The picture of Billy Connolly on the front of this week's paper says what most of us in Glasgow feel. There's a heaviness about him, as if grief is a physical presence he carries with him. He flew from New York to be here, wearing a jacket with the American eagle on the front, but his presence at the Clutha said that however far he has gone from his native city, it is always there inside him.
His journey was over 3000 miles and took nearly six and a half hours, and at the end of it he laid some flowers on the ground beside a pub he used to go to and walked away. You wondered had he come straight from the airport—he had the weary look of a man who might have done so—and where he had bought the flowers, a mixture of white roses, gerbera and unopened lilies, whose scent, so powerful in an enclosed space, would be lost in the open air beside the river, would be lost amongst the thousands of bunches of flowers already there.
But Billy Connolly's gesture will not be lost.
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 and Billy Connolly was a huge part of that for both of them. You wouldn't talk about either of them without mentioning Connolly and James Kelman and Gerry Rafferty. It would be perverse not to. 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. Billy 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 and as such, more valuable than any prize or medal could be.
I can't claim to have been a very close friend of John 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 last moments and hoping he died instantly, that he wasn't gasping for breath as he was entombed in dust. 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, the legendary Brendan McLaughlin. 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 and the prose that I liked, with its 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. No doubt it was something to do with where he lived, something to do with being a man in the west of Scotland, or maybe just a writer—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. When I wrote a story about someone he knew, a gangster who lived next door to me, it was enough for me that he said I'd got it right. His endorsement was as much an endorsement for me of the authenticity of the story as Billy Connolly's was for him.
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. What drew Billy Connolly to travel all those miles for all those hours, bringing him to a pub he probably hadn't been in for years? He hasn't been in the Scotia for years either, the other pub his name is inextricably linked with in this city. Neither pub can ever be to him what it was before—the people are different, he is different—but in coming, he reminded us of how strong the small ties are between us, the invisible bonds that bind us together as a species.
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, they were forming a human chain, they were tending as best they could to the wounded before the emergency services got there. Afterwards, a few young lads acted the goat for the television cameras as Labour MP Jim Murphy was talking with quiet dignity about his experiences of the crash, but for the most part people were selfless and self-effacing that night. As ever, the professionals behaved with dogged courage, but it was the ordinary people who didn't have to do any of it who behaved with something more, with grace. 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. Strange how little we think of the joy in that everyday word, enjoy. Could there be any more joyous sound than that of a ska band? But joy was taken away that night.
That night I saw the police helicopter hovering in the sky, as it often did—it always seemed to be in the East End though I'm sure people commit crimes in other parts of the city too. I suppose it made a noise, though from my house it was silent, simply a cluster of lights winking in the darkness above the orange glow of the city. I lost track of it after a while, didn't see it tumbling eerily to the ground, 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.