“History is What Hurts”: The Concept of Control upon the Future in McCabe’s The Dead School and Welsh’s Trainspotting
We all have the capacity to make choices: the ability, to highly varying degrees, to form opinions, to make decisions, to exert control. However, with the advancement of social psychology, an awareness has emerged of the intrinsic link between our choices- and their consequences- and numerous factors arising from our environment. As Livingston acknowledges, ‘individual beliefs, desires, intentions and actions should be viewed in a larger framework, namely the interpersonal and social context in which they are situated’. (Livingston 179). Similarly, Donagan notes, “…the ultimate beliefs and wishes that cause your actions are effects of your situation (as you believe it to be)” (Donagan 166). If our actions are products of circumstance, the situational factors generally considered to limit our agency over our futures are matters such as birthplace, class, gender, familial circumstances, or race. Two novels which afford interesting contexts in which to discuss the level of agency exerted upon the future are Welsh’s 1993 Trainspotting, and McCabe’s 1995 The Dead School. In the former, the troubled position of Scotland, viewed by protagonist Renton as submerged in ‘nationalist inertia’ (Farred 220), the profound effects upon the male psyche of living in a deindustrialised economy, and disturbed familial relations lead to obvious questions regarding the control these young Scots possess over their future. In McCabe’s work, the deadlock between two versions of Ireland, alongside each version’s prescribed notions of gender and family, offers similar opportunities. This essay will assess the limitations placed upon the futures of the novels’ characters by their country, gender, and familial circumstances; class will be exempt from the discussion, on the basis of its fairly obvious restrictions upon agency. It will suggest both texts are comparable in many ways in relation to the influence certain factors hold over the power of control upon the future, namely the inestimable influence of nationality upon the (significantly) male protagonists. This interplay of country and masculinity also lends itself to the question of which of these, in terms of the ability to assert agency over our futures, is more important; where we are born, or what we are born as.
The influence which place of birth exerts in the novels will be addressed first, beginning with Trainspotting. Deliberation regarding its status within the United Kingdom has long plagued Scotland; due to the ‘belatedness’ of Scotland’s anti-English rhetoric (Cairns 235) a debate exists surrounding the legitimacy of Scotland’s colonisation at the hands of England: “It is impossible for Scotland to cast itself as an oppressed and colonised nation, and at the same time locate its golden age in a time when it was profoundly at one with the supposed oppressor” (Horton 227). The crisis of identity which accompanies Scotland’s position is embodied by the characters, perhaps most notably Renton, who “recoils at his every encounter with the narrative of the Scots as a resisting nation”, (Farred 222). He has this to say of his fellow countrymen:
Fuckin failures in a country ay failures…The lowest of the low, the scum of the earth. The most wretched, servile, miserable, pathetic trash that was ever shat into civilisation. Ah don’t hate the English…Ah hate the Scots. (100).
Renton considers Scotland’s relentless obsession with the past hugely restrictive, rendering the nation unable to acknowledge its abundance of contemporary predicaments. However, relevant to this discussion of his control over his future, Farred asserts that Renton remains “an integral part of vernacular knowledge- how it is weaved…into the fabric of imagined nationhood- that maintains the very myth with which he is impatient, the very rhetoric of bravery he despises.” (Farred 222). By engaging in this discussion, Renton is nonetheless colluding in the preoccupation with history, and thus also hindered by it. Further complicating is Renton’s support for ‘Hibs’. Football in Scotland has long served as an emblem for the social problems of sectarianism and hooliganism. Welsh portrays the debilitating effects of football culture or “ninety-minute patriotism” (Hart 4) in Stevie’s interaction with a Pakistani woman; after she is verbally assaulted by two Hearts supporters who call Stevie a “Hibby bastard”, he offers some conciliatory words. She, however, looks at him ‘like a rabbit looks at a weasel’, seeing only ‘another white youth with slurred speech…Above all, she saw another football scarf, like the one worn by the youths who abused her’ (64).
