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A litany for Aberfan

Imagine a community of working families, living in rows upon rows of terraced houses on the steep valley sides. Nobody’s rich, but they get by. There’s a spirit there, a bond that all small communities have. Everyone looks out for each other. As it always has been.

It’s a typical October day. The heavy rain from the night before has stopped and the morning warmth leaves a mist above the rooftops. The low grey cloud smothers the steep-sided valley, making it difficult to see from one end of the village to the other and nothing above.

The last day of term, a week off! The children look forward to their holiday with glee. Some may not want to go to school – what’s the point for one day? Some look forward to carefree playing with their mates on the hills above without any lessons.

The school sits in its place at the top row of buildings, filled with the sound of children. Their laughter full of the joie de vivre that only the young can bring to a place such as this. The adults have gone to work, the children have gone to school. It’s a normal day in the valley. ‘All things bright and beautiful’ echoes from the school. The children go back to their classes for a day’s learning.

Seven black peaks loom beyond the ridge above the village. The detritus from centuries of mining, dumped in a place that is almost out of sight, but never out of mind of the people below. Great mounds of spoil, higher than the valley, dour tributes to man’s plundering of the carbon riches below. It’s been raining very heavily. The old streams swell with the run-off. The ones that, oddly, all but apparently the owners of these satanic peaks know about.

The dust and soil at the base of the nearest of these peaks is waterlogged. Ever increasing in its softness, it becomes more and more a slurry of coal dust and mud. The mass of the tip bears down upon it, a dead weight. Then tip number seven moves, it lurches and crumbles and descends in one great catastrophic flow. The black muck and loose rock, greased at the base, tears down the valley as a terrifying shadow. Over pastures and bracken, faster and faster it descends with undignified haste. Through farms and terraces, the path is relentless, drawn like a magnet towards the school. Born of man’s ignorance, it is the innocent that will pay the price.

The roaring sound is like an aircraft coming into land, though no airfield is anywhere near. The classrooms darken as the unimaginable hell unfolds around them. Then there is nothing. An uneasy stillness envelopes the world. Nature has followed its rules and a dreadful order has been restored, in a place where man has tried to ignore the effects of his own folly.

You hear the little school has been damaged by an accident. Your body goes numb when you hear that a black morass has scythed through the heart of the village. A flow, like lava, has hit at the point where the most hearts will be broken. Nature’s act of terrorism has delivered a crushing blow to the lives of the people.

You panic, as you scale the black spoil, to find that all that you can see of the school is its slate roof, standing proud of a blanket of misery. Imagine the anguish as people rush around like ants, not knowing where to begin. Not knowing where is the key to unlock this tragedy and save those within. Not knowing for all but a few, it is already too late.

The people start digging anywhere, everywhere, for a chance that a child has managed to escape. Some claw the black mass with their bare hands to try and unlock their dreadful tomb. It’s all in vain, those precious few who were pulled out at the start are the miracles. Nobody is found alive after the first two hours.

Your body moves in slow motion as you attend the misery of the chapel, now a morgue of tiny lifeless bodies. You force yourself to look at each child in their final slumber, hoping against all the odds that yours is not amongst the rows of the dead. You hope, but in your heart you fear the real truth.

There is pain, a searing agony within that you cannot bear and yet have to, for there are few, too few who can help. Those who were blessed with relief are strangely distant, as if fearing that to offer succour would be somehow mocking the afflicted.

The anguish is shared by all, as the establishment closes ranks and tries to move on with indecent haste. You try not to think about the future when there is none. When all your hopes and dreams have been crushed with as passionless and ruthless a blow, as the landslide dealt that cold October morning. Deep down, there is a knowledge that just a bit earlier, just a bit later, would have saved the children from their fate. Just a short time either side would have left them in a safer place than the classrooms that became their tomb

When you go to your children tonight, hug them with the love you hold. Cherish the contact and their presence. Do it for yourselves. Then shed a tear and raise a prayer for those who could not, fifty years ago. At Aberfan.

Tydi, a glywaist lithriad traed
Ar ffordd Calfaria gynt;
Tydi, a welaist ddafnau gwaed
Y Gwr ar ddieithr hynt:
O! cadw ni rhag dyfod oes
Heb goron ddrain, na chur, na chroes. Amen.

