Two thirds of the way through the Summer Reading Challenge and I’m halfway through the books. Less than halfway, if you include the three books I am supposed to choose from other people’s reading lists. Oh well. I’m enjoying it, and I’m not going to rush the reading.
The first two books I read were Andy Warhol’s America (1985; Penguin Classics, 2011) and The Kingdom to Come: Thoughts on the Union before and after the Scottish referendum by Peter Hennessy (Haus Publishing, 2015). Two very different texts but what they had in common was an overt subjectivity in their musings on their respective nations. The Warhol book is illustrated throughout with his black and white photos of people (usually celebrities) and places. I find it difficult not to see Warhol as prophetic – his descriptions of a media-driven reality even more accurate in 2015 than 1985:
“… just look at all the big American magazines, where the exciting things are only the newest things: the book that was just published, the movies that just opened, the latest records… It’s exactly the same story with news about people, especially famous people. There’s always a little sad story, the hard, brutal struggle to the top. There’s a tiny bit about hopes for the future, where the celebrity talks about the wonderful things they’re going to try to do next. But the real news, the big thing… is the Now: What they’re doing right now, where they live right now, who they love right now. And as soon as their now gets summed up we move immediately on to another person… and another now.” (p.27)
His reputation is for the surfaces of things; an emptiness behind the image. But this focus on appearance leads to some poignant comments regarding the homeless and increasing isolation from mainstream society precisely because of a deteriorating appearance – lack of access to baths or showers, clean clothes. For someone so concerned with celebrity, in America Warhol shows demonstrated an empathy for the underdog, the marginalised, and the book ends with a comment against the homogenization, especially racial homogenization, of what constitutes the idea of America: “this kind of thinking is exactly the opposite of what America means. We all came here from somewhere else, and everybody who wants to live in America and obey the law should be able to come too, and there’s no such thing as being more or less American, just American.” (p. 223)
The Kingdom to Come is very much a book of the now, so much so that it is already out of date, having been published early in 2015, before the May General Election. It’s an ‘of-the-moment’ personal record of the time leading up to, and just after, the Scottish Referendum, from a person strongly in favour of keeping the Union. Personally, my openly voiced opinion before the Referendum was that if I were Scottish and I had the vote, I would vote for Independence. I think, on balance, I still retain that view, but after reading Peter Hennessy’s book, I can see that perhaps it’s because I have a romantic idea of what an Independent Scotland would mean. This is largely because it felt to me that Hennessy’s view of what the Union means is romantic, and his biases made me more aware of my biases. At least this book shows that Hennessy always took the question seriously; I was amazed by the complacency and lack of interest the main parties showed regarding the Referendum until almost the last moment, when they became desperate, and was very interested to find out that there was (deliberately) no contingency plan from the Government in the event of a Yes vote. Hennessy comments, and I have to agree:
“…the decision amounted to a dereliction of duty. One of the prime purposes of government is to plan for the possible and to scan the horizon for the unlikely. But for the very configuration of the kingdom as we have known it since 1707? Keep out please. Don’t touch it. Extraordinary.” (p.64)
The very last section of this brief book (the author refers to it as a ‘pamphlet’ but it’s got a spine, so I’ve decided – it’s a book) is called ‘Maps of the mind’, no more than two pages. Quoting an American commentator, he notes “public opinion is an accumulation of the pictures individuals carry in their heads. Will there be a union-sized and UK-shaped map in the minds of the young men and women… Will the Union be part of the coming generation’s spirit of place?” (p.129) After listing some factors that ‘bind the UK’ he concedes: “The Union is no longer a fixed map in the collective UK mind” (p.130). It made me wonder what picture I carry in my head, and I must admit, it includes Scotland. But somehow I don’t see an Independent Scotland as ‘losing’ Scotland. No doubt background as well as generational differences come into play. I’m British – there’s nowhere else I belong – but I am also the child of immigrants, and so my relation to Britain is not one of uncomplicated belonging (although perhaps this is mythical, and no-one has an uncomplicated sense of belonging). Hennessy does talk about the comparison between Scottish Independence and that of the nations of the former British Empire – those were outliers, Scotland is part of the Union’s flesh, in his terms. But it may be that for those in Scotland who want Independence, it is much closer to coming out from under an Empire’s rule than a rending of family flesh? I’m glad to have read The Kingdom to Come; I’d recently read another title in the publisher’s series ‘Haus Curiosities’, Commons and Lords by Emma Crewe (Haus publishing, 2015), which I found immensely interesting; I will probably end up reading others in the same series too.