The lure of a line to another place and a different life

IN HIS literary cartoon in last week's Sunday Review, the brilliant Martin Rowson imagined what would happen if Irvine Welsh's novel Trainspotting met Thomas the Tank Engine. The idea had an unsettling juxtaposition - childish innocence meets youthful decadence, beauty meets the beast. On the one hand, a series of children's stories devised by an Anglican vicar in the late 1940s in which the worst thing that can happen is a spot of bother with some naughty trucks on Gordon's Hill: poop, poop, poop, whistled Henry, peep, peep, peep, replied James. And on the other, junkies and head-cases on the dole in 1990s Edinburgh, where the best thing that can happen is: Just as Sick Boy was about tae scream, he spiked the vein, drew some blood back intae the barrel, and fired the life-giving and life- taking elixir home.

Welsh's novel has exhausted 16 reprints since it was first published in 1993. It has been turned into a play. Slews of publicity and praise are now heralding its imminent release as a film. Even the people of Greenland must know by now that the one thing it does not concern is trainspotting. Why then the title? Is it like the madding crowd in Far From the Madding Crowd? Or the all quiet in All Quiet on the Western Front? Absent, that is, from the text?

The answer is not entirely so. Towards the end of the book a couple of its characters walk down the hill from Edinburgh to Leith and "go for a pish in the auld Central Station ... now a barren, desolate hangar, which is soon tae be demolished and replaced by a supermarket and swimming centre". Somehow that makes them sad, though they're too young to remember the trains. One character says: "Some size ay a station this wis. Git a train tae anywhere fae here, at one time, or so they sais." The other character replies: "If it still had fuckin trains, as'd be oan oot ay this fuckin dive."

An old drunk, wine bottle in hand, walks up to these two youths having a pee and asks what they're up to: "Trainspottin, eh?" Then he "laughs uncontrollably at his ain fuckin wit".

THAT more or less begins and ends the railway enthusiast element in Irvine Welsh. I thought you should know, in case your 10-year-old demands a video. He isn't quite right about the far-flung destinations of the trains. By the time Leith Central closed in the early 1950s about the best you could do was the 10-minute journey to Waverley, and even in palmy Edwardian days travellers from Leith could not reach further, directly, than Morningside or Glasgow. But he is absolutely right to marvel at the peculiar size of the station. Here, at the centre of what has never amounted to more than an unglamorous suburb of Edinburgh, was a fully-fledged railway terminus with a glazed roof which looked as though it might shelter expresses for Biarritz. It was built so well in stone and steel that it survived its closure to passengers for 40 years. It was one of the things that, when I was 15 or so, used to attract me to Leith.

That was an odd and, in retrospect, blissful time. I think I wanted to be an artist; I also wanted to go to sea. On several winter afternoons I took a sketchbook down to Leith docks, a walk that began in well-set Princes Street and declined architecturally and socially through Georgian domestic to Victorian warehouses and tenement blocks. Leith is filled with wine bars and heritage restaurants now (as well as syringes), but then it had the feel of commerce and industry, the nearest Edinburgh ever came in atmosphere to Glasgow. There, with my Windsor and Newton pad, and my Venus 2B, I'd try to draw Henry Robb's shipyard or the steamers that went to Iceland or Orkney. Then, on my way home, with the street lamps flaring in the mist, I might stop at a second-hand bookshop near the Deep Sea chip shop at the top of Leith Walk.

Once, I remember, I bought an early edition of Somerset Maugham's Of Human Bondage. I had no real idea of what the title meant. Today as a 15-year-old I might be skipping through it to see when the rubberwear and chains made their entry.

THE above makes me sound like a rather prissy 15-year-old. Maybe I was, but I also think that my sense of exciting possibility was fairly typical: books to be read, pictures to be drawn, places to be seen, a job to be certain. I haven't seen the film of Trainspotting and a large part of me doesn't want to see it. The possibilities for disgust, horror and outrage seem enormous; the sensibilities of a section of the modern cinema audience, which tends to laugh at realistically depicted cruelty, simply don't suit me. But one thing I hope the film preserves from the book is that sense of possibility - another kind of life in another kind of place - which glances through the conversation at Leith Central, and which is now so difficult to fulfil in the great hopeless stretches of the post-industrial world. Unless, of course, you take the short-term chemical route, the needle now leaving from platform 15.

I ALSO remember another thing about Leith. It was where my great-grandfather went to work as an exciseman in the whisky warehouses after he quit the Indian Army, and where he died separated from his wife and family in what is always described as a "common lodging house", and of what his death certificate records as acute alcohol poisoning. A rough and vigorous place then; a rough and sad place now. And in between? Sometimes, when I read stories to my little boy about troublesome locomotives and naughty trucks, I think of it as the Thomas the Tank Engine period. The sky smiles, the stations sparkle, Gordon gets a new coat of blue paint - these are the sunlit uplands of ordinary British life. Only because John Major shares the same view of the 1950s do I draw back from it.

Joan Smith is ill.