The Innocents of Aberfan
It was a particularly wet October, even for Wales. We were connoisseurs of wetness, an expertise gathered over years of school mornings. There was the usual grey slanting raw rain which stang your cheeks. There was the dense swarming drizzle which seeped through and under scarves and hoods and collars, smelling slightly of fire. And then the fullthroated hammering production-line downpour, which made the pavements run and the posters peel away from the hoardings and the fields gurgle and creak like sponges in the bath. This could last for a working week, and this October it had.
Our clothes were wet in the mornings, and the drains at the bottom of the hill in our village bled mud and silt across the road and bridge. The river underneath roared brown with soil and pulverised leaf-fall and broken branches. One day, the steps up to our garden were a little waterfall.
To a 14 year old boy at the time, this was no Winterland 1963, which we still sighed over, but it was better than nothing, even if it disrupted the freedom of school playtimes, which we spent inacarcerated in the canteen. It was a more eventful Autumn than usual. The rivers were excitingly angry. Every expedition involved some preparation, which even at 14 still smacked a little of Boy’s Own adventure, in which the hammering of rain on an anorak hood stood in for the howling polar blizzard outside the intrepid explorers tent. Our parents were fed up with something other than us, which deflected unnecessary attention. Life was far from perfect, but it was bearable.
At 8.30 on Friday 21st of October, we would have waited for our school bus on the usual street corner, squabbling for the shelter of the one or two doorways, and looking forward to the weekend. We would have piled on to the steaming, jabbering Routemaster, with its furious conductor, and headed off for another fairly routine day.
I can’t remember whether an announcement was made at school. By the time the Pantglas Juniors were singing All Things Bright and Beautiful we were probably doing the same, so any word at assembly would have been unlikely, but I remember arriving home to find my mother watching the TV, which was unusual. Normally, she was busying about the kitchen, and not watching the pre-Children’s slot – if there was one. I don’t remember her face, other than by piecing together all her expressions afterwards, and all those of the people who came around in the following weekend to share their grief. I don’t imagine many people watched Blue Peter that evening.
The TV pictures showed the vast grey panorama of what we called The Valleys, where everything was as grey as a faded wet newspaper. I’d been through there on day trips, and the grainy black and white footage confirmed my memories. Compared to it, our coastal fringe of the anthracite belt was like the Garden Of Eden – even if the black bulk of the Dafen steel works loomed only half a mile away across the watermeadows of Pwll Bach farm.
Only three years before, I had paraded to our little village school with the rest of the flock of bobble hats, bonnets, dufflecoats and anoraks. Chattering like parrots. Now there was this dead silent school in somewhere we’d never heard of but knew, buried under a mysterious mountain of grey porridge. The deadly mountain hiding its face in mist, and the school ruins lurching over like the shoddy tombstone they now were.
The TV screen was confusing and agonising. It seemed to show a building, like my primary school, up to its knees in the earth, with men in coats and caps, some frantically digging and pointing, and others merely standing, frozen, with their hands on their hips. The pile of rubble seemed to be steaming with the effort of the rescuers, that or the earth itself was panting like a bull from its rampage down the mountain.
Surely there would have been time to escape as the treacly flow entered the school? Obviously not. As reports came in, and the murderous mechanics of the event became clearer, so did the last seconds of those terrified little people, and the full searing tragedy hit home. I remember a faintly consoling tinge of pride at the efforts of the rescuers, but mainly just the persistent, toothache agony of human grief. Possibly my first experience of it. The monstrous barbarism of a mountain eating an entire generation was almost biblical in its indifference to suffering. Looking back from a safe distance, the week of rain was really the sound of Herod’s men unsheathing their swords. A Somme for the children of the coal industry.
As the evening drew on, and the graphic floodlit rescue began, and the succession of horror-struck, grimy faces told their stories, and the colliers worked in the open air for once, we knew it was the end of a way of life as well as the end of lots of little lives.
To the generation of 60’s teenagers I had just joined, this was another sign that the lives our fathers led were not for us. The devaluation of human life they had suffered, and the lazy commercial vandalism of the land had killed the children of Pant-glas Junior School. We knew even then, before any board of enquiry, that mining, and anything which valued human life so cheap, was to blame, and that it was over. The 1960’s had arrived, in spite of our fathers’ complaints about long hair and loud music.
The worst thing my mother could imagine for me was my working in a mine. Even the army would have been better. To her generation, having survived the depression and the war, Aberfan was an appalling piece of spite. How had they deserved this? The cold civil engineering diagrams showed the scale of cynical neglect by the NCB, managers, politicians and businessmen, but the total blind hatred of the mountain’s last act seemed so calculated that only an evil mind could have been at work. I hadn’t read Shakespeare at that point, and neither had my parents, but we certainly understood what tragedy meant. It may or may not have been a co-incidence, but my mother did stop going to chapel not long afterwards.
A family friend was in the Civil Defence and had been there, like all the other services. His stories in our kitchen were terrifying. He seemed to be using bluster as a defence, almost enjoying this storytelling chance of a lifetime. He used the word ‘meat -mincer’, which said it all.
How this changed the way we thought, as impressionable young people at a critical stage of our lives, is impossible to gauge. But happening so close to home, and involving such a key element of our mythology, it can’t have done anything to attract enthusiasm for either the traditional heavy industries, with their long record of destruction and mayhem, or any concept of a happy smiling god, beaming down on His obedient, blameless children at morning assembly, singing
‘All Things Bright And Beautiful.
All creatures great and small.
All things wise and wonderful.
The Lord God made them all.’
Nobody believed that again.