighbour, you are told, once described the author and his wife as lovely people, but wondered what they were doing at 3 am clacking away. At Bell’s prompting, you look up at the window above the street and take turns reading the scene in which Sick Boy shoots a passing pit bull with an airgun, seeing through the author’s eyes.
Perhaps the most arresting monument we see along the walk is what’s missing; the Leith Central Station (a glaring omission from the film that was subsequently included in the sequel Trainspotting Two, released last year). Here, Renton and Begbie encounter the old drunk who gives the book its name, asking, “What yis up tae lads? Trainspottin, eh?”. The station has long since been demolished, but we can trace the hulking outline of brick where it once was. Today, a Tesco stands in its place. Like it or not, the landscape of Leith is clearly changing to suit a new upward class of artists and professionals, and along with it, the dwindling selection of locations from the book that made it happen. For all that then, the tour transfers the onus of imagination to the participants, which at times feels forced. Still, see it before it’s gone entirely.
Choose Life, Choose Leith: Trainspotting on Location
Leith Dockers Club (Venue 425)
Until 27 August
Image: Kim Traynor via Wikimedia Commons