The sun is setting over New York. We are on a roof, with the horizon at waist level, and with a few skyscrapers looking down on the scene but with the consensus amongst the buildings being to peep up at it. Yo La Tengo are playing “And The Glitter Is Gone.” Squelching and squalling feedback is radiating in waves from Ira Kaplan’s guitar, whilst Georgia Hubley splashes along nimbly on the cymbals. The buzz of James McNew’s bass is a mantra that becomes the sole source of order. The audio on Pitchfork’s videoclip is crystal clear but there is no way of telling whether the music is really flying over the city and down through every open window, as it appears to be.
Did I mention that the sun is setting? Boy, is the sun setting. At the start of this video, the sky is peach and lemon and apricot and the clouds are mango purple – as if the universe is briefly sporting amazing tropical plumage. Halfway through, the sky is glowing like the embers of a sleepy old fire and the clouds are deep shadows and silhouettes. By the end, there are a couple of bloody rips in the sky but everything else is black. Yo La Tengo have rocked all the way through the sunset. The video is fifteen minutes long.
In the student bar where I was working on Friday night, I played this video (via YouTube) on the big screen at closing time and as the final song. I played it at an insane volume. If you are trying to shut down a student bar, the best thing is to play the music so loud that the students are unable to speak to each other and they can only helplessly drink their drinks up (“man, either you drink that beer or the sink drinks it”). But this song also commemorated our departure from the European Union. So why did I go for, “And the Glitter Is Gone”?
Many barmen would have chosen Europe’s “The Final Countdown.” I had joked about playing this but it was never really a runner. For one thing, I was worried that the jaunty tune would sound sarcastically celebratory and that this might offend some of my customers. For another, the lyrics don’t quite land right: “And maybe we’ll come back/ To earth, who can tell?” People who speak wistfully about us “one day” rejoining the EU are always overlooking the fact that it would take an apocalyptic dive in living standards amongst the voters to occasion this. “The Final Countdown” is equally one of these songs that has been overplayed, and become such a cliché, that it now scuds over your mind without you ever consciously connecting with it. A song with glazed eyes and a dead heart, as I call them.
I suppose that I had wanted a neutral song. Something that would sound suitably meaningful but that wouldn’t give people’s restless offence anything to nibble on. “And the Glitter Is Gone” is certainly this. It has a refrain, running throughout the piece, that is triumphant and breezy, but there is also a great deal of wretched spitting and clawing. It is singing the sun in its flight and, yes, in a painful cliché that is probably now poetry’s equivalent of “The Final Countdown,” it is raging against the dying of the light. It is three musicians splendidly manufacturing a lot of noise whilst the sun sets. Anything else, any symbolism that might happen to strike you, has been borne in on your own person.
We shouldn’t celebrate leaving the EU. I was a Brexiteer before the word existed, I voted for Brexit, and I have cursed as a whore every hour of its delay. Yet I am uncomfortable with the likes of The Spectator’s Brendan O’Neill, who has called for “flags and cheers and music and dancing” and added, “if it offends you, don’t worry — you’ll get over it.” O’Neill has pounced upon the hypocrisy of defeated Europhiles who are now calling for humility and magnanimity when they had often previously “paraded through the streets like an army of sanctimony.”
He does have a weight of realism on his side. With Brexit, there is admittedly something hopeless about searching for “unity” on the site of such a bitter class struggle. The paternalistic middle-class voters who in the main support the EU, and the unsentimental working-class ones who don’t, rarely meet in the same supermarkets or school playgrounds or even suburbs. It is impossible at the moment to imagine what the desired “unity” would ever look like, were it to be manifested as a real social phenomenon.
Still, whenever a ship is sinking you seldom see the people in the lifeboats partying and celebrating. They tend to instead empathise with those who are left behind and who are about to get their hair wet. We have left the EU in a horrendous, frightful mess. Its economies are slowing down when it has barely recovered from the last recession; its nations are resorting to strikes and populism as a substitute for formal political structures that have increasingly become an irrelevance. To celebrate the fact that we have got out is perilously close to locating the selfishness and isolationism that we are often wrongly accused of epitomising.
On the other hand, if progressives in the UK want to show solidarity with the victims of the EU, then they do need to engage with the reality of what is actually happening on the continent. This brings me to Lesley Riddoch, the leading purveyor of our daintiest and subtlest Waitrose ethnic nationalism. She is trying to make out that Scots are somehow mystically more European than English people, which, if this was so, would create the perfect casus belli for Scottish independence. Needless to say, it isn’t so. Undeterred, however, she spent Friday struggling to haplessly slap up a Potemkin village of Scottish Europhilia. She wanted her activists to be out there and fulsomely (i.e. disproportionately) visible in the media. Here is her in The National:
People who didn’t even register the case for independence in 2014 now know that Scotland and England are at loggerheads over EU membership (and much besides) and expect to witness a defiant, dignified stand tomorrow. So, let’s deliver it. Scots must leave the EU with a bang, not a whimper.
[Incidentally, this article is only available to premium subscribers to The National but I am eager to clarify immediately that I am not one of these. The articles on The National’s website load fully before their paywall comes up. This means that you can take screenshots of an article and read it for free, without giving these people any financial encouragement.]
That Scotland and England are here “at loggerheads” is meant to be a joyous, wonderful thing. In the steamy jungle of Riddoch’s nationalism, where she is trying to separate apparently identical citizens into Hutus and Tutsis, the innate love for Europe that is supposedly shown by Scottish people offers the most helpful label. What a shame, therefore, that the UK’s departure from the EU has been met with mass indifference across Scotland, aside from amongst a rag-tag of mostly English middle-class students on “vigils.” What a shame that the low turnout in Scotland that had helped along the Brexit vote in 2016 is continued today in the general apathy about leaving. What a shame that the Europhilia that Riddoch is so desperate to conjure up is hardly popular culture.
For every thousand people who watch American television every day across Scotland, I doubt that there is a single one who can hold a conversation in French or German. From 2017-18, fewer than seven thousand students obtained a Higher – of any grade – in a modern foreign language (The National has more paid subscribers). We are all familiar with the US Congress and the Supreme Court and the FBI because they are mentioned constantly in American TV programmes. Yet even very educated Scots struggle to parse the EU’s institutions. Of course, “the most merciful thing in the EU, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.”
Being an actual Europhile might involve a working familiarity with Europe’s languages, culture, literature, cinema, and politics. Not the obscene prostitution of Beethoven and the soulless corporate flags and logo of the EU, as an illegible shorthand for European values, but an active knowledge of its people’s strikes and protests and suffering. For Riddoch to genuinely engage with Europe, though, would lead her to soon encounter the mass youth unemployment, the wrecked lives and squandered human potential, the economic fatalism and the emasculation of democracy, and the bloc’s implicit stress upon white sympathy, all of which are by-products of the very force that she believes will empower Scotland.