Drugs and art meet on campus

May 30, 1997

THES survey reveals that Irving Welsh's novel Trainspotting is the student favourite, reflecting a penchant for hard and soft drugs. Katrina Wishart reports

You might expect students to prefer literature that takes a positive view of their lives. But the novel which emerged as the overwhelming favourite of today's students from a THES survey of over 50 universities, has this to say about university existence: Dr Forbes: "You say you hated Aberdeen?" Me: "Ay."

Dr Forbes: "What was it about Aberdeen you hated?" Me: "The university. The staff, the students and aw that. Aw thought they were aw boring middle-class ****s."

Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting is to the 1990s student what Tolkien's Lord of the Rings and Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar were to earlier generations. The THES survey found that 40 per cent of arts students and 35 per cent of science students questioned had read at least one of Welsh's novels, with Trainspotting, his first, emerging as the favourite.

A third of those questioned believe that Trainspotting is the most popular novel among their friends. The film, adapted from the novel, and soundtrack have experienced similar success.

So what is the appeal of this novel about five young people and their lifestyles? Their stories are stop-start, half-related, often drug-induced episodes with the occasional "Junk Dilemma" thrown in. "Junk Dilemma" No. 64 reads as follows: "Ah'm just lettin it wash all over me, or wash through me I clean me oot fae the inside. This internal sea. The problem is that this beautiful ocean carries with it loads ay poisonous flotsam and jetsam I that poison is diluted by the sea, but once the ocean rolls out, it leaves the ****e behindI" Maybe its popularity (and that of Welsh's more recent Ecstacy and The Acid House) lies in the fact that it deals with many of the issues that concern 90s students - not least drug use, and abuse, which is a real issue on campuses throughout the country.

A recent survey of 5,000 final-year students, The Graduate Consumers Study, found that a quarter of students use soft and/or hard drugs recreationally, while Cherwell, an Oxford student magazine, recently revealed that 34 per cent of the university's undergraduates had sampled hard drugs.

Following the tradition of student classics such as The Bell Jar, Trainspotting is largely the dream turned nightmare only with a 1990s twist. Only 8 per cent of students said they had read The Bell Jar and the same number Jack Kerouac's On The Road.

One student classic that seems to have lasted is The Lord of the Rings which has been read by 50 per cent of arts and 45 per cent of science students although it rarely appeared in students' top three choices. Other extremely strong showings were made by William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, read by 57 per cent of students, in part because of the frequency with which it is an examination set book. Jane Austen has lured 35 per cent of students as well as countless Hollywood directors, while at the more cultish end of the market Iain Banks and Nick Hornby, are also well up the lists.

But what do students who want to escape from the more intellectually challenging reads opt for? In the past year, a quarter of arts students have curled up with Jilly Cooper but science students (7 per cent) are less impressed with her stories of sex and the middle classes. Crime writer Patricia Cornwell, a fairly recent bestseller, has tempted 10 per cent of arts students with her scalpel. And 15 per cent of those questioned claim to have "read nothing" apart from course books in the past year - this may be because they spend their time watching TV. Richard and Judy, Anne and Nick may mean nothing to you, but a quarter of students tune into these daytime double acts regularly. Three quarters watch soaps - Eastenders and Neighbours are the clear favourites. Documentaries are not nearly as popular, but they do attract half of students. A quarter of respondents claimed not to watch much television at all.

The big screen is still universally popular. Nineties students are taking a trip back to the 1970s, with a third choosing either Star Wars or The Empire Strikes Back, as their top film. Other favourites include the remake of Mission: Impossible and Madonna's Evita.

Until 18 months ago, most people might have guessed that the Spice Girls were a band of TV chefs. Today the chart-topping quintet are as popular on campuses as among their more obvious early-teens market.

Other artists popular among students are Alanis Morissette, Oasis and Kula Shaker. Perhaps this is less surprising when you dwell on the meaning of lyrics like Morissette's "I'm high but I'm grounded, I'm sane but I'm overwhelmed, I'm lost but I'm hopefulI"

Top three authors among students 1. Irvine Welsh

2. Jane Austen

3. Nick Hornby

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