School finished at 3.30. There was a train at 3.44, which you might catch if you got out on time and ran all the way to the station. Otherwise, it was 4.03. There seemed a big difference between arriving home at 4.10 and 4.35.
Such are the steadily accumulated, long remembered, routines of your schooldays.
That Friday, I was home by 4.15.
My Mother was ironing, in the familiar place in front of the television.
But something was different.
She had moved the angle of the ironing board, and the television was switched on.
I had never seen the old black and white set in action before 5 o’clock on a weekday. I’m not even sure if there were any programmes broadcast at that time.
I looked at my mother.
As she ironed, her eyes stayed fixed on the flickering images displayed on the small screen surrounded by dark wood and brown plastic.
I looked at the television. I could not translate the images. There was black and grey and crowds of people. I made out a roof, a mountain, and a black trail like a half finished road
“What is it? What’s happened?”
“It’s a school in Wales, a slag heap has collapsed on it. They think a lot of children may be buried”.
Even looking again at the flickering screen, it was hard to understand what had happened. Realisation slowly dawned over the next day or two, as the television news kept appearing at strange times, and people kept digging and clawing at the slurry, and the estimates of the dead kept rising.
I was only 14, but It wasn’t the first time a major tragedy had impacted on me. Three years before, standing in the same spot on another Friday, my homework completed, (there’s another school routine) I stared at the BBC’s spinning globe and asked what was happening. Tears in her eyes, my mother told me President Kennedy had been shot in Dallas.
I suppose that’s how we learn initially that, even if we have blue skies in childhood, cloudy days will litter our adult lives
The books tell me that the Sixties were a fun time to be young. I couldn’t disagree – but they also gave us the Skopje earthquake, the killings of Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the nightly news from Vietnam, and, into the Seventies, Kent State, and the Troubles in Ireland. So the “love and peace” generation grew up in an atmosphere of episodic tragedy, as well as newly won youth “freedoms”.
Just as well, I suppose, that we were prepared in some way for Ibrox, Hillsborough, Heysel and Bradford; for Dunblane, Columbine, Sandy Hook, Paris, Brussels, and so many more.
Dunblane and Sandy Hook resonate starkly still, and always will, – because of the children, their age, and my career as a teacher. If I’m honest, Dunblane was so unimaginable, so close, and so raw, that I don’t think I’ve ever really coped with the shock of what happened there – that terrifyingly inhuman display of apparently human depravity.
But the awfulness of Aberfan – possibly as my first realisation that people younger than I could leave home in the morning and not return – has never really left me.
Living in west Lancashire, we received some news bulletins in Welsh, by train the Welsh border was only about 45 minutes away, we studied geography there, played sport against Welsh schools.
But it wasn’t geographical proximity that gave Aberfan its lasting horror, it was the closeness of familiar routine. As a pupil, and as a teacher, classrooms, rows of desks, assemblies, timetables, movement along corridors – for fifty years of my life – these were all my daily environs, so second nature to me that I was hardly aware of my surroundings or actions. I loved school and I loved teaching; it was a positive choice to spend my life in schools, and one I never regretted. How could you not enjoy watching children grow to young adults, supporting them, and their families?
So what was happening at Pant Glas junior school that October Fridaymorning in 1966 was too easy to imagine and understand – the silence descending on classes where the lessons had been set up and started, the occasional child in a corridor sent on an errand, the headmistress in her office, planning that lunchtime’s pre-holiday assembly – about keeping safe, heads bowed over desks concentrating on tasks, the contained excitement of half term approaching, the looks at friends, the searching for a sharpener, the odd sneeze or cough or creaking seat.
All of that is only too easy to see – even across fifty years.
What is harder, really too hard to contemplate, is the mounting roar of released slurry and slag, the heads raised in incomprehension, and the final momentary silence when the classrooms were buried. As so many have said this week in Aberfan. “It’s not right that that should happen to young children at school”
But, in the perspective of fifty years, a lifetime really, what are my generation to make of Aberfan, our memories of grainy grey television pictures, of blank uncomprehending faces, of tough miners in tears, of men in suits being interviewed, of the unbelievably buried school buildings, of the inexorably rising death toll, of all those pale faces, stretched tautly with sorrow and dawning realisation?
Like the seven tips which loomed over the village – part of the scene but routinely invisible, Aberfan has remained part of our growing up, briefly coming into view on anniversaries, during other tragedies, or in the rising tones of Welsh choral music, heard as from another room. When we stood in bitter cold, collecting for the miners and their families during the Strike, the symbiotic link between coal mining and disaster hovered above us, the inevitable fog over an industrial landscape.
What are we to make of it now? Has the horror been landscaped by the constant refurbishment of full lives led, and new memories forged? Or does something of the original view linger on?
I think my generation learned from Aberfan.
