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Liz Lochhead: I wrote my first poem in the Art School library. I can’t believe it’s gone again and we still don’t know why

Liz Lochhead (Pic: Andrew Cawley)
Liz Lochhead (Pic: Andrew Cawley)

Liz Lochhead studied in the Mackintosh building. She wrote her first poems in its famous library. She loved it and was devastated when it was lost, once then twice.

Today, the acclaimed writer, one of the UK’s leading poets and a former Makar, still feels that devastation but disbelief too, that four years after the second, most damaging fire there are still no answers as to how one of Scotland’s most important buildings was razed.

A long-awaited and long-delayed Scottish Fire and Rescue Service (SFRS) report into the 2018 blaze was released 12 days ago but admitted the cause of the fire, which happened as a £35 million renovation neared completion after another blaze four years earlier, will remain unknown.

© Getty Images
Forensic experts sift through the ashes of the library after the first blaze at Glasgow School of Art in 2014

Lochhead, interviewed in The Sunday Post’s P.S. magazine, said: “I can’t believe it has been four years. We have been waiting so long to find out the cause of the fire that they are not able to give it because it was so devastating this time and it has destroyed all the evidence.

“The building was guarded 24 hours because the rebuild was very far on and the library was nearly finished. Were the security guards actually there? Why did the fire take such a hold? We don’t know. Certainly, there should have been sprinklers in place but Glasgow School of Art says that system hadn’t been turned on yet.

“There are still questions to be answered, even though forensic evidence has gone in the fire.”

Reliving the moment news of a second blaze was broken to her by a former art school lecturer, artist Leon Morrocco, she said: “Leon texted me from abroad and said the GSA was on fire. I thought, ‘why is a text that is a four-year-old story appearing on my phone’. And then the BBC called me.”

It was then she realised the building was on fire for a second time. “The next thing, I am on the Today programme crying and saying Glasgow School of Art has gone again and I’m devastated,” she added.

“We understand there is no forensic evidence but we want to know why that fire was allowed to take hold when it was supposed to be guarded 24/7. The fire was allegedly noticed by a passer-by. But it was a very flammable building. It’s amazing it’s lasted.

“It’s amazing I was there for Mackintosh’s centenary and that I wrote my first poems in its library. That’s where I started writing, escaping from learning Roman lettering which I didn’t like.

“We are all devastated this report has come back with so little. Apparently, the restoration of the library was immaculate. It was rebuilt with the same methods Mackintosh used. What led to it being able to go on fire? It is awful we don’t know.”

© Alamy Stock Photo
The stunning interior where Liz Lochhead wrote her first poems in all its glory

Lochhead, who studied at Glasgow School of Art from 1967 to 1970, told The Sunday Post that, while she had not formed an opinion on the future of the iconic building, she was aware that rather than a rebuild, some would prefer it to be taken out of working use and become a memorial to the life and legacy of Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

The writer – whose acclaimed debut collection Memo For Spring is soon to be celebrated in a special 50th anniversary edition – said of the art school: “It is a shell now and covered in scaffolding. A lot of people think it shouldn’t be rebuilt.

“I don’t have an opinion. But some think, after burning twice like that, the outside should be made secure, restored and left like a Rachel Whiteread sculpture; a memorial to a building.”

I started to cry: Artists tell of despair watching Glasgow School of Art burn

The SFRS report concluded the cause of the blaze could not be established because of the extent of the damage and destruction of physical evidence. It recorded the cause as undetermined. Wilful fire-raising, electrical failure or accidental ignition linked to the ongoing work to restore the building after a previous fire in 2014 could not be ruled out, the report found.

Following the publication of the report, Professor Penny Macbeth, GSA director, and Kristen Bennie, interim chairwoman of the GSA board of governors, said: “While the SFRS Fire Investigation Report is detailed and comprehensive, we share the frustration many will feel that the exact cause of the fire has not been identified.

“Taking time to study and consider the report thoroughly, in particular the recommendations, we will now undertake and share a lessons learned exercise on all aspects of the restoration to inform future construction projects.”

They also said they were committed to a faithful reinstatement of the Mackintosh building.