Dani Garavelli: Underneath the Arches

Picture: John Devlin
Picture: John Devlin
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A popular backlash is mounting against plans that threaten to kill off an iconic Glasgow cultural venue, writes Dani Garavelli

In the Arches café, with its exposed red brick and duct work, playwright Kieran Hurley is reminiscing about the first ever read-through of his breakthrough work Beats – a play about the Free Party movement of the 90s – which took place in a nearby practice room.

Full house for Death Disco night. Picture: Bartosz Madejski

Full house for Death Disco night. Picture: Bartosz Madejski

“Johnny Whoop [who did stints as resident DJ at some of the venue’s club nights] managed to borrow loads of stuff from the tech dept,” he says. “I was at a little desk while he was behind some CDJs; he had set up these huge speaker stacks which were taller than a man on either side in this tiny, tiny room and he just filled the place with smoke and strobe lights. As I was reading at the microphone, it was just boom, boom, boom.”

Having skivvied, created, clubbed and come of age there, Hurley’s identity is inextricably bound up in the Arches; as a impecunious student, he tore tickets and collected coats; as a lover of techno music, he spent some of the most euphoric nights of his life with heaving crowds in its subterranean caverns, and, as an emergent theatre-maker, he had his first taste of artistic success on its stages. Under its protective wing, he grew from a 20-year-old experimenting at Scratch nights – events where new artists can try out material – to a fully fledged theatre-maker with acclaimed shows such as Hitch (his first solo show at Arches Live), Beats (which went on to the Traverse) and Rantin’ (a joint Arches and NTS venture).

“There was just nowhere else in the country I could have gone to and said: ‘I have this one-hour theatre piece, can you help me make it by giving me resources like rehearsal space?’ But it’s not just that the Arches gave me my start – it’s that there has been a clear trajectory from naïve student to now, and the Arches has been the spine of that.”

Hurley is not the only Scottish theatre-maker to have benefited from the Arches’ nurturing environment: Gary McNair, Rob Drummond, Cora Bissett and Peter McMaster have all had their ideas encouraged or their opportunities boosted by the venue.

Short of internal examinations I don’t see what else they could do

But nor is the arts the only way the Arches contributes to Scotland’s cultural life. Ever since founder Andy Arnold first decided to hold club nights alongside theatre productions as a means of footing the bills, it has been at the forefront of the UK’s house and techno scene, attracting clubbers from across Europe, as well as promoting home-grown talent. “It’s hard to imagine Scottish electronic music without it,” says Hurley.

The structure, capacity – it holds 2,0000 – and urban aura of the venue (the once-derelict space under the railway arches under Glasgow Central Station) make it ideal for dancing. It’s a space where you can lose yourself to a thumping beat and the very building seems to perspire. “Really the Arches is just brickwork,” says one regular. “There are no fancy booths – and no matter if you have one of the world’s biggest DJs or some upcoming local acts performing, the atmosphere is magical and special every single time.” Though the crossover between the theatre crowd and the clubbing crowd is not huge, there is something potent about the bringing together of two cultures that might otherwise be ghettoised in a symbiotic relationship.

Now all that is under threat. This month, Glasgow City Council Licensing Board decided to restrict the Arches’ opening hours, forcing it to close at midnight seven days a week, a ruling that will effectively shut down the nightclub. Such is the non-profit-making venue’s dependence on the income from the nightclub, its closure will place its future and the future of its 133 employees at risk.

The decision was taken after Police Scotland said it believed the frequency and volume of drink and drugs-related incidents there would result in “fatal consequences” if action was not taken.

Picture: John Devlin

Picture: John Devlin

But it has been met by a popular backlash from those who believe the decision will damage Glasgow and endanger young people. The Save the Arches campaign has attracted support from leading figures from the arts world – such as Liz Lochhead and Irvine Welsh – and world-class DJs such as Carl Cox and Hardwell, with almost 40,000 signing the petition.

The public anger stems not only from a fear of what Glasgow stands to lose from the closure of the Arches, but from a sense of injustice. Campaigners insist the venue has been “a victim of its own compliance”. Its willingness to take a proactive approach – contacting the police every time illegal substances were found – ­allowed the force to portray it as a ­trouble spot and a drain on resources.

But the licensing board’s decision has consequences beyond the fate of the Arches itself. Police Scotland seems to believe that by shutting the venue the city’s drug problem will disappear. Those who know and love the club believe the opposite is true. They say drugs are endemic in society, but the Arches’ approach is more rigorous than any other club: on a busy night there can be dozens of security guards carrying out searches and patrolling; there is a constant supply of fresh water and a dedicated first-aid room.

“The thing that astonished me when I first went to the Arches was how much attention was paid to health and safety,” says David Cairns, a former club promoter who once ran his own nights in Edinburgh and London. “Short of performing internal examinations at the door, I don’t see what else they could have done.”

