Trainspotting can drive you loco

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The Independent Online
I bought the novel Trainspotting when it first came out in hardback, and although I haven't read it all yet, or indeed much of it, I look forward to reading it if only so that I can find out why it is called Trainspotting.

I have always remembered my trainspotting days, which took place in the early Fifties, with great affection, and I think I still have somewhere all the Ian Allan books of British engine numbers that I bought at the time. They must be quite valuable by now. Or at least they would be if I hadn't painstakingly underlined in ink the numbers of all the locomotives I had seen, thus reducing the value of the books to nil at a stroke.

I don't have the slightest interest in trainspotting now, of course. I gave it all up 40 years ago. It's just that, as all my wives have drily observed in turn, no man ever quite gives up trainspotting. It stays in the blood like a long-ago case of malaria and, like malaria, occasionally returns to embarrass you in public ....

What are the symptoms? Well, one sign is the tendency, when driving along in a car, to slow down when you are passing a station or railway line in case there is a train coming. Another symptom is to prick up your ears when you see a dotted line on a map marked "disused railway" and to keep your eyes open for it when it crosses the road you're driving along. Another variation on this is to pick out subconsciously, as you're driving, the tell-tale flat line of an old railway crossing the landscape and to follow it with your eye as long as you can, even though it means nothing to anyone else in the car.

Oh, and another symptom of the old trainspotting itch is to feel a fleeting spot of annoyance when you hear the term "trainspotter", because usually what trainspotters are spotting is not a train but an engine or a locomotive.

Sorry. That's enough.

Now I knew when I bought Trainspotting that it wasn't about trains and it wasn't about trainspotting, because I had read reviews of the book. And the reviews of the books all said: "This is not a book about trains, and it is not a book about trainspotting. It is a novel that deals with the youthful drug underworld of Edinburgh, written in tough, uncompromising language by a man who has been there and knows what he's talking about ....."

That's good. I am all in favour of there being novels about the Edinburgh drug world, if only to counter the image of Edinburgh as a stuffy city addicted to scones and Scotch. But I don't actually want to read them. I have read enough books about drugs in my life.

Well, they weren't billed as books about drugs, they were billed as books about jazz, but there was a long time in jazz history when drugs and jazz were so intertwined that you couldn't read about one without reading about the other. And now I have done drug books and I don't want to do more drug books.

So why did I buy Trainspotting? Well, blow me down, but I think it was because of the title. There was part of me that wanted to find out how a book that was not about trains could be given a title like that, and if I had got far enough, I would probably have found out. That's another symptom of the old malarial itch of trainspotting - to latch on to something with "train" or "rail" or "express" in the title and explore it even though you know it won't be anything to do with trains at all - in the same sort of way that my eye immediately spots, on any printed page, a word with "-zz" in it, just in case it is the word jazz

That is why, when I was once offered the opportunity to see Starlight Express, I grudgingly accepted the invitation, even though it's against my principles to see an Andrew Lloyd Webber musical. I had read that it was about trains. I thought that it might be worth seeing. I was wrong. It was one of the most terrible evenings that I have ever spent in the theatre. But somebody somewhere had correctly deduced or guessed that any title which refers to trains is going to add 5 per cent to its audience figures immediately. It might be a disappointed 5 per cent, but it will be a paying 5 per cent.

That is why I'll hazard a guess that at every performance of Trainspotting there will be a small percentage of the audience who will go away unmoved by the drug drama and baffled by the Scots accents but heartbroken that there weren't any trains to be seen.

Sorry. I mean, engines.