Few reputations can have crashed as sensationally as that of the Sacklers, one-time cultural benefactors par excellence, now pariahs without peer, their name indelibly linked to America’s opioid epidemic, their philanthropy unceremoniously dumped by the Louvre, the Tate, and the National Portrait Gallery.
Drug abuse kills around 70,000 users a year in the USA, according to the latest statistics, while 1187 Scottish drug users died last year; on a population-adjusted basis that’s significantly more than America’s opioid catastrophe. It’s also several times as many drug deaths per capita as England and Wales (2917) and the worst in Europe. How do we explain this? Indeed, as with the Sackler scandal, could there be a cultural link?
Doing prescription opioids in, say, a leafy Baltimore suburb is hardly the same ‘lifestyle choice’ as shooting up heroin in a crumbling Scottish council estate; yet the comparison is a grim one. The annual death toll in America – home of Breaking Bad and The Wire – from the drug abuse epidemic, according to the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, is proportionately at least on a par with Scotland’s dismal count, if not lower.
Why so bad in Scotland?
For Scots, such statistics invite much intensive soul searching. Standard explanations cite deprivation, family breakdown, a legacy of dour Calvinism, lack of educational opportunity, decades of de-industrialisation and job losses for working-class youth, the concrete ‘deserts wi’ windaes’ raised in place of tenement neighbourhoods which, whatever they lacked in wealth and amenities, usually had community identity.
True, true, and true again, yet box-ticking will never be a solution. Our politicians and their advisers, hopelessly perplexed, seem unable to distinguish symptoms from causes, or understand why young people from particular backgrounds get drawn to addiction?
Might part of the answer lie in Scottish culture, and the way we see ourselves as a nation? The Sacklers stand accused of using the arts to distract from their less salubrious big pharma activities, but shouldn’t we consider some aspects of the way Scotland’s creative sector both uses and abuses the country’s poorest communities?
This thought can be taken a step or two further. Has the gritty voyeurism of the Scottish book-reading and film-going middle classes fostered a moral crisis among the under-privileged? Could it possibly be that the remorseless arts industry denigration of Scotland’s working-class – or, whisper it, underclass – has had a negative, possibly even Pavlovian, effect on the very people who are being exploited as subject matter?
Poverty and literature
Literature has long featured the troubles and occasional redemption of the poor. Dicken’s David Copperfield, Gaskell’s Mary Barton, Hardy’s Jude the Obscure, Grassic Gibbon’s Sunset Song, O’Hagan’s Our Fathers – the list could be expanded exponentially.
The majority of these books leaven the misery with a humane empathy often absent in a more recent Scottish genre which encourages readers to both laugh and wince at the antics of a socially excluded sub-class. It is as if the tradition of mocking the afflicted has been revived more than two centuries after the moderately enlightened Dr James Monroe, director of London’s Bedlam hospital, abandoned the practice of charging visitors to view madness as an entertainment.
It isn’t always easy to draw the line at the point where fiction-as-social-commentary ends and exploitative poverty-porn begins. Rabbi Julia Neuberger was outraged when James Kelman’s How Late it was, How Late won the 1994 Booker Prize, yet it could be argued from a Scottish perspective that Kelman’s book, for all its superabundance of expletives, was giving an authentic voice to the voiceless of working-class Glasgow.
Scotland’s non-fiction, too, has been controversial. When the late Stephanie Wolfe-Murray, founder of Canongate Publishing, first read the manuscript of Jimmy Boyle’s A Sense of Freedom she’d had nightmares, she told me, and worried about publishing much of the graphic detail. Asked for my view I didn’t hesitate to suggest it should be published in full since it was, in the last analysis, an account of one man’s redemption.
It was not, however, the story of most working class Scots – a fact which Boyle himself acknowledged when he’d referred to ‘the invisible victims of the offender and the offence – hard working decent people – most of whom have never had any trouble with the police.’
It isn’t always easy to be non-judgemental in such matters. I’d had misgivings myself when Jimmy Boyle designed The Gentle Giant, the largest concrete sculpture in Europe, for a Craigmillar playground; it seemed to me that children in one of Edinburgh’s poorest areas might not grasp the redemption aspect of the story of Scotland’s one-time ‘most dangerous man’ and end up admiring him for the wrong reasons.
