IT was the saddest of Glaswegian sights: the statue of the Duke of Wellington, traffic cone on his head, bathed in blue light from emergency vehicles, as he looked down from his horse on to Queen Street where paramedics fought to save lives.
Usually a symbol of the gallus Glasgow spirit, the statue now represented the tragedy of a city struck an awful blow in the midst of Christmas revelry. Just a street or two away, unaware of the unfolding horror, shoppers continued to hunt for gifts and a busker played Jingle Bells on the bagpipes.
Slowly, though, word spread. Faces grew pale and pained. Crowds began to move towards the police tape, staring helplessly down closed-off streets, and a thought arose, so clear you could almost see it etched into the rainclouds. Not again.
The story of the Clutha helicopter crash, last Christmas, as reported on TV and in the newspapers, conformed quickly to a particular narrative: this had happened to Glasgow, a wound to the soul of the city; the courage displayed, people rushing into the pub to bring the injured out, was seen as a particularly Glaswegian sort of tender heroism.
And so it is again now. In the face of terror and seeming danger, people ran towards the scene. Those with first aid training tended and comforted the injured. Coats were removed and laid tenderly over the faces of those for whom it was already too late.
“Glasgow is a broken-hearted city,” said Nicola Sturgeon yesterday morning, but she praised, too, the “spirit of Glasgow” and noted that she was proud to be able to call it her home. So are we all. This story of Glasgow which we like to tell ourselves – a story of selflessness, endurance, a sense of community forged by shared hardship – brings us pride in the good times, notably during the Commonwealth Games, and offers consolation during the bad. We can thole a great deal because we are, none of us, alone.
People Make Glasgow – so says the sign looming over George Square – and it is also true that Glasgow makes people. Call this sentimentality if you wish, but this is a city which, though shadowed and shamed by poverty and violence, also breeds kindness, compassion and comradeship.
You can feel it in the pubs, the churches, streets and schemes. In the generosity of the café staff who gave hot drinks to survivors and witnesses and helped them to wash off the blood.
You can read it in the tweets of taxi driver David Farrell who offered to take anyone caught up in the crash home or to hospital for free. In the actions of the emergency services, many of them, no doubt, with difficult memories of the Clutha. Glasgow is heartbroken, yes, but what a heart.
That this tragedy took place by George Square gives it both a particular dreadfulness – the density of the crowds would have been greater there than anywhere else in the city – and a deeper resonance.
The square is Glasgow’s living room. It is an amphitheatre of memory, the scene of fist fights and first kisses, picnic lunches and carry-oots, protests and celebrations; newborn love and Auld Lang Syne. From the Red Clydesiders of 1919 to the Games Clydesiders of this summer to the Yes rallies of the referendum, it has always been about the masses.
Those 13 statues, high on their plinths, have been silent witnesses to a century and more of joy and fear. They have seen the best of Glasgow, the power of its people, and the awful sights and sounds of Monday will, in time, pass into that long history. But not yet. Not while it hurts like this. It was strange to see the Christmas lights, those bright electric bells, continuing to toll above the square as the rescue services did their work. The gaudy neon angel at the corner of Queen Street and West George Street became an unlikely guardian of the city’s best hopes.
The council had offered to turn the lights off as a mark of respect, but police asked for them to be left on for a few hours in order to aid their efforts as daylight gave way to dusk. The sight jarred a little, but it did not feel in poor taste. Rather, it spoke of Glasgow’s resilience, the way that darkness is never absolute here.
All over the city, in solidarity, people switched off the lights of their Christmas trees and lit candles instead. You could see these in windows as you walked the streets – each dim glow a kind of prayer.
We didn’t know their names then. Jack, Lorraine and Erin. Gillian, Stephenie, Jacqueline. But we felt their loss. We felt for the families who will have to go through Christmas and for the rest of their lives without these people they love. You could feel that in Glasgow on Monday and you can feel it still – a collective sorrow, a great racking city-wide sob. There is a power in that, though. It’s not true to say that pain shared is pain lessened, indeed in some ways it is more intense for being so widespread, but we know that when we come through this we will do so together. And we will come through it. And we will give whatever support we can to those affected directly. For this is a city of survivors.
Glasgow is a passionate city, people often say. The passion they’re talking about is usually to do with sport or politics. But Glaswegians also know all about passion in its older sense, meaning suffering. Glasgow has done its share of suffering – during the war, in disasters, at times of want – but the beauty of the place is that the people are always ready with the kind word, the arm round the shoulder.
We are, too often, visited by these calamities. The football crush. The factory explosion. The fallen helicopter. And now this. Yet we cope with these things as a family, a tribe. By Monday evening, as night fell, there were already hundreds of bunches of flowers laid in Royal Exchange Square, at the side of the art gallery, and more people were arriving all the time, bending in silence to lay their tribute, as the sombre crowds looked on.
One message, near the back, stood out. It was signed not by any individual name but by “The Spirit Of Glasgow” and was typical of the city in its gentle defiance – part hug, part clenched fist. “Even in our darkest moments,” it read, “we stand united.”