As everyone has seen by now, the Queen has died. With the grief and shock of many at the loss of an icon, has come the relief of many others who oppose imperialism and everything that the monarchy represented, and represents. One thing that is echoed by all is that this is the end of an era, however this sentiment is inflected or internalised. I admit that I don’t feel mournful, I heard the news while I was leaving my studio, I had just taken a photo of my new umbrella to show my partner, a daft face pulled and sent, typing dots…
This wasn’t a woman we knew. It’s of course sad when anyone dies, I feel for her family, to loose two grandparents in a year is brutal, as many ordinary people who have just lived through the last two years know all too well, and many in this country will find out over this Winter, but also how many have already found out every winter, because much like the monarchy, this suffering of the lower classes is a British institution.
We are about to sink deeper into a financial crisis, one that seems to have been ongoing and darkening and widening since before I knew what “financial” meant, every year another thing to be first confused about, then dreadful of, then to meme-ify and anectodalise, make art of, then to internalise as part of how it is. To ocassionally protest with signs and faces covered, to shout about in the pub, to stare at the table about in polite company because class genocide isn’t an intellectually stimulating debate topic when you’re the product of hope for a future that has never come, to listen to audio books about and call someone a tory over on instagram. It’s how we’ve all lived, it’s who we are. Numb, skint, but making it work.
We are in the midst of another independence debate in Scotland, after the great wave of babies born before September in 2014 were named Alba and Saorsa, who probably go by their middle names now. I remember the morning of the passive-aggressive “no thanks” victory clearly, the Highland and Island votes weren’t counted yet, which feels like a piece of bad poetry in itself, but they could tell already that we were to remain in the UK by everyone else’s totals. David Bowie had recently sent Kate Moss to receive an award for him, where she read from a card that he really wanted us to stay with the rest of the UK, that he loved us, which I think may be when I accepted that old guys are old guys, even if they looked stunning in tights and big hair in fantasy films you probably shouldn’t have watched so young. With images of The Goblin King, YES badges, Saltires, Kate Moss’s massive thigh gap (it was 2014), the heavily filtered instagram posts of my friends outside their local polling stations, and Alex Salmond’s bloated head fresh in my mind, I crawled into bed next to my mum to sob.
Eight years later, David Bowie is dead and we’re not really at a public consensus yet how to feel about the fact that he dated a teenager as an adult, Kate Moss isn’t cool anymore now that we’ve all learned how to self-diagnose, instagram filters are out and are another embarrassing millennial-signalling taboo, voting doesn’t feel like an act of suffragette-honouring duty so much as another way to be disappointed publicly, and I was right to think Alex Salmond’s vibes were off after all. That is to say, things have changed, but they also haven’t. Progress and growth are steamrolling the worst parts of what was fine back in the day, just like it has since the beginning of time, no matter what you hear on LBC. And this is where we find ourselves, with a new monarch, facing more unprecedented times, something that has become so common that the term “unprecedented times” is now also a meme, and another Indyref.
The time of the 2014 independence referendum or me is marked by drinking speciality tea and wandering uni avenue instead of going to 6th period with my best friend Michael, leaving my first long-term boyfriend after going to art camp and realising what it feels like to enjoy human company not just lie still and hold my breath until it’s over, discovering how class it is to be a kid with other kids and not my gross boyfriend’s adult friends, and to be able to kiss all my friends at parties because they’re beautiful and sparkling and silly and figuring out how to be alive just like I was, and falling in love with everyone around them just like I was, and for some reason drinking straight vodka while making eye contact with boys as an intimidation tactic just like I was. I was 17 and I had acrylic paint stains on my skin and hair and clothes that would finally wash out to be replaced by three more and repeat and repeat, I was healing from being the kid with the sick mum and continuing my reign as the kid with the badly-dyed hair, and I was being forced to read Lanark by an English teacher who was my gateway into Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes drama but also openly shouting at authority figures.
Scotland was as obsessed with itself as I was in 2014, we had a lot in common in that all we ever talked about was our own identity and what it all MEANS. National identity was something we hadn’t really been allowed to talk about outwith communities like the Gaelic community, since we were always something separate from the Tennents and Tunnocks, shouting at the football on TV, emotionally neglecting your kids, string vests and sectarianism Scotland - the only one ever reflected back at us from wider British culture. This crude caricature gives bad English writers of stage, screen, and shiterag paper some kind of sense of belonging in a wasteland of homogenised Britishness. The union as a collaboration of four countries with countless demographics all co-existing and mingling together sounds idillic, you take some actually consumable water from us and we’ll take whatever England gives us in this deal, etc. The term union suggests alliance, equity, sharing, but it is evident from the British Empire’s definition of togetherness (we own you, so that means we’re together, but it embarrasses us when you talk in that silly language in front of our friends and can you stop dressing like a slut at the pub) and its rebranding to the commonwealth (we used to own you, please don’t leave us or we’ll kill ourselves, please, you’re all we have in this world) that it was never about unity. Like every 20 year old addict with a lip ring and no job, with a 17 year old girlfriend who just met a boy with floppy hair who can play Bob Dylan songs on acoustic guitar, the UK knows it’s being emotionally cheated on. Scotland, Wales, and the North of Ireland are flirting with freedom and only just managing to stop themselves from kissing independence at the end of term disco.
Movements to reclaim our heritage in the Celtic nations have been taking off for years, but with notable shying away from the politics of rebellion from many high up bodies within our cultures. My work as an artist regularly discusses the guts and cheek of her people for Gaelic to have survived generations of suppression, and how punk it is for culture to survive the battering of imperialism. I can literally sell you a t-shirt with that notions on it. And a tote bag. I honestly recoiled on seeing tributes to the Queen from some of these high up bodies, as if the last hundreds of years had never happened, and context can be removed from our struggle to encourage the use of our language and engagement in our culture. We wouldn’t need to make Tiktoks and linear TV strands and podcasts teaching people their own language if we hadn’t been victim to the big cultural death-ray that is the myth of Great Britain. If it is truly to be the end of an era for the UK, with the death of Elizabeth, and specifically for Scotland and our Celtic cousins, then let it be just that. Let it be the end of our identity being assimilated into Britishness, let us pick up from where we left off in 2014 (but maybe with less navel gazing?) in defining who we are and what we want for our future. Let us be bold and unafraid of losing work, or starting an argument at Christmas dinner, or being doxxed by the tech-savvy teenage offspring of statue protectors. Let us too, let the royal family grieve their matriarch granny, while we turn our sadness towards our own communities. If seeing an old lady pass away hurts your heart, allow your empathy and kindness to get some messages in for your downstairs neighbour Annette whose looking a bit thin these days. Let your compassion extend to the refugees who have just arrived in your postcode and have faced horrors we can’t understand, see if their kids want to watch unboxing videos with your kids on their sticky iPads. Let your love of duty to serve make you tip your waitresses generously because they probably live in unfit housing that they pay £600 a month for and are working extra shifts to get a free meal from their jobs.
TLDR: Suas leis a’ Ghàidhlig, focus on the wee old wummin who actually know who you are, up the workers, and make a move on freedom and independence at the next party, because they deffos fancy you back.