I don’t remember where I was when JFK died; I was too young. And my brother, Alun, still chastises me for not remembering where we were when man first landed on the moon (answer: the West Cork hotel in Skibbereen, watching it on TV). I do however remember when my mother told me that Bobby Kennedy has just died after being shot. For some reason she had picked me up from school that day, and some fragments of our conversation I can still hear. I would have been ten at the time, but an Irish mother and a Catholic school education, meant that the Kennedy clan were not too recondite for even a small boy to not know about.
There is one other ‘event’ from those 1960s days in Cardiff that I do remember well. It was closer to home. On this day, in 1966 I can remember the anguish of both my mother, and my Welsh father who had grown up in the Welsh valleys trapped on all sides by slag heaps, both literally and metaphorically.
The Aberfan disaster was the catastrophic collapse of a colliery spoil tip at around 9:15 am on 21 October 1966. The tip had been created on a mountain slope above the Welsh village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil and overlaid a natural spring. A period of heavy rain led to a build-up of water within the tip which caused it to suddenly slide downhill as a slurry, killing 116 children and 28 adults as it engulfed Pantglas Junior School and other buildings.
The Aberfan Disaster Memorial Fund (ADMF) was set up on the day of the disaster. It received nearly 88,000 contributions, totalling £1.75 million. The remaining tips were removed only after a lengthy fight by Aberfan residents, against resistance from the NCB and the government on the grounds of cost. Clearing was paid for by a government grant and a forced contribution of £150,000 taken from the memorial fund. In 1997 the British government paid back the £150,000 to the ADMF, and in 2007 the Welsh Assembly donated £1.5 million to the fund and £500,000 to the Aberfan Education Charity as recompense for the money wrongly taken.[emphasis added]
Some aspects of one’s politics are formed so young, you just forget where they came from.
Grahame Davies, a poet who writes in Welsh and English wrote the following words about another disaster — not Aberfan — but the deaths of 268 men and boys in an explosion at the Prince of Wales Colliery in Abercarn in 1878. They seem apposite for my purpose.
We do not ask you to remember us:
you have your lives to live as we had ours,
and ours we spent on life, not memory.
We only ask you this – that you live well,
here, in the places that our labour built,
here, beneath the sky we seldom saw,
here, on the green earth whose black vein we mined,
and feel the freedom that we could not find.
The Aberfan disaster featured in the Netflix drama The Crown. In this dramatisation we learn that the Queen was advised to show some emotion — this was South Wales not the Home Counties. There are some heart-wrenching photographs in an article in the Smithsonian 1 — all the more powerful because they are in black and white. A quote from this article is below:
“A tribunal tasked with investigating the Aberfan disaster published its findings on August 3, 1967. Over the course of 76 days, the panel had interviewed 136 witnesses and examined 300 exhibits. Based on this evidence, the tribunal concluded that the sole party responsible for the tragedy was the National Coal Board.”
“The Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above,” the investigators wrote in their report. “Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan.”
Plenty of them still about.
After he had been dismissed from government, and implicated in the anti-Medici conspiracy, Machiavelli was imprisoned, tortured, before returning to the family farm. But his passions ran deep.
…Machiavelli was unable to turn his mind from politics. ‘I could not help but fill your head with castles in the air,’ he wrote to Vettori in 1513, ‘because since Fortune has seen to it that I do not know how to talk about either the silk or wool trade, profits or losses, I have to talk about politics.’ He spent the days chewing the fat with woodcutters on the farm and playing cricca in the tavern. But in the evening, he told Vettori,
I return home and enter my study; on the threshold I take off my workday clothes, covered with mud and dirt, and put on the garments of court and palace. Fitted out appropriately, I step inside the venerable court of the ancients, where, solicitously received by them, I nourish myself on that food that alone is mine and for which I was born; where I am unashamed to converse with them … and they, out of their human kindness, answer me. And for four hours at a time I feel no boredom, I forget all my troubles, I do not dread poverty, and I am not terrified by death. I absorb myself into them completely. And because Dante says that: no one understands anything unless he retains [it], I have jotted down what I have profited from in their conversation and composed a short study, De principatibus. [emphasis added]
Someone in your family has fallen ill with a respiratory infection that has already killed large numbers. Your small house means that you do not have enough room to quarantine them. Your have little money, and the hospitals are full. You contact the local public health authority.
