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John McGarrigle

Appreciation

Appreciation

On the weekend of the Clutha Vaults helicopter crash a London paper ran several articles criticising the way our media refract tragedy through celebrity, but, as usual, they failed to understand Scottish reality. Both the Clutha and its sister pub, the Scotia, define themselves through their customers and history.You wouldn't talk about either of them without mentioning Billy Connolly and James Kelman and Gerry Rafferty. Connolly is not really regarded as a celebrity in the normal sense at all here. He's not seen as someone elite and apart; he's seen as one of us.

I vividly remember John McGarrigle, who died in the crash, talking about a short story competition in the Scotia Bar. Connolly had heard some of the heats and had asked: "Did McGarrigle's story win? It should have." I don't think it did, but Connolly's endorsement was enough for McGarrigle. It was a token of its authenticity, more valuable than any prize or medal could be.

I can't claim to have been a very close friend of McGarrigle but I had a real soft spot for him. Since it happened, his death is with me all the time. I can't stop thinking about his son, who stood outside all night waiting for news that some instinct already told him was the worst.

When the current manager took over the Scotia Bar eight years ago, she revived the famous writers' group, which had finally petered out under the last owner.

John was one of the first wave of writers to come to the re-formed group, reading baroque stories of banshees in tower blocks and classical characters in Castlemilk. Apparently he was known originally as a poet, but it was prose he was focusing on then, with a surreal fusion of the gritty and the imaginative. So much so that I've become addicted to the banshee as a literary idea and wrote my own banshee story some time later.

McGarrigle always believed in telling it like it is and I'm going to too. He had sometimes been violent, sometimes caught up in the compelling world of Glasgow's gangsters. Sometimes criminals have the best stories. But underneath he was a gentle person who got angry for the right reasons.

He cared for his elderly mother and always asked about mine, when she was alive. Once he spent a whole day with a friend of mine who was researching a book, taking her all over the Cathkin Braes to show her a forgotten well. "I had the best of him," she said simply.

We relate in such profound and unknowable ways to each other as human beings. I will miss John though I didn't see him often.

People have been making big claims about how the behaviour of people after the crash said something about the nature of Glaswegians, the nature of Scots.

People were trying to return to the pub to help those trapped inside, forming a human chain, tending as best they could to the wounded before the emergency services got there. Is it really just Glaswegians or Scots who do such things? I preferred the man who said the people behaved with humanity.

Yet there is no doubt all of us in Glasgow are connected in mourning. Even for those of us who never went to the Clutha, there's something very poignant about this tragedy, that people were out having fun, enjoying themselves, when disaster struck.

That night I saw the police helicopter hovering in the sky, as it often did. From my house it was silent, simply a cluster of lights winking in the darkness.

I lost track of it after a while, didn't see it tumbling, didn't hear any loud bang. There was no harbinger of death that night, no banshee predicting the horror that was to come. But if McGarrigle was here, I think he might have written one in.

Contextual targeting label: 
Transport Tragedy

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