Thursday 17 October 2019

Choose life, choose nostalgia for the city that changed you

Irish rugby fans Chloe Grace, Orlaith Butler, Katie McCann and Ciara Flanagan on Edinburgh's Royal Mile ahead of today's Ireland vs Scotland clash at Murrayfield Photo: Ian Rutherford
Irish rugby fans Chloe Grace, Orlaith Butler, Katie McCann and Ciara Flanagan on Edinburgh's Royal Mile ahead of today's Ireland vs Scotland clash at Murrayfield Photo: Ian Rutherford
Fiona Ness

Fiona Ness

Twenty-one years ago my cousin owned a flat in the shadow of Murrayfield from where, of Saturday afternoon, I'd hear the roar go up. It sounded like a foreign language. My cousin was Edinburgh but I was Glasgow, where rugby was for toffs who liked their violence on the pitch. What's more, they were the people who changed our national anthem into 'Oh Flower of Scotland' because the real one was too hard to sing at the match.

In Ireland, rugby is a more universal affair. The Six Nations tournament is enjoyed by all, myself included. And yet, the throw in today between Scotland and Ireland at Murrayfield brings me back to a city and a person I left 21 years ago.

Twenty-one years ago, the rugby lads, with their mixed stands and good-natured rivalry, would spill out onto the streets after the match. On international match days they might catch you up and kiss you, then set you down and bring their bawdy exuberance home to roost in the pub, kilts swinging in the wind.

Ewan McGregor (front) and Ewan Bremner in 'T2 Trainspotting' Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire
Ewan McGregor (front) and Ewan Bremner in 'T2 Trainspotting' Photo: Jane Barlow/PA Wire

A bit different then, Edinburgh, to the times when you'd find yourself on the train out of big, dirty Glasgow after an Old Firm match at Parkhead. Big mistake. You'd sit waiting for the tissue of servility to tear and the train to plunge into violence perpetrated in the name of God and football but endorsed by neither. Celtic or Rangers? Celtic or Rangers? The right answer today could be the wrong one tomorrow.

No football casuals in the shadow of Murrayfield though. Just walks home from the New Town in the crisp, dark air, with the fires of Grangemouth dancing on the other side of the firth and the laughter of luvvies, floating down from the aftershow parties of the city's famous theatre scene.

Growing up in Scotland in the 1990s, my heart was in Glasgow but my aspirations were in Edinburgh.

Where else does a mountain well up out of a city? King Arthur's Seat at the bottom of the Royal Mile (it's actually a mile-and-a-quarter) is, according to Robert Louis Stevenson, "a hill for magnitude, a mountain in virtue of its bold design".

Many's a canty day I'd trekked up the hill for a view of the city, out across the Old Town with its ghostly wynds and closes, to Edinburgh Castle, sitting proud on an extinct volcano. From there you'd move on to the blackened Wallace Monument, the elegant lines of Waverley Station and Princes Street (there's twa sides tae every story, but only wane tae Princes Street). You could pick out the grid pattern of the New Town, the beaches at Leith and look out beyond the Forth Road and Rail Bridges to the Kingdom of Fife. Edinburgh was a rare beauty.

"Choose life," you might breathe, after the dialogue from Irvine Welsh's "daft wee story about junkies", had been burned on your brain by the 1996 film 'Trainspotting'.

Twenty-one years ago, 'Trainspotting' was a film that defined the era of Cool Britannia. It also disclosed a different Edinburgh; the one of drug addition, disaffection and death. Over in Glasgow my forensic science lecturer let it be known that Edinburgh was "the heroin capital of the world".

But Edinburgh, that thing of indefatigable beauty, that 'Athens of the North', could not be tarnished. 'Trainspotting' became the highest grossing British film of the decade.

"Thir must be less tae life than this," Renton intones in 'Trainspotting', during a grim, drug-free period.

Now, a newly released sequel to the film, 'T2 Trainspotting', has everyone chattering about Edinburgh again.

'T2 Trainspotting' is a mid-life crisis of a film, which shows us just how much less life can become.

The characters of Renton and Spud do a spot of nostalgic navel-gazing up on King Arthur's perch, trying to understand, as one reviewer put it, why they aren't who they expected to be. Thugs and drifters, I doubt the lads are rugby fans. But then, I doubt they ever expected to be.

Tell anyone in Dublin that you're Scottish and they'll say, "I love Edinburgh". Most likely, they've been "over for the rugby". Ah yes, I'll say, Edinburgh is really beautiful. In fact, I'd always wanted to go on my holidays there, if it wasn't for the fact I lived only 30 minutes away. It'd be a bit daft.

Today, holidays are my only option. I understand the 'Trainspotting' actor Ewan McGregor when he said he identified with his character in 'T2', who returns to Edinburgh after 20 years away.

'I felt like Renton, going back," McGregor says. "I had these feelings like, 'S***! I haven't lived in Scotland since I was 17!' I moved to London to go to drama school, and I go home every year, because my parents are there, and my brother and his family, and I love it, but I haven't lived there, and…of all the characters I've played who've been Scots, Renton is the most Scottish of them all.

"And I suddenly thought, 'F***! What if I can't do it? What if I'm not Scottish enough any more?'"

Nostalgia has that effect.

"Yes," he says. "That time has gone, it can never happen again - but it changed our whole existence."

Irish Independent

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