The loss of The Arches as a site for the eruption of the anarchic creative collaborations of a generation through all forms imaginable was a shock. Did the forces of conservatism conspire to finish it off in 2015… or maybe its work there was done and the spirit needed to move on anyway? Neil Cooper’s review of Kirstin Innes and David Bratchpiece’s history of the venue is epic and elegaic: it deserves all that and even more …
The Arches began and ended with civic failure. Neither was the fault of those in charge of the Glasgow city centre arts lab that existed between 1991 and 2015 in a cavernous interior beside Central Station that was both physically and metaphorically underground. The first failure was down to what had gone immediately before, and which accidentally birthed The Arches on a wing-and-a-prayer idea founded on punk-hippy idealism. The final act of civic vandalism that forced what by now had become one of the most important creative spaces in the world to close its doors was down to even worse external forces. Some might call it capitalism.
In the quarter of a century in-between, The Arches captured hearts, minds, souls and imaginations. It changed lives, perceptions and, in at least one theatre show, clothes. Its messy mash-up of ‘lets-put-on-the-show-right-here’ recklessness and hedonistic excess was the most exploratory of adventures for both artists and audiences, who were often the same people, anyway. For those who were part of it, The Arches was the most delirious of romances that played cupid to all kinds of extraordinary experiences, before the plug was oh-so-cruelly pulled.
The anarchic rush of such a ride dances off every page of David Bratchpiece and Kirstin Innes’ new book, Brickwork: A Biography of The Arches. Bratchpiece and Innes’ oral history captures the euphoric highs and heartbreaking lows of the venue’s story in all their messy glory.
The voices contained within the book chart the rise and fall of an idea born out of a botched European City of Culture 1990 historical exhibition called Glasgow’s Glasgow. The event’s name had been changed after someone eventually spotted how the acronym for the event’s original title of The Words and the Stones might give the wrong idea. Then again, if they’d stuck with it, who knows how things might have turned out? As it was, housed in the dank cavernous space that would become The Arches, Glasgow’s Glasgow haemorrhaged a small fortune of public money, with its only saving grace a series of cobbled together short sketches presented intermittently by a bunch of actors.
At the centre of these dramatic interventions was Andy Arnold, an anarchic ringmaster with roots in punky DIY theatre who knew how to get things done, even if he didn’t necessarily know what he was getting himself into. Arnold had previously worked at the community based Theatre Workshop in Edinburgh, and at the Mandela Theatre space that formed part of the Gateway Exchange, also in Edinburgh. The latter was a centre set up by reformed gangster Jimmy Boyle, who used his experience in Barlinnie Prison’s Special Unit to set up a centre for ex prisoners and recovering addicts to find their own salvation through art.
Arnold channelled all this ground level experience into what became The Arches, creating a theatre company that performed twentieth century classic plays by Harold Pinter, Samuel Beckett, David Mamet and others in a rough and ready style. He would later explore the atmospheric nooks and crannies of the building with promenade takes on Fritz Lang’s film, Metropolis, Dante’s Inferno and Beowulf, as well as more intimate one-to-one affairs such as I Confess and Spend a Penny.
Alongside this, The Arches ran its own club night called Café Loco, and developed into a new kind of Fun Palace. This was done initially on the back of the success of Alien War, a sci-fi styled interactive attraction that had thrill-seekers of all ages queuing round the block.
As The Arches slowly but surely professionalised, forward thinking clubs such as Slam and Love Boutique effectively underwrote the theatre programme and paid the wages. This self-support system only required a relatively small amount of year-round public funding invested in it, and its public-private set-up became a model of grassroots entrepreneurship that enabled an autonomy the envy of other arts organisations.
Artists from Leigh Bowery to Lily Savage appeared at The Arches, as did a fledgling Daft Punk, as recounted by those behind Slam in a 2021 BBC radio documentary, Daft Punk is Staying at My House, My House, scripted by Innes.
