April Fool’s Day is a joke. It seems the only people who even care about the whole sorry charade are those working in the media, and even then they do so with a listlessness and lack of conviction. This year, however, was one of the worst I remember. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the majority of stories this year took aim at the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, with everyone from The Daily Mail to The Guardian joining in on the ‘fun’. What’s so sad about this, however, is that it is demonstrative of the lack of genuine debate in England about this huge, important thing which is looming and which could bring with it massive changes in identity, economy and government. The plethora of April Fool’s stories about the notion of Scottish independence highlight the extent to which our media view it as just that: a joke.
The truth is that we in England are scared of what might happen if the people of Scotland vote for independence on 18th September. We’re scared of having to reconfigure our own national identity which, currently, is largely self-described as “British”. We’re scared of a country we’ve loomed over for so long suddenly having nation-status quite separate from ‘the UK’. We’re scared of what might happen to our economy. So we bat it off with that well-used ‘British’ defence mechanism: humour.
Two things I’ve seen in the past month have thrown all this into relief and made me think that maybe, just maybe, we can have a serious debate in England after all.
The first was Jonathan Glazer’s film Under The Skin, with Scarlett Johansson starring as a predatory alien who roams the streets of Glasgow luring men into her van so she can take them home and submerge them in black goo. The second was the Royal Court and National Theatre of Scotland’s co-production of Let The Right One In, which has just transferred to the Apollo Theatre after it’s run in Sloane Square last year and tells the story of a teenager who falls in love with a vampire (though she insists that’s not what she is).
Neither of these things are ‘about’ Scottish independence in any tangible, meaningful way. Indeed, except for a brief mention of the vote on the radio in Glazer’s film, the subject isn’t even brought up. They are, however, both deeply and unashamedly ‘Scottish’.
Now, I realise I have to be careful here. The directors and writers of both are in fact English and as far as I can tell few of the creatives involved in film and play actually hail from Scotland. Indeed, the novel and film of Let The Right One In are both Swedish for God’s sake. Who am I, an Englishman, to decide what is and isn’t ‘Scottish’?
Bear with me.
I’d first like to point out that I don’t actually think either Glazer’s film or Thorne’s play necessarily ask any deep-and-meaningful questions about Scottish independence. If you want to, of course, you can read them as such without too much effort, and perhaps that’s what the writers of both scripts intended. In Under The Skin, a woman speaking with an English accent drives round a Scottish city to find lonely men who she can leech off, confining them to a pool of slime before their bodies collapse and disappear. In Let The Right One In, another female alien being (dependent on an older man) lives off the blood of men and women speaking with a Scottish accent, as one boy falls in love with her and isn’t sure he can live without her. So yeah, you can probably find the metaphors there if you want.
But I think the way they resonated with me was about more than simply offering metaphorical allusions to dependence and independence. Instead, they offered me, as an Englishman, a chance to see what might here be termed ‘the Other’ in a context where that group isn’t ordinarily represented.
First, let’s think about imagery, location and landscape, which are important to both play and film. Christine Jones’ design for Let The Right One In places dozens of thin, towering tree-trunks on a stage covered in fake snow, and could be either Scandinavia or Scotland (it’s definitely not England). Similarly, dozens of shots in Under The Skin focus on the rolling hills and deep forests of Scotland, locating Johansson’s alien firmly in the context of a landscape which has its own life and character. Even if the images evoked by each aren’t necessarily uniquely Scottish, they are defiantly un-English.
Then, perhaps most importantly, is the way these characters sound. In both, Scottish accents are constantly in earshot. Due to Glazer’s medium, he can afford to have his ‘actors’ speaking in slightly thicker, broader accents to which you sometimes have to listen intently in order to understand the text. Indeed, the sound design of the film isolates certain noises by playing voices and sounds against a backdrop of either the hum of an engine or deep, penetrating silence, thus making us acutely aware of the way in which individuals speak. And though the words in Let The Right One In are perhaps easier to pick up due to its theatrical context, we are unmistakably confronted with Scottish voices. This is in no way insignificant; in England, the only Scottish voice we hear discussing independence on any regular basis is that of Alex Salmond, whilst the rest of the commentary is largely given to those speaking ‘the Queen’s English’, meaning that even to spend a couple of hours hearing only Scottish accents shifts our perception and sharpens our hearing in no small way.
It’s perhaps a cliché to suggest that ignorance breeds prejudice, but there’s no doubt a kernel of truth in suggesting as much. We, inevitably, are often weary of that of which we are unaware. In this regard, then, Under the Skin and Let The Right One In are the kind of work we need to see more of in the run up to the independence referendum; that is, work which reminds us of the differences between Scotland and England, of the unique cultures of each, and of the need to open up to the possibility of being less selfish in our perception of national identity.