Lo­cal his­to­rian marks 25th an­niver­sary of Welsh novel by pub­lish­ing in­sider’s guide to his adopted home

Daily Record - - NEWS - BY BRIAN McIVER b.mciver@dai­lyrecord.co.uk

How the peo­ple of Leith fi­nally came to em­brace novel about 80s drug cul­ture

WHEN Tim Bell moved to Ed­in­burgh from north­ern Eng­land, he had no idea he was get­ting in on the ground floor of one of the city’s great mod­ern re­vival sto­ries.

Or that he would one day play a part in telling and doc­u­ment­ing that story.

Tim ar­rived in Leith at the start of the 80s, when the drug sub­cul­ture at the heart of Trainspot­ting was at its height. By the time the novel was pub­lished in 1993, he had come to call the area home.

The lo­cal his­to­rian, orig­i­nally from Northum­ber­land, is a tour guide in his adopted home town and has been run­ning Trainspot­ting walk­ing tours in the area for many years.

To mark the 25th an­niver­sary of the novel, Tim has pub­lished a guide to the lo­ca­tions and the his­tory be­hind Irvine Welsh’s cel­e­brated sto­ries of Ren­ton, Beg­bie, Spud and Sick Boy, Leith’s gen­tri­fied re­vival and how the area has been changed and in­flu­enced by Trainspot­ting.

His book Choose Life, Choose Leith ex­am­ines the his­tory and the mod­ern cafe cul­ture re­nais­sance and takes read­ers on a tour of the streets, pubs, com­mu­ni­ties and per­son­al­i­ties who pro­vided the in­spi­ra­tion or back­drop to Welsh’s work. Tim, 72, starts his tours at var­i­ous ends of Welsh’s Leith – ei­ther down at The Shore, where Spud’s beloved dole of­fice has been re­placed by a posh cake bake house, or up at the Leith Dock­ers Club, a favourite of the Trainspot­ting lads’ par­ents and one of the big­gest com­mu­nity hubs re­main­ing in the area. When Trainspot­ting was pub­lished, a lit­er­ary phe­nom­e­non was born. It’s now re­garded as one of the great mod­ern nov­els and one of Scot­land’s all-time clas­sics, while the 1996 film and its se­quel, T2 Trainspot­ting, are among the most suc­cess­ful fea­tures to ever come out of Scot­land.

Ren­ton and co went on to ap­pear in books in­clud­ing Porno, The Blade Artist and Sk­ag­boys, and their antics have been told in sev­eral the­atri­cal in­ter­pre­ta­tions.

Th­ese days, the books, films and the con­tri­bu­tion of Welsh in gen­eral are ven­er­ated across the com­mu­nity. But it hasn’t al­ways been so.

Tim moved to Leith in 1980 to take up a job as a so­cial worker and has seen all sides of the Ed­in­burgh com­mu­nity for al­most four decades.

He started his Leith Walks busi­ness in 2003, cre­at­ing the Trainspot­ting tour a year later due to pop­u­lar de­mand.

His tours are still pop­u­lar with vis­i­tors and aca­demics keen to study the lo­ca­tions men­tioned in the book.

The tim­ing was for­tu­nate, as that

was also when the book was win­ning over even its harsh­est lo­cal crit­ics and be­ing right­fully cel­e­brated as a key part of the city’s lit­er­ary her­itage.

Tim said: “It was good fun read­ing Trainspot­ting on lo­ca­tion but if this had been set any­where else but in the com­mu­nity where I lived, I wouldn’t have got­ten into it.

“The book came out in 1993. Leith had been through the ringer since the war and a lot of peo­ple said, ‘We don’t need this, we are just try­ing to get back on our feet’, and think­ing they didn’t need this go­ing world­wide.

“Some peo­ple were ap­palled that Leith was tarred with this kind of lifestyle. But they think dif­fer­ently now, and it’s seen as very pos­i­tive.

“When Ed­in­burgh be­came a UNESCO City of Lit­er­a­ture in 2004, they could do noth­ing other than recog­nise Irvine Welsh’s place in the city, and things flipped round then. Peo­ple had been tak­ing pot­shots at Irvine but then he was recog­nised and things were chang­ing.”