The Arches’ pungent interior and over-riding unpredictability lingered beyond the venue’s physical and organisational makeovers, remaining at its heart until the end. More than one contributor to Brickwork cites Arnold’s maxim of having the right to fail, a philosophy drawn by Arnold from Samuel Beckett’s line in his late prose work, Worstward Ho!, of being able to ‘fail better’.
This spirit was as far removed from the so-called ‘centres of excellence’ approach being pushed at the time by a free enterprise led arts establishment as could be. Nor did Arnold’s philosophy fit with the aspirations reflected in the chrome-tinted wine bar lined facade of Glasgow’s own glossy rebrand.
As a more ad hoc alternative, while The Arches benefitted from the city’s attempt at cultural reinvention, its thrown together feel was far more in keeping with the dissenting voices questioning the wisdom of such a makeover, including the Workers City collective. Either way, The Arches rode a wave of never-had-it-so-good civic ambition in Glasgow that saw the venue’s programme thrive at all levels. If there was ever what we would now call a safe space to fail better, The Arches was the place to be. As for the home-grown hedonism it fostered, see the reference to The Arches in Arab Strap’s debut single, The First Big Weekend (1996).
The mutually beneficial arrangement between clubs and arts programmes continued after Jackie Wylie took over from Arnold as artistic director in 2008. Under Wylie’s tenure, The Arches developed a new generation of boundary busting artists alongside international work from Germany based Russian physical theatre company, Derevo, and, from New York, The T.E.A.M. (Theatre of the Emerging American Moment).
As The Arches performance programme became more intimate, club culture had moved in the opposite direction to become a corporate sized monster. With The Arches needing more money through the door to continue, the age-old contradictions between art and commerce were becoming increasingly apparent. As outlined in Brickwork, the tragic death of a young clubber after falling ill while in the venue arguably made closure inevitable.
In With the Bricks
As befits a venue founded on a drama, comedy and tragedy are the flipsides of Brickwork. Comedian Bratchpiece and novelist Innes both worked at the venue, and their in-with-the-bricks first hand experience of the place comes across in the book’s gossipy tone, with each memory punchlined like a hungover anecdote from the night before.
There’s the one about the team from Alien War cold calling 20th Century Fox, and how the event was too scary for Michael Jackson’s bodyguards, who were checking it out for their boss. There was the swarm of bluebottles that hatched from nests contained in the ton of earth used for a production of The Crucible. Or how about Arnold booking his hippy student heroes Canned Heat to do a show at The Arches, just because he could, and so what if no one came. And that time during a major refurb when a mechanical digger with the keys left in was parked up where the stage was meant to be for that night’s club.
At times memories contradict each other. Interviews break into chats – between Orde Meikle and Stuart McMillan from Slam, or between Ricky Magowan and Julie McEwan from Colours. There are moments of absurdism that read like the product of a sketch show set in Arnold and Wylie’s heads. This is the case when Bratchpiece recalls how one of his duties during the National Review of Live Art, which had taken up residence in The Arches, was guarding a jelly made out of human tissue.
Then there was the afternoon Glasgow Licensing Board told the staff of The Arches they couldn’t have a late licence for Slam – applied for on a weekly basis at the time – unless they had a proper dance floor. The move looked like a calculated ploy to close the event down. By teatime, however, all hands were very much on deck putting down a hastily purchased set of 8-foot x 4-foot wooden sheets. When building control showed up at 11pm, a brand new wooden floor was in place, and Slam went ahead as planned.
While Arnold calls this achievement a product of “that never say die thing”, the incident was a signifier of things to come, with those running The Arches having to deal with police raids and licensing board inflicted curfews. There are hints too of jealousy from the bigger players in city centre club land who weren’t best pleased with the charmingly shambolic success story of this messy independent.
This points to more serious things afoot beyond the shits-and-giggles chattiness knitted together with love by Bratchpiece and Innes. Brickwork tells a story of how culture is created, not from top-down cultural strategies, but from the bottom up in an anything goes speak-easy environment. Until, that is, everyone wants a piece of it, and it becomes a victim of its own success enough to accelerate its downfall.
