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.

By Geraint Roberts

Stuck in a limbo and desperate to do something meaningful, what to do? That is where writing began for me. A creative way of expressing myself and a chance to harness my wondering imagination. I close my eyes and I'm there. Wish I'd picked 'there' as a warm sunny day on a sandy beach, with the waves gently lapping on the shore...but I have to let the story load in my mind, then watch it unfold, wherever it may be. Currently I'm on a windy bridge, or a Devon beach, or a Cornish ti mine, or a submarine, or looking towards a Hebridean port...

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