“Trainspotting‘s still happening. They say the war on drugs must continue, but it’s no a war on drugs, it’s a war on poor people.”
Paul Stewart hosts Trainspotting-themed tours of Leith with Invisible Cities, a social enterprise that trains people with experience of homelessness to become guides. He says that 25 years after the film was released, Scotland’s drugs problem is more serious than ever. As Irvine Welsh, who wrote the book, told The Big Issue this week: “We’re as much in denial about drug use as ever”.
“I grew up during the so-called Trainspotting period,” Stewart tells The Big Issue. “I only took an opioid drug once and it didnae agree with me but I seen loads of my mates taking it, dying in front of me.
“My mates are still dying now – one died two months ago. It happened, it’s real life, it’s part of our history and you cannae change it.”
Stewart, now 54, was a self-declared “non-educated delinquent,” causing trouble, in prison at 16 – “never anything bad like mugging grannies, I was a petty criminal,” he says.
The release of Trainspotting made a notable impact on his life in the 1990s. “That was my raving period. I used to look like Ewan McGregor, I got a few girlfriends because of it.”
And today, when Covid allows, the film is still having a positive effect as he guides tour groups around the highlights and lowlights of Leith.
“The Tesco carpark being the highlight,” he adds. “That’s where the train station was.
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“There’s actually a couple of reasons Trainspotting is called so. When heroin users inject, they leave track marks on their arm. And as we know, trainspotting is a hobby. Quite a bizarre, random hobby and Irvine Welsh used it as a metaphor, whereby only people who do trainspotting understand why they do it.
“It’s not all doom and gloom but I do tell the doom and gloom. I like to tell people the truth. How did Trainspotting happen? I don’t just talk about the movie, I talk about the circumstances that led to Trainspotting.
“I grew up when Maggie Thatcher closed the shipyard in 1983 and heroin came on the scene at the same time. That’s what it was, people were abandoned. There were no jobs.
“It’s still living history. We still see the same heroin addicts there on a daily basis. I get abused by them almost every time I do a tour.
“I don’t like getting abused, but see the people on the tours, they love it because they think it’s part of the tour!”
For tourists in Edinburgh accustomed to stooges on ghost walks jumping out of the shadows, Stewart is happy to play along with their assumptions. “Especially if they’re going to give me a bigger tip at the end.”
Take a look at Paul in action:
Stewart is one of the guides for Invisible Cities. As well as Edinburgh, there are tours conducted by people who were formerly homeless in Manchester, York, Cardiff and more. The organisation was recently recognised by Lonely Planet, making their Best in Travel list for 2021.
Of course, Covid has crushed tourism, meaning Invisible Cities has had to adapt. While speaking to The Big Issue, Paul receives a delivery of a hands-free umbrella so he can livestream virtual tours. A recent tour of the Old Town had 400 people tuning in from across the world.
If he wasn’t being heckled by locals before, he certainly will be now with his handleless umbrella.
“I’m no wearing my hands free umbrella in Leith, no danger man.”
On 23 February – exactly 25 years after the film was released – Paul will host a very special live tour so fans of the books and films from around the world can tune in.
Two tours will take place at midday and 3pm. Tickets cost £5 per person, though if you feel like donating more to Invisible Cities, you can.