O Thou who once heard hesitant steps
On Calvary’s hill of shame;
Who saw the blood in trickling drops
From Man on path so strange;
Oh! save us from our future loss;
No crown of thorns, nor pain, nor cross. Amen.

Aberfan’s tragic anniversary

Friday 21st October sees the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster in Merthyr Vale, when a waterlogged mound of coal spoil collapsed. The ensuing flow of slurry engulfed two farmhouses, eighteen terraced houses and the local primary school. Of the 144 killed, 116 were children. We know the story, but why do we return to it again and again?

As the anniversary has approached in recent years, people have posted condolences on social media. It’s struck a chord with many, mostly perhaps those from Wales or other mining communities. This year being such a milestone, the world has gone overboard. The television and radio has documentaries, dramas, arts programmes. Certainly over here you cannot escape it.

There are key dates each year which gives people a poignant reminder of their losses. Every year – birthdays, anniversaries, christmas, the terrible day itself have to be borne, and with it the feeling of loneliness and loss. I hope the small community of Aberfan bears the world’s interest with the spirit it is intended, but the scrutiny must be unbearable and I am sure they will be glad when this anniversary is past.

It seems unfair that those who have suffered are reminded of this dreadful day on a regular basis. Interviews, soundbites, visiting tourists – I’m sure they want to be left alone to carry on their lives, but somehow, the world cannot let go. Why? Why can’t we let go and let be?

A week or so back, I was moved to write a small essay as a tribute to those who have suffered. But then is it my place to do so? And why do I feel so engaged? I have no connections with the area. I am not a miner. I was four at the time and not aware of what was happening. What makes me cry when I hear the people speak or see the images, for it does? I don’t want to pity the victims and pat them on their heads, to return them to the box for another year. I want to pay tribute in a way that shows empathy. A way of saying I can never understand, but my heart goes out to them. It may help to examine why it affects me so much.

Personally, my own reasons are varied. I have never worked down a pit, the mining in my part of Wales was abandoned by 1927. But the artefacts and the scars gave me an interest from an early age. I studied mining geology in Uni and my geological and archaeological interests has given me a fascination of Welsh mining. It affects my writing; my efforts have included ‘Senghenydd’, a short story of the thoughts of a rescue worker, as he looks for survivors of the worst disaster in mining history, when a gas explosion ripped through a mine.

It feels more personal, being from Wales. I remember long ago and for my sins, I went on a bank manager’s course to Birmingham. I was with about six other naive trainees and one from Aberdare, about two hours away from my part of the Principality.

‘Ooh, he’s from Wales also,’ the trainer cooed. ‘Do you know him, Geraint?’

I laconically replied yes, because we all live on the same street.

But then there is some element of that parochialism that exists in my pricipality. I’m in England, there’s a Welsh person. We’ve immediately got something in common. Well, it works for me.

Then there’s a paternal feeling. The majority of those who died are the age of my son. I shudder to think of the blow that something like this would deliver to my life. To lose someone not even old enough to have started to carve out their lives, hopes and dreams, it would crush me. Their future lives, ambitions, marriages children, ambitions were all turned to dust, by something so avoidable. You don’t have to have had children to be moved by this fact. It tugs at everyone’s heart. There have been many tragedies in history, many in Wales. Never has there been such a tragedy anywhere, outside of war, involving children.

I mention Senghenydd, a tragedy that consumed 439 men and boys, decimated a community and left many a household struggling to survive. Outside of the Aber valley, this tragedy is not well known enough and yet the reasons for it are just another testament to ignorance and corporate incompetence. Again, it was totally avoidable, but the powers that be felt it better to ignore the warnings. Senghenydd’s tragedy is no longer within living memory, whereas Aberfan still is. As such, we should be glad for the voices who tell us of their pain and suffering. Of the miracles of rescue, but living with the guilt of being rescued afterwards. We should listen, understand and mourn those who passed and make sure that nothing like this is ever allowed to happen again – anywhere.

There is a minute’s silence called for on Friday 9.15am Uk time. The same moment fifty years earlier saw a wall of slurry crush the life out of a community, but never its spirit. Gorwedd mewn hedd . RIP.