For someone who astutely rejects all things Scottish, Renton’s support for ‘Hibs’ (“Intae the Jambo cunts” (54)) is conflicting. However, Hibs are a Leith team, and they are essentially defined, à la Celtic and Rangers, through their derby with the Edinburgh team Hearts. This ‘Leith versus Edinburgh rhetoric’ which Renton willingly endorses shows how profoundly his birthplace affects him: Leith is immersed in stagnation and loss, in stark comparison to the grandeur and touristic charm of Edinburgh Castle and the Royal Mile. Begbie realises, following an uncomfortable exchange with Canadian tourists, “These burds ur gaun oantay us aboot how fuckin beautiful Edinburgh is, and how lovely the fuckin castle is…n aw that shite. That’s aw they tourist cunts ken though…” (147). Edinburgh is a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ city, ‘a civic body repressing its darker, more troublesome elements’ (Horton 222). Leith- and its people- are so forgotten in this gentrification and commodification of tourist areas, that Begbie’s father’s ‘joke’ when he asks if the boys are ‘trainspotting’ is mirthless behind his alcohol-induced laughter: to anticipate a train in this station, a symbol of transportation of services, “foregrounds the absurdity of expecting any such motion to originate from a station that can no longer claim to be ‘central’.” (Macdonald 103). If the ‘Hearts’ versus ‘Hibs’ dialogue is analysed fully, it represents the restrictive impact which growing up in the deprived Leith has had upon Renton. Similarly, the Irish connotations of ‘Hibs’ (Hibernian) is important to Renton, who claims the Irish, “hud the bottle tae win thir country back, or at least maist ay it” (241), and ‘nods sombrely’ when Gav remarks, “A fuckin great rebel, a fuckin great socialist and a fuckin great Hibby. James Fuckin Connolly ya cunt”. (59).
In The Dead School, Ireland restricts the control both Raphael and Malachy are able to exert over their futures. Raphael’s childhood is marred by the witness of his father’s murder at the hands of the Black and Tans, rendering him the son “of one of the loyal patriots” (48). Raphael exists in an Ireland which in which his intellectual and religious habits allow him to excel, moving seamlessly through the steps he asserts will make Evelyn “the proudest mother in the whole of Ireland!”; from Head Altar Boy, to Head Prefect, to Head Master. While seemingly content in his existence in De Valerian utopia, Raphael’s consistently troubled ‘desire for righteous punishment’ (Lehner 72) is underwritten by his desperate need to avenge the death of his father by maintaining conservative Catholic values in Ireland. This angst is observed in his zealous fight for justice with a school bully, whose face transforms into the Black and Tan who killed his father, (“The Black and Tan cried helplessly with his bottom lip trembling, ‘Don’t hit me!” (59)).
It is this wretched desire to cling to the values of old Ireland which destroys Raphael. His neurotic infatuation with traditional Irish iconography (Kilmainham Jail, the Walton Programme, John McCormack) provide comfort which is disturbed by his wife’s miscarriage (Herron 179). It is worth noting that for Raphael, marrying Nessa from the ‘wee north’ (116) “allegorises the nationalist dream of unification” (Lehner 72); the implications of the stillbirth of this offspring, then, are clear. The newly qualified teacher ‘Malachy’ (the anglicised version of son’s intended name (Herron 179)) – comes to Raphael, rather than ‘tumble-curls Maolseachlainn’ (127). Other factors contribute to his descent into insanity; the arrival of Miz Evans, “Bachelor of Abortion”, the retirement of the Walton Programme, the lack of resistance shown by a priest, Raphael’s most clung-to symbol of old honourable Ireland, to the school trip being changed to Waterworld rather than Kilmainham. McWilliams notes that “if the Mother Ireland figure served historically to inspire the young men in their bid for political freedom, in McCabe’s version she appears as a sure recipe for psychosis” (McWilliams 392).
