Saturday, 28 April 2012

Atgofion am Aberfan; Memories

There can't be anyone who lived in South Wales who does not remember what they were doing on 21st October 1966 as vividly as they recall 9/11. I was sitting in our kitchen, off school for half term, with my mother. She put the radio on.  We couldn't quite take in what we were hearing. We were used to mining disasters in those days. Scarcely a year would pass without news of men being trapped underground and the ensuing days of worry as their colleagues worked to get them to the surface. But what we heard that day was on a different scale. I can remember wondering why there were tears in my mother's eyes; she hardly ever cried. Over the next few days, it became apparent that a slag heap had slid down the mountain at Aberfan near Merthyr Tydfil engulfing houses, a railway embankment and Pantglas Junior School and stopping just short of a second school. This had happened at 9.15 in the morning just after the children had begun their last school day before half term with an assembley. 144 people lost their lives including 116 children aged from 3 months to 14. It was a foggy day in the village and no-one saw the tip slide but everyone recalled the tremendous, eerie rumbling sound. The tipping gang further up the mountain, where the early morning mist had cleared, reported seeing the start of the slide but it all happened so quickly that there was no chance to raise the alarm or give a warning. 

Yesterday the Queen unveiled a plaque to open the new Ynysowen Primary School in Aberfan - a celebration of the life and resilience of the village, but with a sober reminder of those days 50 years ago when the coal industry regularly claimed the life of its workers and affected the health and safety of whole communities. I recently visited the Vale of Neath where I was born and was forcibly struck by the lack of much visual evidence that mining had ever taken place there. Where the slag heaps were once evident, there are green forests and, where the roads and buildings were once grimey and grey, there is a spacious and light feel to the valley. Communities have moved on and the landscape has regained much of its former beauty, but I found myself wondering whether we sometimes wipe out the past too completely and too quickly. It is natural and healthy to remember and to want to understand where we have come from and what has shaped our communities and the identity of our parents and grandparents. 

The Queen has kept faith with the people of Aberfan, visiting four times in the years between 1966 and today. I, too, want to retain that sense of keeping faith with an event that influenced my childhood profoundly and that totally and irrevocably changed the lives of people we knew. Yes, we need to move on, to create a life which does not depend on work that leads to ill health, disaster and loss of life, but we also need to remember the close-knit streets of the mining communities where a child growing up was conscious of being part of a great industrial inheritance and where, that day in 1966, 116 children and their families looked forward, as they began their day, to a future that they would never see.    

Street games, Neath, 1964

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