Despite that minor qualification I still believe A Sense of Freedom was a valuable addition to Scotland’s literature and a perceptive exercise in self appraisal. At the time it was damned as an attempt at self-justification, yet at no point did Jimmy Boyle recommended crime and violence as a career option – quite the opposite. He set up a charitable trust with the royalties, Gateway Exchange, which offered art therapy to ex-prisoners and recovering drug addicts. On balance, anyone reading his book would be turned away from crime, rather than drawn towards it.
A Sense of Freedom appeared over forty years ago, since when both Glasgow and Scotland have changed, at least superficially. So, too, has Scottish writing, but not always in a positive way. A telling link between then and now features in the 2016 edition of Boyle’s classic. The foreword was written by Irvine Welsh, author of Trainspotting, a cult book which Mr Welsh himself has described as a ‘milk cow’ which enabled him to fund a millionaire lifestyle in Miami and Chicago, as well as Edinburgh.
Unlike A Sense of Freedom, which could be described as a real-life morality tale, Trainspotting didn’t do morality. Nor, despite the impression given that it’s some sort of no-holds-barred social document, did it really do truth. My first experience of it was when Danny Boyle’s film location crew arrived in Giles Street, Leith, where I happened to be working. They proceeded to spray grafitti all over the place. The locals were horrified, despite being assured that once the shoot was over the street would be left looking as spick and span as a Belgravia mews.
One lady from a council flat in the nearby concrete ‘Banana Block’ was not to be placated. ‘What d’youse think this mess says about us?’ What it said, of course, was that those who lived around Giles Street, like the people of Muirhouse, which also featured, just weren’t down-in-the-gutter and gritty enough for Messrs Welsh and Boyle. The squalor and degradation had to be seriously sexed up to give their film the right sort of sordid impact. Far from being a depiction of reality, Trainspotting was as much a work of schlock fantasy as Bladerunner or Clockwork Orange.
No-one would deny that parts of Edinburgh’s larger council estates were then rife with crime, poverty, drug abuse, and needle-induced Aids. Its inhabitants struggled to get by, yet the majority of them were ordinary decent people who worked hard, loved their kids, cared about their neighbours, and didn’t do drugs.
These areas had problems, but Trainspotting they weren’t. The victims of hard drugs are almost universally sad and troubled individuals with low self-worth and mental health issues. Glamorous counter-culture anti-heroes in the mould of Begbie, Sick Boy, Spud and Renton is the last thing they are. The reality is not that those who live in the city’s poor areas are inherently bad. The reality is that Trainspotting set out to tell the world that they are bad, and succeeded only too well, in what could reasonably be called an exploitative act of cultural appropriation in which the actualité was much exaggerated.
Entertaining the bourgeoisie
In a free society any work of fiction may be defended, of course, even one derived from the imagination of an author whose capacity for extravagant myth-making is not in doubt. There was no reason why Danny Boyle should not have adapted Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting as a film, though some might take offence. In the case of the Trainspotting myth the offence is that it largely reflects a middle-class cultural outlook which enjoys having its prejudices about the customs and mores of its presumed social inferiors vicariously served up as entertainment.
Unfortunately, there is a book-reading and cinema-going faction which seems to have persuaded itself that the degenerate values of Trainspotting are also the predominant values of those living in Edinburgh’s more deprived council estates – values which, it just so happens, make for great box office receipts and heaps of vicarious thrills.
Distributed by Miramax, Trainspotting grossed over $70 million in world box office receipts and was showered with plaudits, not all of them disinterested – Channel 4, which had provided initial funding, would declare it greatest British film of all time. The puffs on this ‘brash and cheeky comedy that is blacker than a thousand nightmares’ (Los Angeles Times) which was ‘the voice of punk, grown up, grown wiser, and grown eloquent’ (Sunday Times) rapidly morphed from critical acclaim to histrionic adulation.
End of Part One
In Part Two David Black digs deeper but remembers ‘It wasn’t always so…in the 1960s Craigmillar Festival established an inspiring ethos…
local children should feel cherished enough to develop a sense of self-esteem, the elderly should be engaged in social activities, and everyone else would at least be offered the opportunity to use such talents as they possessed. Anything less like Trainspotting would be hard to imagine.
Main image courtesy of Ewan Morrison; Gentle Giant via Wikidi
The Drugs Research Network Scotland annual conference takes/took place in Glasgow on November 25