Brickwork is also about how things were done in what reads like another age, when signing on the dole was part of an artistic rites of passage, and cash in hand profit-shares were the only way of doing anything interesting.
Actor Colin McCredie is quoted in Brickwork regarding his tenure as one of the Café Loco ensemble long before he became a star of TV cop show, Taggart. Originally talking in the List magazine in 2006, McCredie reveals his lucrative booty for the gig as being “twenty quid, two places on the guest list and a free pint”.
As the first general manager of The Arches, Lori Frater, observes, “If we had all the things in place now – minimum hours, minimum wage – The Arches would not have been there, it just wouldn’t have. It would never even have got off the ground. It was just people doing it for the absolute love of it.”
The book’s initial frivolous tone is undercut as well by a pathos regarding those who didn’t live to tell the tale, be they staff, performers or clubbers. There is a sense of loss too of The Arches itself, both as a building and as the arbiter of all that unfettered energy over its almost quarter century lifespan. In this sense, Brickwork is a kind of book of remembrance, a memorial of times past to help mourn the loss. Beyond any mythology Brickwork fuels through its affirmation and celebration of the life lived within The Arches, its publication is also part of the grieving process.
Bricks and Mortar
My own experiences of The Arches are relatively limited. Geography, other night-time commitments, and being too old to large it meant I didn’t spend as much time there as I probably should have done. As with everyone else who passed through its initially seedy looking doors, however, there were moments.
Café Loco (just the once), the 1996 NME tour with The Cardigans, and Bill Drummond and Mark Manning reading from their book, Bad Wisdom, the same year, from – I think – a couple of armchairs, all left their mark.
There was the fire in the building next door that caused the show by New York No Wave composer Rhys Chatham to be cancelled, but for some reason hanging round the Arches bar for ages, anyway. Jah Wobble played with a supergroup of sorts called Solaris, who also featured bass player Bill Laswell, pianist Harold Budd, former Can drummer Jaki Lieibezeit and cornet player Graham Haynes.
In 2004, Pere Ubu played a live soundtrack to 1950s sci-fi flick, It Came From Outer Space. Another night, the last but one (or was it two?) incarnation of The Fall trooped onstage another night looking like naughty schoolboys who’d just been given a right telling off. Which they probably had. Peaches played with such ferocity that the audience seemed to move backwards rather than forwards. Then there was the play I’d been told would last an hour that went on just shy of two, only for the front of house member to announce that this was just the interval.
The appearance of Instal was a significant moment. The annual festival of experimental music co-founded in 2001 by Barry Esson arrived at a time when barely any experimental music festivals existed in the way they do now, and it’s fair to say Instal broke some kind of mould. Expanding from its initial one day event to two, then three, Instal evolved into something different every year. Looking back at the extraordinary range of artists that appeared over the festival’s decade long existence – Philip Jeck, Pauline Oliveros. Maryanne Amacher, Gustav Metzger are just a few – it’s clear now just how much it opened things up for experimental music, sound and art in Scotland.
Also during that period, Adrienne’s Dirty Laundry Experience (2003) saw performance artist Adrian Howells host an audience of about five maximum while our washing we’d been asked to bring span in the machine behind him. We were staying on to see Chicks on Speed or someone who were also playing The Arches that night, and Adrian said it was okay to collect our laundry later. I forgot all about it, and had to pick it up the next day.
Walking down Midland Street, I heard a voice call my name. It was Adrian, who I’d only met the first time at his performance the day before, but who had remembered me as he remembered everyone. He took me through to the room where he was performing, and where our freshly washed and immaculately folded washing was waiting. From the show to handing me my laundry back, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any performer behave towards an audience with such care. Howells became an integral part of the Arches story prior to his passing in 2014, and is rightly hailed as such in Brickwork.
