If you had the chance, how would you build a nation? What qualities would you want your people and communities to have?
Courage, certainly. To decide in a split second that the right response, the human response to extreme adversity is to turn and face it, not run from it. Just as Jim Murphy MP did when he found himself passing the Clutha bar in Glasgow just as a terrible incident occurred. He could have stayed in his car, called 999 and waited for help to arrive. Instead, he and others, acted to save others, walking into an unknown situation, compelled to do so by some unbidden sense of duty and willing to set aside notions of risk in order to help people in need.
Also, prescience of mind. The ability to make a judgement call and make the right one. Thus, it was not enough for Edward Waltham to simply bless his luck at staying in a neighbouring bar to finish his pint, thereby not being in the Clutha when the police helicopter fell from the sky to land on the pub. He could have stayed away; instead, he put into action his years of training as a firefighter and helped lead the volunteer recovery effort. A human chain was formed to pass injured customers out of the bar to safety: it sounds like the kind of thing a retired firefighter might think to organise.
You’d want your people to be calm and collected in tough situations. Like Wesley Shearer who was one of the first to bring the incident to everyone’s attention, sharing his eyewitness account, posting a photo on twitter which alerted the world’s media to an extraordinary, unfolding situation. He shrugged off suggestions that he should expect media outlets to pay to use his image – there is no doubt that they should and he shouldn’t have to ask. But more than that, he was clear-headed enough to ensure that all who knew him, his mum and their friends knew they were safe. And all from a man aged only 21.
Loyalty would feature highly. In perhaps one of the most heartrending stories to emerge overnight, John McGarrigle was the man who mounted a faithful vigil at the edge of the cordon, staying put all night, poorly dressed for the elements but refusing to go home until he knew what happened to his dad. As he told one of the many reporters gathered alongside him, he’s my dad, where else would I be but here. Sadly, so, so sadly, it does not seem as though he will be rewarded with a happy reunion.
The ability to act quickly would be needed. The speed at which the emergency services responded was astonishing. The way the long rehearsed planning for a major incident kicked into action was impressive. There is no doubt this, coupled with the quick thinking of customers and bystanders, helped to save lives. Add to this mix a dogged determination to give just a little bit more, to stay the course until no more can be done and you have police, fire and rescue, and ambulance services to be very proud of.
You’d want the people employed in such services to have a deep and abiding sense of responsibility. People like Frank McKeown, not just a firefighter but also a part-time footballer with Stranraer FC. He was on shift at the tragic scene all night until 8am and then headed to Clyde to captain his side in a Scottish Cup tie. No one would have minded had he chosen to go home and recover after such an experience, but his sense of duty to both his vocations meant it probably didn’t even cross his mind to ask.
And you’d definitely seek stoicism. Bad enough that police officers were involved in a search and rescue mission for innocent civilians, but they were also searching, hoping to save though it was to be in vain, their colleagues in the helicopter. Then, there’s the health professionals, some of whom no doubt showed up at their hospitals as soon as they heard the news, not bothering to wait to be called out. As the rescue and recovery missions wind down, their work will continue largely unseen, to mend the physical, emotional and mental breaks in the survivors.
Solidarity would be key. Thus, not just a city in mourning but a country. And more besides, with police forces all over the UK and even, the world sending condolences to Police Scotland on the loss of three colleagues. Football matches holding impeccably observed minutes of silence across Scotland. The Holiday Inn Express across the road from the Clutha opening its doors as an emergency reception centre for survivors and also providing those working through the night with refreshments and somewhere to rest. Businesses too arriving unbidden with supplies today. Even politicians setting aside rivalries to unite in leading a city in condolence.
You’d want your nation to be imbued with a sense of the right thing to do. Not just all those incredible customers and bystanders who gave not a thought to their own safety to help others, but for others to engage in small acts of thoughtfulness too. Such as the STUC which at the earliest opportunity called off its annual St. Andrew’s Day anti-racism march in Glasgow as a mark of respect to all those affected by the tragedy, but also because the emergency services were already operating at full stretch. You’d want adversity to make comrades of us all and so it has proved.
But you’d also want resilience, a capacity in your people and their communities to get on with getting on. For time not to stand still but for people to pick up the pieces by carrying on with ordinary, everyday tasks, all the while mindful of the sorrow of others and thinking of how to respect their bereavement and grief.
We can and should after all, only gawp for so long. Those directly affected by such a tragedy need the support and resources that can only be generated by strong communities, which reach out with love and care when needed, but also provide for the practical necessities. We might all be sharing in stunned, terrible surprise right now but what bereaved families who have lost livelihoods as well as loved ones also need is material assistance to help them get through the dark months ahead. Strong communities with resilient, compassionate individuals know that and know how, when and where to show small kindnesses and also, to dig deep.
And you’d want your nation to know how to have a good time. Fun is a necessary part of all our psyches and finding moments of joy a key part of recovery. It would be compounding a tragedy if the young, energetic ska band playing in the Clutha felt they could not carry on. If the owner of the bar couldn’t recover and continue to provide a much valued service. If the Clutha itself, so long an institution on the banks of the Clyde and the birthplace of many romances, friendships and successful music careers, could not – in time – rise from these black ashes.
All these qualities and more you’d want in your nation. You’d want your people to realise how fleeting life is, how the most terrible of circumstances can snatch it away. And to realise what really matters in life and to redouble our efforts and energies to find it and rejoice in it. Black, white, gay, straight, Protestant, Catholic, Yes, No and everything in between. When adversity strikes, ultimately we are one and the same. Human beings first and foremost, members of the family of Scotland.
On this, the darkest of national days, we can share solace in knowing that our people, Glasgow’s and Scotland’s, have all these qualities in spades. We are a nation to be proud of, indeed.