When Tim takes his clients around the old com­mu­nity, he’s quick to point out the dif­fer­ences be­tween the book and Danny Boyle’s film.

He said: “Most of our pun­ters have seen the film but the tour doesn’t re­ally have as much to do with the film be­cause Danny Boyle largely took the story out of Leith. It is more of a uni­ver­sal story of a young man who gets into heroin, has some laughs, sees the prob­lems and tries to get out – you could tell that story in New York.

“But the film was very im­por­tant, too. This was an op­por­tu­nity to send a mes­sage of as­sertive in­so­lence. This was the days of the Ma­jor gov­ern­ment, the demo­cratic deficit in Scot­land, which was over­looked by Tory gov­ern­ments, which would lead to Tony Blair call­ing the ref­er­en­dum on de­vo­lu­tion.

“And Trainspot­ting added to the clam­our and the noise com­ing from Scot­land.”

Tim takes vis­i­tors to land­mark lo­ca­tions such as the Per­se­vere “Percy” bar and the spot on Leith Links where Sick Boy shoots the devil dog with his air ri­fle from the win­dow of a flat in which Welsh him­self lived. He also vis­its the run­down high rises of Kirk­gate, a sym­bol of Leith’s ur­ban dis­tress, and the re­mark­ablelook­ing, and gen­uinely bendy, Ba­nana Flats, where Sick Boy lives in the book.

He swings by Leith Cen­tral, at one point the big­gest new train sta­tion of the 20th cen­tury, which lay derelict as a mag­net for drug abuse and pros­ti­tu­tion through­out the 80s. With grand de­vel­op­ment ideas squan­dered, the his­toric build­ing has been re­duced to a fa­cade which backs on to a su­per­mar­ket and a soft play cen­tre.

Tim, as you’d ex­pect, is a mas­sive fan of Welsh and his work. They ap­peared on a Dutch TV doc­u­men­tary about Trainspot­ting Leith and Tim said he’s a gen­uine lo­cal hero.

He added: “In the last 25 years, there has been a ma­jor im­pact on tourism, for one, and he is also a pa­tron of Leith The­atre and has done a lot of good work there. He lives around the world but is still present.

“Trainspot­ting is filled with lo­cal knowl­edge and his own imag­i­na­tive twist on it.

“What my book aims to do is help peo­ple with the lo­cal knowl­edge to help un­der­stand the fic­tion.

“I wrote it be­cause I got so caught up in the fic­tion, I could see it had en­ergy and set about try­ing to un­lock it and come up with the anal­y­sis of the his­tory and the lit­er­a­ture.”

There have been lots of changes to the area since Ren­ton and his pals were run­ning amok in 80s Leith.

But some things stay the same. As Tim said: “Things have changed but it’s still got heart. It’s not a ghetto, it’s not a sub­urb, it just is Leith.

“The dole of­fice is now a cake shop, and where there were docks and ship­ping of­fices a long time ago, there’s now a Martin Wishart restau­rant and a Pizza Ex­press and so many cafes.

“But at the same time, 25 per cent of chil­dren in Leith are still in poverty, so it hasn’t changed that much.”

Choose Life, Choose Leith by Tim Bell is out now on Luath Press, £14.99.

Things have changed but it’s still got heart TIM BELL ON LEITH’S GEN­TRI­FI­CA­TION

PROUD OF HIS PATCH Tim Bell, the au­thor of Choose Life, Choose Leith

TRACK­ING THE STORY Tim and writer Brian, top. Above, flats where Welsh lived

SMASH HIT Ewen Brem­ner, Ewan McGre­gor, Jonny Lee Miller and Robert Car­lyle in Trainspot­ting. Pic­ture: Film Four KEY LOCATIO Leith Cen­tra the 80s. Abo ‘Percy’

WALK IN THE PARK Tim’s Trainspot­ting tour takes in Leith Links, above, and the Ba­nana Flats, be­low, where Sick Boy lives in the novel

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