Then there was The Darktown Cakewalk: Celebrated from the House of FAME (2010), a 13-hour performance epic by Linder, who I knew from her band Ludus and her record sleeve artwork for Buzzcocks and Magazine. The epic performance featured a beauty pageant, witch trials, Northern Soul dancers, a live band and cake, as a king, queen, beauty queen, star and muse cavorted their way through assorted power plays. Other than having to nip out to Argyle Street at one point for a quick bag of chips, I somehow managed to see most of this once in a lifetime extravaganza.
I remember interviewing Jackie Wylie in the restaurant bit of the café, as far away from the hubbub of the bar as we could get, and having to keep on turning the tape recorder off because she was being so fantastically off-the-record indiscreet.
Probably my most Arches moment in the way the venue was sometimes perceived was taking part in The Fire Burns and Burns (2011), presented by Peter McMaster and Nic Green, Audience members were required to sit naked in a tent sharing secrets with strangers we’d met less than half an hour earlier. Nudity was involved in other shows too. Mercifully, I wasn’t involved.
Crossing the Tracks
When Brickwork flags up how it was “all allowed” at The Arches, its presumed libertine spirit and sense of freedom nods to American novelist William S. Burroughs’ oft quoted line that ‘Nothing is true, everything is permitted’. The line also forms the title of a biography of English born writer Brion Gysin, who introduced Burroughs to the cut-up method of writing in 1959 when they were both staying at the Beat Hotel in Paris.
As the name suggests, cut-ups are a form of experimental writing that collages different texts together to create a new series of meanings and associations by way of what Burroughs and Gysin called the third mind. Burroughs used the technique in his 1960 novel, The Naked Lunch, and other books.
One might argue that The Arches was a giant physical cut-up, in which the different activities it hosted – theatre, gigs, art, clubs – became a living collage that created a whole imbued with a much bigger meaning than its individual parts. This went against the compartmentalisation of how things are generally run in the formal arts world, where any notions of ‘multi-media’ happenings or ‘cross-artform’ projects are looked on with suspicion.
Relatively early on in The Arches life, a magazine interview with Arnold saw him quote a major concert promoter in Scotland who said the venue needed to decide what it wanted to be, a theatre, a concert hall or something else. As Arnold said then, he was still deciding. This was the case up until it closed, and was one of its main strengths.
More than once in Brickwork Wylie talks of an “alchemy of the impossible” that existed at The Arches to try and explain what went on there. Other contributors highlight the space it opened up for fledgling artists to try things out, and how there isn’t really anywhere else like it anymore.
Whether that is the case or not, The Arches nevertheless democratised something increasingly only open to posh kids showing off on the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Call it accessibility or diversity if that sort of tick-box-speak means anything, but The Arches opened the door for both artists and audiences curious enough to explore worlds they might not otherwise have been able to access.
The idea of ‘It’s all allowed’ has other resonances. In Brickwork, contributors talk about it in terms of The Arches’ increasingly transgressive performance programme, but also in terms of it as a utopian clarion call which in retrospect was clearly never going to last. Probably the best example of how an open door policy can backfire is when Bratchpiece talks about a student club night where he had to break up a fight between a Teenage Ninja Turtle and a Tellytubby.
Arnold talks earlier of how, for all its plus points – heating, proper ventilation, and other stuff he points out that architects trying to design theatres normally ‘haven’t got a clue’ about – something seemed to have been lost after the shiny new café bar was built. He can’t put his finger on what it was, but he seems to be referencing some primal intangible spirit that exists in all rough spaces, and which can disappear once they’re done up. Arnold doesn’t name it, but he’s also talking about gentrification, which continues to sap the soul out of Glasgow and any other city it touches.
Just Another Brick in the Wall
Now the dust of The Arches’ collapse has been blown away in Brickwork, it’s clear that the venue was the latest in a long line of casualties sired in a spirit of DIY self-determination, only to fall prey to forces beyond their control.
The rise and fall of The Arches as an entity in part reflects ideas posited by artist Jeremy Deller in his film, Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992 (2019). Talking to a group of secondary school students, Deller talks about how industrial spaces that were once alive to working communities were reclaimed by a generation who had grown up with unemployment. In the era he documents, raves were a kind of wake, or “a death ritual” as Deller describes it, for destroyed communities that filled those spaces with new life.