For Malachy, Ireland also exerts power upon his future. Born in 1956, the son of Packie, “the biggest bollocks in town” (1), whose wife’s affair renders him an object of social derision- and subverts the wholesome-family of De Valerian Ireland- Malachy’s life is permanently stamped by his pathological upbringing. McCabe once noted, “While we laud the close-knit community of the past, there were an awful lot of people who…were miserable; who got no help; who were glad to get the hell out of the place”. (Fitzpatrick, 56). This is precisely the environment in which Malachy grew up: a place where Packie’s suicide, following his wife’s affair, is only accepted by the townspeople as an accident. “They were furious about the fishing-stand, they said. They said there was going to be murder about it. Especially Nobby Caslin, who said he had written to the council long ago about it being a hazard”. (21). Similarly, the funeral of Mrs McAdoo’s baby ‘performs a social spectacle of communal harmony, whereby the principally culpable Canon transmutes the tragedy into a happy, happy, occasion’ (Lehner 70).
This farcical, stifling community should have become a part of Malachy’s past when he joined university in the seventies, and it did initially: “He could do anything. Any woman in the bar, he could have had her” (72). However, as Norman Brown proposes regarding generational struggles, “Under the condition of repression, the repetition-compulsion establishes a fixation to the past, which alienates the neurotic from the present and commits him to the unconscious quest for the past in the future” (Kiberd 393). His partner, Marion, begins an affair which mirrors Cissie’s, and his life slowly unravels. Despite efforts to escape his social conditioning, he is bound by the Ireland which he seeks to reject. At the crux of both Malachy and Raphael’s destruction is the inability to understand each other: instead of reading Malachy’s message as a ‘salutory parable of the damaging silences embedded within his own belief and love of all things traditionally Irish’ (Herron 182), Raphael can only view Malachy as a contaminable threat. This incompatibility of the De Valerian Ireland, which Raphael attempts to cling to, but cannot, and modernity, which Malachy attempts to grasp, but cannot, is verbalised in the exchange prior to Raphael’s suicide:
“‘You made me lose my wife!’ Raphael screamed, ‘You made me lose her and you ruined my life!’ ‘No! No, you fucker! You ruined mine!'” (327).
Malachy and Renton travel to England and Amsterdam respectively, attempting to make a physical escape from their birthplaces. Malachy, in London, attempts a lifestyle the antithesis of Raphael’s Ireland- a drug-fuelled existence ‘in a squat full of loopers and headbangers who wouldn’t know a day’s work if it hit them in the goolies’ (248). England is a significant choice- following the Irish Civil War, Irish values set out to “demarcate…Irish behaviour and values from those in Britain, who were often presented as Godless” (Girvan 4). Malachy proves unadaptable to London after being sacked from several jobs and becoming institutionalised for eighteen months following an overdose. The novel’s ending, with Malachy as a full-time carer for his mother, serves as a stark motif of his inability to assimilate and his failed attempt to evade his entrapment by Ireland. Yet, McCabe allows some hope for Malachy’s generation, in the brief reunion of Malachy with Chico, a former Irish bedfellow in the drug-squat. Chico is now an insurance underwriter; The Prince, another Irish dysfunctional, is back at university. To suggest, then, that McCabe portrays nationality as an entirely inhibiting factor would be to go too far. Rather, we must read Malachy as an allegory of his distinct circumstances; in particular as a warning against the pathological nature of his small town.