If the Arches closes, the campaigners claim, trade will move to other venues which are not so geared up to deal with drug-taking, especially now Police Scotland has made it clear that the more clubs comply, the more likely they are to lose their licence.

Among the Save the Arches campaigners, there is also a feeling that Glasgow City Council is guilty of talking up Glasgow’s status as an international city, without acknowledging the roots of its success. “It wants to attract the Mobos and the MTV awards – but where do all these events hold their after-parties? The Arches, of course,” one clubber says.

“The police haven’t thought about the economy,” adds Kevin Dougans, who works for an Ibiza-based social media company promoting clubs across the world. “The number of people who travel to Glasgow for an event in the Arches and, OK, maybe they’re only in the club for five hours, but they’re in the city for three days spending money in the hotels and bars.”

To understand The Arches’ status as the beating heart of Glasgow’s cultural life, you have to go back to the early 1990s when the site was quasi-derelict. The space had been used for the Glasgow exhibition – a centrepiece of the city’s year as European City of Culture – but hopes of longer legacy flagged when the exhibition failed to meet expectations and British Rail planned to sell the site off to a commercial developer.

But then Arnold, who had given up his job in London to create street theatre at the exhibition, begged British Rail to give him the keys to put together a show for Mayfest 1991. By chance, he was given a year-long licence and so the Arches was born.

In the early days, Arnold remembers, money was so tight he was constantly watching the electricity meter. The building was dark and dank, with water seeping through the walls and when school groups turned up, they would huddle up to keep warm.

It was Pete Irvine, then of Regular Music, who came up with the idea of running club nights to generate income. In the early days, The Arches staged Cafe Loco – improv, cabaret and dancing – on Saturday nights while Slam ran club nights on a Friday. Suddenly Arnold could pay the rent and wages (with the theatre productions themselves funded by grants). He went on to create seminal productions such as Metropolis, Dante’s Inferno and The Crucible inspired by the underground space.

After Arnold left to become artistic director of the Tron, the theatre side continued to thrive. “One of the most impressive things about the venue is the sheer scale of the operation. It must have the busiest and most hard-working staff in any organisation. There are just so many cultural festivals that go on there,” says writer and performer Kevin Carr, one of the Save the Arches campaigners.

At the same time, the commercial side burgeoned; Slam and Café Loco were followed by Death Disco, Inside Out, Pressure, Colours and others, until some in the theatre world felt the club overshadowed the theatre.

Police Scotland began to turn its attention to the Arches in February 2014 when Regane MacColl collapsed in the club and later died after taking a Mortal Kombat pill, a dangerous Ecstasy compound linked with several collapses and deaths around the country. At 17, ­MacColl was underage, so the Arches raised the entry requirement to 21 and increased its checking of ID. Then, earlier this year, a GBX night was forced to close early after a woman was found unconscious in the street outside and 26 people were arrested.

The licensing board decided to curtail the opening hours, although the club says that, during the period under review, just 0.14 per cent of the 250,000 people that went through its doors were reported for drug-related incidents. The venue is taking legal advice and may appeal.

Police Scotland is adamant about its position; it says the volume of incidents is a genuine concern. Yet talking to those who work and socialise at the Arches, it feels as if this is about a clash of cultures: young versus old, mainstream versus fringe and zero tolerance versus harm reduction.

Hurley accepts there is an irony in the fact that Beats – the show that changed his life – is about the introduction of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which banned raves. The work explores the idea that the legislation was less about improving public safety and more about a distaste for a particular kind of lifestyle and a desire to control young people. “I don’t know what Police Scotland’s motives are,” he says cautiously, “but I do know their decision has not been thought through either in terms of effectiveness with regard to its stated aims or its cultural and economic ramifications.”

It has to be said there are those in the arts world who are not as enamoured of the Arches’ club nights as Hurley. Some believe they – and the burden of responsibility they bring – have shunted the theatre to one side, and that the restricting of hours should act as a catalyst to look for new sources of income.

“I think maybe it’s time to look for other ways to make the Arches viable,” says one source. “It will take some hard decisions and someone who has both creative and commercial flair, but it ought to be possible to come up with new ideas to make money from the space.”

For Hurley, however, they are both equally important. “We mustn’t get into the habit of thinking, ‘there’s this thing over here that’s big and popular, and it churns out loads of money like a kind of cash cow.’ Of course, it’s an amazing financial model, but there should be no question that the club is an important cultural institution in its own right.”

Either way, the current crisis has concentrated minds on the huge role the Arches has played in Glasgow’s renaissance, helping to forge and then consolidate its reputation as an artistic and musical powerhouse.

The city council ought to be getting used to popular backlashes against attempts to tamper with Glasgow’s cultural icons by now; it has already been forced to backtrack over the redesign of George Square and the cone on the top of the Duke of Wellington’s head. The Arches is a more complex decision with higher stakes. But as more names are added to the petition, you can’t help wondering if people power is about to win the day again.

Twitter: @DaniGaravelli1