Significantly, perhaps, Deller’s film was first seen at the Aird’s Lane space run by The Modern Institute, the independently run contemporary art gallery housed across from the car park a few hundred yards from The Arches in a reclaimed redbrick space.
Through its depiction of 1980s and 1990s club culture, Everybody in the Place shows how what happened to The Arches isn’t a new thing. Authoritarian capitalism has been terrified of its equivalents for decades, indoors and out.
In recent times, probably the most high profile example of the enforced demise of club spaces is the Hacienda in Manchester. The Factory Records owned venue closed in 1997 after fifteen years when gun and drug culture moved into its Ben Kelly designed warehouse interior.
Prior to this, the UK government’s introduction of sections 63-67 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which sought to outlaw groups occupying a space where ‘repetitive beats’ were prevalent, was a direct assault on rave culture.
See also the March 1980 police raid on Eric’s, the Liverpool basement club where for a few years the city’s freaks and dole queue dreamers gathered, eventually siring a world changing music scene on their own terms. Such assaults on grassroots culture and temporary autonomous zones remain commonplace, and each incident has its own unique set of circumstances.
In terms of pop cultural depictions of such conflicts, one might look at The Young Ones, the 1961 feature film starring Cliff Richard and a host of bright young wannabes. Cliff plays Nicky, the wannabe crooner and charismatic leader of a gang based in a youth club that comes under threat by Robert Morley’s millionaire property developer, Hamilton Black, who wants to build an office block in its place. To save the club, the gang take over an abandoned theatre, where they plan to hold a benefit variety show to draw attention to their campaign. With Nicky top of the bill, his voice is beamed out on the pirate radio station the kids start up to infiltrate the airwaves.
To stop the show happening, Hamilton Black buys up the theatre, and sets about getting these showbiz interlopers thrown out. Spoiler alert, Nicky hasn’t told his all singing, all dancing pals that Hamilton Black is also his dad. When Black realises what a talented crowd his son and heir has fallen in with, he not only decrees that the show should go on, but that he will build a new youth club to accommodate any similar ventures.
With father and son reunited, Morley as Black joins Cliff as Nicky in the film’s final chorus line. Look beyond the high kicking, however, and even in saccharine Brit-flicks like The Young Ones, money talks. The youth club will still be owned by property developers, and any autonomy it might have once had will be lost. One way or another, this is something worth making a song and dance about, as the film’s finale proves.
This desire to control youth culture recalls a seaside postcard cartoon from the same era produced by the Yorkshire based Bamforth company during what looks somewhere between the 1950s and the 1970s. At the centre of the postcard is a poster declaring the scene to be the opening of a ‘Youth Club Centre’. This is flanked on one side by a be-quiffed Jack-the-Lad with a fag hanging out his mouth in a clinch up against the wall beside the poster with a bouffanted blonde, whose figure hugging dress barely skims her behind. Her left hand perched on the Jack-the-Lad’s shoulder also holds a fag. Beyond thee couple’s clinch, people are dancing.
On the other side of the poster stands a chain-bearing figurehead of some local authority who appears to be showing local dignitaries around this new development. It is to the official the caption of the postcard is credited, to the effect that ‘WE WANT THIS PLACE RUN BY A PERSON WHO KNOWS WHAT THE TEENAGERS WANT TO DO – BUT OLD ENOUGH TO SEE THAT THEY DON’T DO IT!’ The stress on ‘THAT THEY DON’T DO IT!’ is on the postcard.
Both The Young Ones and the Bamforth postcard are reminiscent of a scenario depicted in Sum Total (1961), a precocious memoir penned by the late journalist, broadcaster, people’s champion and terminal thorn in the establishment’s side, Ray Gosling. Written in a freewheeling and emotive style when he was barely into his twenties, Gosling’s book charts his free spirited adventures as a grammar school boy from Northampton with ideas above his station, who makes it to university in Leicester only to drop out.