We learned from the reactions of the Coal Board, of Lord Robens, and the Labour Government and Welsh Office of the time that human grief and dignity do not outweigh the Establishment’s need to cover up and excuse its operatives. We received a clear indication that compassion, like everything else, is frequently costed by politicians in money spent against votes won.
We understood that generally disasters were not caused by a malevolent God or by nature alone, but through human error, neglect, or plain ignorance – and that those in power were often loathe to admit that reality.
As a result, my generation has had a basic mistrust of government and those who manipulate our lives through its actions. If anything came from the Aberfan disaster and its aftermath, it was a generation who would not give up – not on Blair Peach, Hillsborough. Bradford, Orgreave, or other miscarriages of justice or incompletely processed inquiries. And the more we have battered away at the certainties of the Establishment, the more we have discovered that our first suspicions were often to be proved true.
It was a generation that spawned folk like Mike Mansfield QC and Gareth Pierce, Ian McBride and Ray Fitzwalter and their dogged investigations for “World in Action”, and many “ordinary folk”, like those in Aberfan, who, often without publicity or widespread support, refused to give up in their search for the truth after losing loved ones.
We were the generation sandwiched between that unquestioning post war acceptance of authority – as a relief after the mayhem of conflict, and the twenty first century’s mixture of apathy, antipathy, and unfocused rage.
For me, Aberfan and its people were a graphic and awful representation of the strength of community, the employment of core values and strengths in the face of unwarranted and unbearable disaster. These people were beyond being patronised, as, even whilst reeling from the loss of their children, they acted with dignity and honour and commonality. For my generation, they would always represent a chilling and unlooked for demonstration that, in defiance of a later political philosophy, there WAS such a thing as society.
The world moves on and changes and doesn’t always learn the hard won lessons of the past. In terms of communication, the means of getting help to the valley, and organising and coordinating support on that Friday, seem very basic to our modern eyes. However, in one area, a point was made which was later largely ignored.
This was, in essence, the first rolling news event of the television age in these islands – a situation where programme schedules were ignored and almost continuous news reporting was beamed into our living rooms. The weight of the occasion – 144 dead, 116 of them children – justified this new approach. The ongoing search, the digging and scrabbling, the strained faces of those who helped or who waited – it all cried out for reporting beyond the established structure of 6pm and 9pm news bulletins.
Yet to look at that mid 60’s journalism now – the studio based summaries and the live or filmed reports from the scene – is to understand that, in those earlier days of television, we perhaps had a better understanding of how it can be most effectively used. With sparse and understated comment, the reporters let the pictures talk, realising that words could add little to the enormity of what was unfolding before them. Even in the murkiness of monochrome pictures – perhaps even because of that – the tragedy was palpable, the helplessness of the rescuers, and their despair, etched in every face, the appalling gloom that hung over the valley portrayed eloquently in every long, silent, sweeping scan of the cameras. Clearly the newsmen had no words, and were secure enough to eschew any embarrassment at the fact.
We should have realised that tragedy supplies its own commentary, and, conversely, speculation, tangential information, and endless recaps, only weaken the power of the pictures, diminishing our ability to truly understand what we are witnessing. The articulacy of the people in Aberfan, their open grief and frustration, powerfully transmitted to viewers the scale of what had happened. The last thing that was needed was a running commentary. Humanity – stripped down and hurting – was pictured, not described. The pictures spoke, even – especially – when words were of limited capacity.
How strange that broadcasters instinctively understood that then, but seem unable to operate in the same effective manner fifty years later.
Teaching, back in the eighties, when studying war poetry, I used to make use of empty desks in the room. I would point to them and ask the class to imagine they were empty because the men who would have been the grandfathers of pupils sitting there were killed before they could become fathers. It was a poignant and easily understood point – that lives lost continue to reverberate down the years.
Both world wars left the country with lost generations, but how much sharper must be the pain in a small village community missing nearly 150 family members, most aged within three years of each other, or carrying the generational resonance of being local primary school teachers. The absence will have been visible through the years, at every event for young people, and then adolescents, eventually, middle aged people and, soon, older people. In Aberfan, this gap seems to have been accepted and ameliorated to some extent by fellow feeling, community action, and a determination. “You have to go on” has been a recurrent phrase in all the interviews aired this week.
I faced pupils and parents with individual tragedies at times in my career, and the example of Aberfan helped me, I hope, towards empathy and understanding. It was one of the pointers for me in seeking to carry out my job with concern and respect for others and sensitivity for their feelings, a lesson in listening and hearing.
There was much to learn from what happened in Aberfan, and those lessons have followed my generation for a lifetime.
We learned that there is unimagined strength in communities who work together, and that it is the duty of authority to listen to those it seeks to control.
Never has it been more true that the people united will never be defeated – not even by a moving mountain of grief.
We don’t forget.