Not to worry, you are told: A crew will be by shortly to set up a sturdy, well-ventilated, portable, tiny house in your yard. Once installed, your family member will be free to convalesce in comfort. You can deliver home-cooked meals to their door and communicate through open windows — and a trained nurse will be by for regular examinations. And no, there will be no charge for the house.
A fascinating story by Naomi Klein in the Intercept. Seemingly from a time when government knew what government was for.
This is not a dispatch from some future functional United States, one with a government capable of caring for its people in the midst of spiraling economic carnage and a public health emergency. It’s a dispatch from this country’s past, a time eight decades ago when it similarly found itself in the two-fisted grip of an even deeper economic crisis (the Great Depression), and a surging contagious respiratory illness (tuberculosis).
Yes, a big word. From a review by Martin Wolf of Anne Applebaum’s Twilight of Democracy. Just pencil in your favourite organisation or person.
Her theme is not just this split. It is about the role of intellectuals in supporting the would-be despots. In this, she follows Julien Benda, author of a classic book, La trahison des clercs (1927). Benda’s target were the ideologues of his time, whom he accused, in Applebaum’s words, “of betraying the central task of the intellectual, the search for truth, in favor of particular political causes”.
How did people she knew come to support these new authoritarians? One answer, is “resentment, revenge and envy”. Replacing people of talent and principles with mediocrities who will do anything for success has never been difficult. Finding greedy people happy to join a corrupt new business elite is just as simple. She describes perceptively people who have done such things.
He needed glory and he needed cash. The quickest route to glory was beating up barbarians; stealing their wealth and selling their bodies into slavery got him the cash.
The above is from a stomach-penetrating piece on the life of Julius Caesar (and not Boris Johnson). I do not know whether it is an effect of age, but perhaps the more one is aware of dying —with or without dignity— the more I find such descriptions, such as the one below, are hard to let go of when you close you eyes with the hope that they might open again.
Unlike most ancient swords, the legionary shortsword, or gladius Hispaniensis, was designed for stabbing, not slashing. While longswords and sabres create horrific, often deadly wounds, even an inch of steel can deliver a lethal puncture – especially given the limits of ancient medicine. Yet as combat instructors know, stabbing another human being at close quarters is much harder than cutting them: we have a psychological block against penetrating others’ bodies in that way, a visceral aversion that must be overcome by stern, psychologically brutalising discipline. Roman legionaries were taught to hurl their spears at the enemy line, then advance with shields held close, plunging their gladii in and out of the men arrayed against them. Units that could stomach this gruelling work against heavily armoured fellow citizens were simply killing machines against the less disciplined and lightly armoured Gauls [emphasis added]
From an article in the LRB by the historian of science, Steven Shapin. The book under review is The Mosquito: A Human History of Our Deadliest Predator by Timothy Winegard. The story — if you can call it that — is malaria.
There’s a pub quiz question: ‘What’s the deadliest animal?’ Lots of people guess sharks (just four deaths a year), lions (a hundred), or crocodiles (a thousand). The animal that causes the second highest number of human deaths is other humans (475,000), but the answer is the mosquito, at 750,000 deaths, many of them caused by diseases other than malaria.
The subsequent destruction of the Pontine hydraulic works was also an act of war. On the advice of German malariologists, the Wehrmacht, retreating from southern Italy in the winter of 1943-44, flooded the Pontine Marshes with seawater to bring back mosquitoes – and malaria – as an obstacle to the Allied forces who were landing at Anzio, south of Rome, as well as to punish the Italians, who had just switched sides. The outcome of the Battle of Anzio wasn’t much affected by the Nazis’ act of biological warfare – both sides suffered – but it had a marked effect on Italian civilians: in 1939, there were 614 cases of malaria in the area; in 1944, there were 54,929.
The wretched of the earth suffer from underdevelopment, which is both a cause of their malarial afflictions and an effect of malaria. And they suffer from political indifference, as the jobs of prevention and cure have increasingly been off-loaded onto charitable foundations: the Rockefeller Foundation in the early part of the 20th century, then the Gates Foundation, which now spends more on global health than the World Health Organisation. Bill Gates has pointed out repeatedly that more money goes into curing male baldness than into research on the prevention and cure of malaria [emphasis added]. Capitalism is ‘flawed’, he says, and the persistence of malaria is a failure of the marketplace.
The political swamp breeds the inequality and poverty on which malaria thrives; the physical swamp breeds its insect vector. Drain the swamps.
Facts, dear boy. Facts.