As he makes his way through a series of smoky pubs, deep-fried caffs, dead-end jobs and train rides south, Gosling’s restless rites of passage is related in an expressive and at times exasperated demotic that comes over like an English suburban On the Road. Gosling may be a bookish outsider, but even he is affected by the rock and roll soundtracked youthquake the dawn of the 1960s had ushered in.
One of the liveliest sections of Sum Total comes towards the end, after Gosling finds himself putting on dances at a local civic hall to showcase live bands. These dances lead to Gosling and others forming an alliance to start their own venue for a permanent youth club where they can hold dances and other events, or else just be a place to hang out.
Things are precarious from the start, but while no one is making any money, there is a will to succeed and a collective desire to make something happen that comes from the ground up. For a fleeting moment, at least, Gosling and the others make something – somewhere – special they can call their own.
The club’s civic backers and business partners, alas, have ideas of it providing a kind of safe house for rough kids wouldn’t otherwise be able to control. Then, as now, things had to be run a certain way to be allowed to continue. It also had to make money.
Gosling has something more idealistic in mind, as he explains when he writes how ‘what we set out to do was to make a world outside the established set-up look after itself, and keep itself alive: not a social service to a people; but a centre for a community, the centre being actually and completely controlled by the community.’
As external pressures change the initial spirit of the club, Gosling writes how ‘All the time it was like you were sitting on a bomb waiting for it to go off. You were in the thick of things and couldn’t get out.’
Following an incident in which two chairs and a table are broken and £7 stolen from the till, ‘The pressure began to get put on. Security got tightened up, a little…. But the thing was beginning to stink…’
After the incident, ‘The slow disintegration began to set in, and all the time I kept working ways of keeping the two together – the old idea and Money.’
Another, more serious incident, sees the police called, and four people arrested, with Gosling and others forced to be witnesses for the prosecution.
‘Oh, it was bound to come sooner or later,’ he writes, ‘we’d have to show that we were not so free and easy that we could put up with everything. But the thing came as a shock. People had always looked on us as being not just a sort of home, but somewhere where things were so free and easy that although you may have only come in for a coffee, in fact you really ran the place, or had the right to.’
As Gosling puts it, ‘The crumble was well under way… there were meetings, and new promises of support; and any trouble again, call us in, will you. And none of it meant a thing. It was over. The crumble was the only thing that kept sweeping on, relentlessly.’
Gosling describes a conversation with a local journalist sniffing after a story, telling him how ‘A man stops me in the street the other day, one of our city fathers and he says – we’re going to get you out of the town if it’s the last thing we do.’
The club closes down shortly after, and it’s all over.
‘Why did it fail?’ Gosling asks after the closure as a prelude to an oratorical flourish.
‘It didn’t fail,’ he concludes, stressing the point a second time. ‘It didn’t fail. The trials and the fights and the articles and the pamphlet and the lectures and the talk and the thefts and the staff troubles – they were nothing; nothing compared with the greatness and the laughs and the sense of the place being a home. And then Dave left. And then I left. And then Jim left. And it was over. And it was over because the ones with the money, the backers; they wouldn’t take the step of faith – the step that would have given them a chance to look at the laughs from that place. No, we were supposed to be in business for the good of the people; but slowly it dawned on them that neither I nor any of the staff were in the business for the good of others, however much we kidded ourselves. We were in it for the love and laughs, for the love of the people, and the love of our jobs, and the wonderful feeling of doing something we wanted to do for ourselves and our own, and the laughs and happiness other people got from it.’
Sum Total was first published the same year The Young Ones was released, at a time when shutting down teenage gatherings and seemingly outlandish modes of youthful expression was clearly all the rage. It was republished in 2004. In the four decades between, all manner of social and artistic revolutions had been and gone. Now sixty years on, Gosling’s impassioned arguments remain as fresh and as necessary as they did sixty years ago.