While Renton’s departure to the notoriously drug-friendly Amsterdam is somewhat ironic, his escape -following the robbery of his friends- is considered by Macdonald as essentially a success, suggestive of ‘the possibility of moving out of Leith without moving into Edinburgh’s washing-machine culture’ (Macdonald 104); the culture so famously condemned in Renton’s ‘Choose Life’ tirade. Kelly, however, points to Renton’s express interest in the philosophy of Kierkegaard:
I’m interested in…his ideas concerning choice: the notion that genuine choice is made out of doubt and uncertainty, and without recourse to the experience or advice of others…It’s also a liberating philosophy, because when such societal wisdom is neglected, the basis for social control over the individual becomes weakened. (208)
Kelly asks if, according to this philosophy, Renton’s final decision to rip-off his friends, (breaking the one social code by which they abide) and leave Leith for good, is ‘an antidote to the vacuous freedom that is defined solely in economic and consumer rather than ethical terms’ or merely just a ‘recapitulation of that opportunism’ (Kelly 67); he physically escapes Leith, but in doing so, he embodies the tenets of Thatcherism imposed upon his generation, as expressed by Sick Boy: “It’s me, me, fucking ME, Simon David Williamson, NUMERO FUCKING UNO,” (38). Perhaps it is pertinent to consider here the events of Trainspotting’s lesser-known sequel, Porno, in which Renton returns once more to scam his friends, and leaves for San Francisco.
Familial relations also restrict the agency of the protagonists in each novel. Some of these restrictions are intrinsically linked to factors regarding nationality, and have already been explored: Raphael’s doting mother’s expectations, and the profound effect of Packie’s and Mattie’s deaths. Significantly, as Raphael’s vision of his idealised Ireland becomes fogged by forces of modernity, so does his memory of his father’s once-glorious death, culminating in his disturbing vision of his father as the antithesis of the honourable victim; the murderer of his Uncle Joe’s beloved horses. This exhibits the unhinging impact of our desired perception of our parents becoming threatened.
Troubled familial relations abound in Trainspotting, and their implications have highly personal effects on the characters’ future; Leith’s resident psychopath, Begbie, has a brief interaction with his alcoholic father which does not explain away all of his social aggression, but accounts for some of it. Renton has troubled relations with his siblings: he and Billy were both teased about Davie, his deceased, profoundly disabled brother. When Renton relives these taunts of “Your brother’s a spastic”, he notably uses Standard English, in an attempt to distance himself from their sting (Jeffers 102).
Billy’s alignment with Orangeism disgusts Renton; he has no sympathy for his death as a British soldier in Northern Ireland: “No a hero, no a martyr, jist a daft cunt” (Welsh 265). Standing at his graveside, Renton recalls physical attempts to dominate and humiliate each other in childhood. Revealingly, Renton relives watching Billy being bullied: “They didnae see me looking down fae the bridge. Billy, your head stayed bowed. Impotence. How does it feel Billy Boy? Not good. I know because” (267). The aposiopesis of this recollection itself embodies the impotence Renton feels: the difference between these brothers merely lies in how they channelled their powerlessness. Billy, in becoming a soldier; Renton, by employing heroin.
This ‘impotence’ is symptomatic of the way many of the male characters’ lives in Trainspotting have been affected by growing up in a deindustrialised society, an era ‘ay mass unemployment’ (242) and it is here that the discussion will move to focus on the ways in which gender and the ability to assert agency over the future are intrinsic. An obvious question is why deindustrialisation is not portrayed as affecting female assertion of agency over the future; due to the performative nature of gender, sociologist McDowell asserts “it is the movement into employment that is the most significant for young men, as work provides the means to establish a home and to support a family”. (McDowell 57). The heroin-use so central to Trainspotting must be contextualised by deindustrialisation- “the response of the youth to a future on the ‘broo’ was self-abandonment and…immersion in a hedonistic, self-destructive underclass existence” (Haywood 158). Drug-use, then, is employed by these characters as a hunger-strike of a social kind: “their nihilistic retreat is central to the ethos of decadence, and can be read as escapist and irresponsible, but…the sense of ‘negation’ and the refusal that retreat embodies can also be seen as a gesture of protest” (Horton 226).
