When the Glasgow School of Art went up in flames last week I thought, “That’s odd!” Actually I thought of the quotation on the contents page of Goldfinger, that says once is happenstance, twice is coincidence, but the third time it’s enemy action. In 2014 a major fire in the Art School destroyed the Mackintosh Library which was being meticulously reconstructed at considerable expense. And now this. Once the fires were extinguished I took a walk up Renfrew Street which is parallel to and immediately north of Sauchiehall Street. The block was cordoned off and there was a considerable police presence, but I got close enough to ascertain that there is nothing left of the building but a shell.
It’s all reminiscent of the destruction by fire in 1962 of Glasgow’s concert hall, the St Andrews Hall. After a boxing match, somebody threw away a cigarette without stubbing it out. The St Andrews Hall was situated less than a mile to the west of the Art School, just beyond Charing Cross and behind the Mitchell Library. Now all that remains of it is the very impressive façade on Granville Street. The first orchestral concert I ever attended as a child was a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony in St Andrews Hall, and I do have a reasonably clear recollection of the hall, which was much admired by musicians from all over the world. I don’t think a reconstruction of St Andrews Hall was ever seriously considered. Its destruction occurred more or less simultaneously with the ripping up of Glasgow’s tram lines, shortly followed by the ripping up of the UK’s rail system. In 1960, Ernest Marples, the Transport Minister in Harold Macmillan’s government, had commissioned Prof Sir Colin Buchanan et al to study the effect of the motor car on UK cities. The Buchanan Report, Traffic in Towns, was duly published. Prof Buchanan said with respect to the car, “We are nourishing at immense cost a monster of great potential destructiveness, and yet we love him dearly.” So at least some “strategic planners” envisaged the traffic congestion and air pollution that lay ahead, yet the concept of global warming from the production of greenhouse gases would largely have been unknown to them. I recall once championing the Buchanan Report in a schools’ debating event held in some anonymous municipal office in Glasgow city centre. As with many such reports, it was much lauded, and then buried without trace. For the next thirty years Glasgow’s city fathers concentrated on turning Glasgow into an asphalt jungle dominated by the motor car jammed solid on overpasses, underpasses, and huge freeways cutting a swathe through obliterated neighbourhoods. The one surviving facade of the St Andrews Hall is now the back entrance to the Mitchell, itself sitting on the lip of a roaring Grand Canyon through which the M8 runs south to the Kingston Bridge. With the recent devastations (there was another big fire in March), Sauchiehall Street is a ghost town; you can almost see the tumbleweed. At least at its east end sits the fine Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, home of the RSNO. It took Glasgow 28 years, following the demise of the St Andrews Hall, to build it.
There has been a lot of coverage about the Art School in the newspapers, and much correspondence expressing a mix of sorrow and anger. Questions are being asked. Why hadn’t a fire suppression system, a sprinkler system, been fitted? What was the significance of a series of loud bangs some local residents reported shortly before the outbreak of the fire? Why was the fire so ferocious (“like a volcano”, said the firefighters)? Those who might be in the know are keeping tight-lipped. Most people seem to favour another attempt at restoration, although some have ventured to suggest the money might be better spent on health and social care in Glasgow’s east end, and one journalist has levelled a scathing attack on the liberal élite of Glasgow’s west end for crying crocodile tears into their hazelnut lattés for their beloved “Mack” (I never heard the Art School being described as the “Mack”, before it went up in smoke). But I don’t think the attack on the gentrified west end is justified; I think the dismay is real.
I’ve never been inside the Art School although I know plenty of people who studied there. The Art Department was very strong in my school (in Glasgow’s west end). I had a sense of that, although I personally had absolutely no talent for art whatsoever. I didn’t envy the pupils who could design and paint and sculpt, but I did venerate them. I thought of them as being a little removed from the academic mainstream. They were very mature. They seemed to know their destiny from an early age, that they were going to the Art School, so they did enough in other subjects to secure their entry, all the while devoting themselves entirely to their art. They seemed to be given a great deal of latitude. Their relationship with the staff of the Art Department was not so much teacher and pupil, as master and apprentice. It is to the teachers’ credit that they didn’t simply ignore the rest of us, but did try to instil in us a sense of art appreciation, and curiosity. Glasgow is an arty place. The Art Galleries in Kelvingrove is a much loved, much visited venue. I often pop in and revisit the work of the Glasgow Boys and the Scottish Colourists. Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s Hill House in Helensburgh (currently under refurbishment) has an extraordinary interior, well worth a visit, although I admit I would not have cared to live in it. The Glasgow School of Art was Mackintosh’s masterpiece, and any time I walked past its entrance I had a sense of that, so all that exposure to art in my school days must have had an effect.
Isn’t it strange how an event of significance can occur in an area of your life you consider arid and devoid of interest? I would have dumped art at the earliest opportunity. Yet I knew the art teachers at school were all rather impressive figures. They never had any discipline problems in the classroom because they were respected. They carried with them an aura of worldliness, the sense that they enjoyed a rich life outwith the classroom. At least two of them were eminent in the art world. One of them we called Dirty Dick (because of his apparent predilection for the study of the nude). He was tall, slim, sophisticated, and grey. An éminence grise. He occupied a magnificent studio with huge windows on the top floor of the school’s Old Building. One day when I was about fourteen I got the summons to that grand studio. Dirty Dick wanted to see me. He had a small coterie of his serious art pupils with him. It turned out they needed a subject. I said, “Why me?”
“I need somebody who isn’t going to keel over.”
I was gratified. I thought, fair enough! So long as they don’t want me to take off my clothes.
And yet there was a sense of being stripped naked. I stood bathed in white light. The artists were merely shadows lurking behind easels. I had thought it would be easy to stand motionless for forty minutes but I could feel my features crumbling under the scrutiny.
“You see this young man.” Dirty Dick addressed his class in discursive tones. “He is clearly on a mission. He is on a journey. He is all curiosity and eagerness. Yet cautious, too. Haunted. Hunted perhaps. Can you capture it?”
How did he know that about me? It never occurred to me he might have been describing any adolescent boy. It was like reading your horoscope and saying, oh yes, that’s definitely me.
“What do you intend to do when you leave this august institution?” I noticed Dirty Dick was sketching me, too.
“Go to university.” That was a given. Taken as read. My father, who left school when he was 14, had the highest respect for higher education.
“And what will you read?”
“English I suppose.”
“What do you want to be?”
I hated that question. I’d already died of embarrassment owning up to my aspiration to write, and I vowed I’d never divulge that piece of information again. Yet I hated the schoolboy trick of hiding behind sullen silence. So I said, in a fit of boldness of the sort that would occasionally overtake me, “I haven’t a clue. What would you recommend?”
It was like consulting the oracle at Thebes. I wondered if I should elect Dirty Dick to be my mentor. If he could give me an answer that would show me the way, then I would appoint him.
There was quietness for the space of five minutes. Dirty Dick carried on sketching. Then he punctuated the silence.
“I think you need to rebel.”