Gosling’s rage in Sum Total is as heroic as anything in Brickwork. His words are echoed by those of Arnold, Wylie and others in their palpable anger at what they believe to be the altogether avoidable closure of The Arches. Arches Executive Director from 2003 to 2015 Mark Anderson talks of how Scotland’s arts funding body Creative Scotland and Glasgow City Council abandoned The Arches “In our hour of need”, and how both institutions “collectively, bottled it”.
For Arnold, there was a similar lack of any kind of ‘step of faith’, as Gosling puts it, from Creative Scotland and Glasgow City Council. Arnold calls the former “completely useless at the time…” and goes on to describe a crisis meeting held in city council offices and chaired by Creative Scotland’s then CEO, Janet Archer. For an artist like Arnold, who operated on instinct, and got things done quickly and effectively, the meeting he describes reads as being toe-curlingly misjudged. Where immediate action was required, all that was posited was what Arnold calls “a PR stunt.”
Just as Gosling describes in Sum Total one of his city fathers coming up to him to tell him how ‘we’re going to get you out of the town if it’s the last thing we do’, so Wylie suspects more calculated motives might have been at play regarding the moves towards closing The Arches.
Wylie talks of a new hotel built where the entrance to The Arches was as feeling like “an absolute affront to me”. She points out how “in some ways it’s like progress, or those things that we feel we can’t be in control of… there’s a feeling of powerlessness against that kind of gentrification. But there’s something about the whole thing that’s so troubling.”
Wylie here gets to the root of a problem which sixty years ago Gosling called ‘the crumble’. That crumble, then and now, is about control, power, and fear. To wit, those in power control through a fear created in opposition to the spirit of love, friendship, laughter and all the other things The Arches and Ray Gosling’s youth club were about. And so the cycle continues, as dizzying as a performance artist on a packed out dancefloor in an underground labyrinth at midnight.
Crawling From the Wreckage
Brickwork is a book about Being There, but it is about much more besides. It is about a time and a place, socially, politically and artistically. The Arches marked a series of social and cultural shifts its presence by turns helped define or else was forced to accommodate.
The words ‘community’ and ‘family’ come up again and again in Brickwork. For those who lived it, The Arches was a 24/7 experience that ended suddenly and arguably too soon. But that’s showbiz, and the spirit of The Arches captured in Brickwork goes on.
Since leaving The Arches, Andy Arnold has for the last decade been in charge of The Tron Theatre, housed for the last forty years in a former church at the other end of Argyle Street. Wylie is now artistic director of the National Theatre of Scotland, who are currently touring a play called The Enemy. This twenty-first century reimagining of Henrik Ibsen’s 1882 play, An Enemy of the People, was written by former Arches cloakroom attendant Kieran Hurley. Hurley’s solo play, Beats (2012), sired in The Arches, looked at the rise and fall of the 1990s rave scene in the face of encroaching authoritarianism. The play became the basis for the successful film of the same, released in 2019.
There are other success stories. Arnold gave Cora Bissett, now one of Scotland’s leading theatre directors, her first acting job to in a production of Jim Cartwright’s play, I Licked a Slag’s Deodorant. Bissett went on to devise her own show. Horses, Horses, Coming in in All Directions (2000) was an audacious and expansive promenade piece co-created with director Ben Harrison and fellow cast members Itxaso Moreno and Harry Ward.
LJ Findlay-Walsh, who took over as arts programmer at The Arches when Wylie became artistic director, now runs Take Me Somewhere, a city-wide festival of new experimental work that picked up The Arches mantle after it closed.
In 2020, Arika, the organisation co-founded by Barry Esson with Bryony McIntyre to produce Instal and other events, was named by Tate Britain as one of ten recipients of their Turner Bursaries, an alternative to that year’s Turner Prize, which was postponed due to the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. Arika were awarded the Tate Bursary for their work producing festivals of performance, film, debate and learning through their series of Episodes.