The males in Trainspotting are persistently emasculated; the novel even opens with Renton engrossed by Jean Claude Van-Damme, who offers a ‘compensatory physically excessive masculinity…in an area where traditional forms of male action and identity based on physicality have been undermined by economic change’ (Kelly 41). Emasculation affects the characters uniquely. Begbie’s hyper-masculine violence and pseudo-patriotism (“If it still hud fuckin trains, ah’d be oan one oot ay this fuckin dive, Begbie said. It wis uncharacteristic for him tae talk aboot Leith in that way. He tended to romanticise the place”, (386)) demonstrate his efforts to fill this void. For Simon, his attempts to assert dominant masculine power are exemplified by his sexual prowess, which, while establishing him as an alpha male (“Lucky fuckin bastard. Even Sick Boy has never shagged Lizzie” (115)), is illuminated as merely his way of filling his “big, BLACK HOLE like a clenched fist in the centre ay my fucking chest” (40). A parallel can be drawn between Simon’s and Malachy’s attempts to emulate masculine and sexually-accomplished Hollywood film stars; for Malachy, Jack Nicholson (‘Right on in he went, Jack Nicholson style’ (224)); for Simon, James Bond (‘Auld Sean and I have so many parallels’ (37)). This aspiration to what they view as a more pronouncedly dominant form of masculinity exposes their insecurities regarding their own. The accompanying destructive behaviours they are compelled to engage in as a result prove the restrictive impact of gender upon agency.
McWilliams proposes, based on the fate of Evelyn and Cissie, that women ‘are seen to suffer most at the hands of history’ (McWilliams 396). ‘Nan’, Cissie’s fellow patient, can only swear and throw her rosary beads across the room, despite having once been ‘the holiest woman in the town’ (314). Nan’s rejection of her social norms may only be accepted, for her generation, through dementia, but for the new generation, Ms Evans and Marion, we observe women who are restricted by little. Of this new generation, benefitting from some aspects of the feminist movement, McCabe shows how the ‘old way’ of women having little agency over their future has given way to this ‘new way’, where it is revealed that it is now men whose agency is most restricted by obsession with the past.
In Trainspotting, female characters are side-lined, but there is some evidence that Welsh is suggesting they hold greater agency over their futures than the male characters (however, characters such as Lesley, also entrapped in the drug-den, cannot be forgotten). Kelly’s first-person narrative retells her and Alison’s triumphant feminist epiphany as they confront cat-calling workmen, and befriend two lesbians (“If aw guys were as repulsive as you, ah’d be fuckin proud to be a lesbian, son!” (344)). However, this chapter is followed by one in which Kelly is utterly humiliated by a blue phone-call to the pub in which she works. (Kelly 52). Renton’s recognition of “lynch-mob” laughter comes too late, as Kelly feels bitterly reduced to “the silly wee lassie behind the bar” (349). In Nina’s chapter, despite her objections to femininity- she wears black clothes, is detached from the female grief display, and absent from any form of maternal instinct- she is somewhat entrapped by her femininity; she is menstruating, and it stains the carpet. However, this image of troublesome, unwanted femininity is subverted in the chapter ‘Eating Out’, in which Kelly uses these female excretions to punish men who speak to her derogatively.
Both authors suggest then, that women, who historically have struggled relentlessly for their rights, have control over their futures which is less restricted by factors such as nationality, an agency denied to men; thus, McCabe and Welsh agree that in the contexts of Ireland and Scotland, it is more important what you are born as, rather than where you are born, in terms of the control you can exert upon the future. Men are seen, in the novels, to have their futures marred to a great extent by the place in which they live: be it by their impressions of who they should become, but cannot, the impacts of deindustrialisation upon the male psyche, or divisions in the family as a result of nationalistic factors. Despite Renton’s assertions that he only feels “total disgust” (284) for countries, Norquay points out that at the heart of this expression is the question of “what have gender, race, and class ever done for us?” (Norquay 159). These factors are shown as meaningless besides the damning factor of historical nationality. It would seem then, for the male characters, more than the female characters, Jameson’s assertion is accurate: “History is what hurts: it is what refuses desire and sets inexorable limits to individuals as well as collective praxis, which its ruses turn into grisly and ironic reversals of their own intention”. (Jameson 88).