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.