It’s the middle of the night in Garnethill, Glasgow. I’m all cried out.
Shortly before midnight. Joe woke me up as he pulled his jeans on, ready to find out more about the raging fire he could see from our kitchen window. I became aware of distant sirens mirroring the ones I could hear close by, the recognisable roar of fire engines up Buccleuch street took on greater significance. “I think it’s the Art School”.
There are not many things he could have said that would have lifted me out of bed more quickly. Two minutes later in the street, the drama was obvious from the moment we left the tenement close. A neighbour walked towards us and confirmed my fears. “Maybe it’s the Reid Building?” Vain hope.
The new Art School glass building couldn’t create such glorious sparkling ash, puffing above us in plumes of amber smoke. Only wood can do that.
I felt weak. I started to cry in shock but after a while I barely noticed the tears continuing as we circled Garnethill Park to discover conclusively what was on fire. I still had some small ember of hope in me in those short minutes, but the familiar pockets of people standing at street corners, their faces illuminated by the timber of the Mackintosh building brought back stark memories of four years ago. I knew. I had known even as I woke that the Mack was on fire. A tight knot had formed in my chest and it still hasn’t dissolved. It is the stress of looking at so much damage, squandered effort and pain, hearing the buzz of engines and the heavy pumping of water hoses. It also reminds me of the simple fact that I have been here before, and now I am watching the same hell happen over again.
I knew too that we knew nothing. Know nothing. We spent a section of tonight walking the perimeter of the Art School, as near as the barriers and police tape would allow. We heard the crash of glass blowing out onto the street – it was the sound of a pub recycling bottles at the end of the night. Dull explosions, timber falling, thudding, tinkling, smashing, it all added to the hopelessness of watching something I had already seen in a different light. This time it is worse. It’s not only that this time so many people have been working so hard on the restoration after the 2014 fire, but it’s literally worse. From our kitchen, the flames licked above the tree line in the park, the fire was on all floors at once, everywhere at once. We were so close to it we could feel the vague heat of it. We are living just moments from the largest fire I have ever seen – and I’ve seen big fires. After all, I’ve been here before.
Exhausted as I am tonight, I wanted to be with the building. I want to hold its hand and let it know we’re all there.
It’s irrational, but I wasn’t out to take photographs, I was out to be there. Be with it and with other people and to bear witness. I tried to tell myself “it’s a building, not a person. All the important things are here and they’re safe”, but it doesn’t make this fresh loss any easier to bear. On our procession, east to west, clockwise around the fire, I was able to see all angles of the unfolding inferno. My hope was that it would seem less chaotic and more salvageable from behind and below, but I haven’t learned my lesson from last time at all. The places I have stood so many times, the glazed Hen Run at the top of the building that I so recently visited with my hard hat and hi-vis is once again completely obliterated, barely any traces left. I saw no floor without vicious yellow flames dancing all over it. Large fragments of scaffolding fell onto Scott street, disgorging sparks as they made impact with the tarmac. All that work, all that way we’d come and we’re back to square minus one.
Snatches of conversations surrounded us, notably so much conjecture; arson, travelling fire, accident, demolition, death, evacuation, road closures, rain, slow responses, quick responses. We know nothing. We passed so many grieving students, worried neighbours and interested passers-by. Everyone has a read on the situation, everyone speaks with such false certainty about what is and what will happen. “They’ll tear it down this time.” “It’s dead, let it die.” “That’s not going out anytime soon.”
I know nothing. I know I am sad, but beyond that, nothing.
I feel a lot. I’m sorry for the GSA. They’ve had to deal with so much disruption and the loss of a truly special asset these past four years. I’m sorry for the generation of students that have never stepped inside the Mack. I’m sorry that perhaps there will be GSA students that never will – that is a tragedy. I’m sorry for the Garnethill Community who will be directly dealing with the aftermath and how it affects the area itself. I hope it will make us stronger and we’ll support each other. I hope we can foster better relationships to make this area wonderful, whatever happens in the days, weeks and years to come.