Bratchpiece and Innes themselves have channelled their respective experiences of The Arches into everything they did next. Bratchpiece has worked on stage and screen as a comedian and actor, while Innes moved into writing fiction. This will come as no surprise to anyone who ever had the pleasure of receiving a press release from her when she was Arches press manager, when her words sang from what might otherwise have remained merely informative. Her two novels, Fishnet (2019) and Scabby Queen (2020), are even richer.
Other Arches alumni include Jean Cameron, who was theatre programmer between 2002 and 2005. Now a leading arts producer, Cameron has just been appointed executive producer of Edinburgh International Cultural Summit. Tamsin Austin, who was Arches music programmer from 1999 to 2003, went on to become head of contemporary music at Sage in Gateshead, and at the start of 2021 was appointed head of Fire Station, a new £11 million development in Sunderland. Former press officer Nicola Meighan is now a successful writer and broadcaster. Many others are doing their various things just as fruitfully.
As for those who could have saved The Arches, they’re doing alright too, thanks. Police Scotland and Glasgow Licensing Board continue to do what they do. Former Creative Scotland CEO Janet Archer resigned from the organisation in 2018 after overseeing a series of controversial funding cuts. This prompted an outcry amongst arts communities, and led to resignations by board members and a Scottish parliament committee hearing. In 2019, Archer took up a newly created post as Director, Festival, Cultural and City Events at the University of Edinburgh. In 2021, she was appointed CEO of Edinburgh Printmakers.
The site of The Arches, meanwhile, has been taken over as a commercial venture called Platform. This shouldn’t be confused with the arts centre in Easterhouse also called Platform since opening in 2006 as part of The Bridge complex, and which has no connection with the Argyle Street space. The latter describes itself as ‘a vibrant events and hospitality brand in the heart of Glasgow City Centre’ and, with ‘Street Food, Events, Bar, Microbrewery’ in place, advertises on its website as ‘An exciting new concept in eating, drinking and socialising’.
The closure of The Arches looks now like a realignment of thinking in terms of official attitudes towards arts and culture in Glasgow. This worryingly resembles asset stripping on a grand scale. Whether pro or against the idea of Glasgow as a European City of Culture in 1990 and the resources the high profile venture arguably drained from what already existed, any civic or political will for either is seriously lacking.
A mixture of central government and local authority cuts have seen arts initiatives at all levels struggling to survive. Pandemic induced lockdowns throughout 2020 and 2021 have accelerated further denuding of resources in libraries, community centres and other grassroots spaces created from the ground up.
As with The Arches, this sustained drive towards cultural bankruptcy looks suspiciously ideological in intent. When Wylie talks in Brickwork of her unresolved feelings regarding how things ended, she may be talking specifically about her former artistic home, but at a wider level, this is how the world works right now. And this thing we call ‘the arts’ by way of the bogus notion of the ‘creative industries’ has bought into gentrification as much as any other big business. Money talks, and any legacy of The Arches has been dumped in a skip on Argyle Street while developers are fed catnip in glossy magazine spreads about how ‘cool’ such and such a once scary neighbourhood has become.
An accidental nod to this future, perhaps, came back in the early days of The Arches when Arnold created a large-scale promenade staging of Metropolis (1993), Fritz Lang’s 1927 film adapted from Thea von Harbou’s novel, published two years earlier. Set in a shiny urban dystopia, Metropolis charts the class-based division of a regenerated city as those ‘beneath’ rise up. One section was even called Workers’ City.
If The Arches at its best was a little republic, perhaps the lesson to be learnt from Brickwork is that republics always fall. This spirit is summed up in the book best by Andy Mackenzie, who worked at the venue in various capacities between 1999 and 2006, latterly as operations manager. He talks of The Arches as being a series of fuck yous to assorted institutions that got away with what it did longer than most.
As Mackenzie colourfully points out, however, it was never going to last. Perhaps it was never meant to. Either way, it failed better than them all. As Brickwork makes clear, whatever happens next, The Arches remains something to build on.
Brickwork: A Biography of The Arches by David Bratchpiece and Kirstin Innes is published on November 4th by Salamander Street, £12.99. www.salamanderstreet.com