Aberfan; A Few Faded Memories as a Personal Tribute

This blog post is very different from usual.  Normally I present thoughts about freedom and equality; republican ideas jostle with reports of political events I have attended. I will admit that some posts deal with particularly obscure and arcane bits of our constitution I find irksome or dangerous. But in the week where we commemorate 50 years of the Aberfan disaster in South Wales I want to relate a few personal reflections and impressions, however fleeting and vague.

When the disaster occurred on 21st October 1966 I was a 5 year old living in Tredegar at the head of the Sirhowy Valley about 10 or 11 miles away from Aberfan.  The mines had been worked out in my area but with the South Wales Area NCB maintenance operations still going strong in the town and Pochin service colliery still operating a few miles down the valley, mining was still the main focus.  The human memory is a peculiar thing and it is easy to fall into the trap of false consciousness, of memories which are invented but have all the appearance of reality.  So trying my best to eliminate those I am left with precious few recollections.   As you may expect for a 5 year old the memories are impressionistic rather than of specific situations or events.  Whenever I think back to that day the overwhelming feeling is of darkess and anxiety. I can remember nothing of the morning in my little primary school a few hundred yards up a hill from where I lived, but I do recall the afternoon being disrupted with myself and my schoolmates being brought together in the hall.  I was allowed to stay up later than normal that evening by my mother, probably until about 8 or 9 o’clock.  Two memories are very clear. Firstly listening the news updates on the radio with my mother doing her best to explain what happened. The second seems peculiar.  But I remember my mother fishing my father’s wellington boots out of the cupboard to warm them by the fire!

I shall explain the last memory first. Soon after the news started spreading men started arriving to start digging.  Because of the nature of the disaster much of the relief relied on sheer musclepower rather than machinery.  From the mines and steelworks in the area men were literally finishing their shifts, throwing  clothes and tools into cars and setting off for Aberfan.  My father was an electrician  at Ebbw Vale steelworks on an afternoon shift which finished at 10pm. He never went.  Long before he got home there were so many people at Aberfan that they were getting in the way of the professional disaster relief teams and mine rescue crews who had arrived from Merthyr Vale colliery.

Looking back the impressions of darkness and anxiety are understandable.  Anxiety I picked up directly from the emotional state of my mother who identified immediately with the loss of children about the same age as myself.  The darkness was of two kinds, physical and psychological.  As a young child I had no real sense of death.  My maternal grandmother, my last remaining grandparent, had died of cancer in 1966 and my idea of death was that people simply left and you never saw them again. The physical sense of darkness came out of the conditions of valley life. The rain which had caused the tip at Aberfan to become unstable would have cast a late autumn gloom over the South Wales valleys for days prior to the event.  Living in a valley with the hillsides creating a very high horizon, the lowering clouds  would mean that evening drew in early and I can recall days when it hardly brightened at all.  Secondly, being allowed to stay up late in mid autumn, a bright kitchen with windows shrouded in darkness is understandable,  I do not remember my dad coming home at 10 o’clock in his little Austin A35 car. I guess I simply fell asleep.

I make no claim for these fleeting and faded recollections, apart from a desire to contribute something personal to the commemoration of this week. Maybe that is just egotism, so please excuse my indulgence. I simply offer them as my humble tribute to the 116 children and 28 adults who went to school that day just as I did but never came home. I also dedicate them to another group, those children of Aberfan who did survive that day and remain haunted by awful memories and feelings of guilt.  Maybe some historian in the future will find these words of use but I doubt it, insubstantial as they are.

Much later I acquired sense of profound injustice at what happened that day and subsequent events. That will wait for another blog post.

Rousing Rebels and Motivating Movements; Why the Establishment Controls the Historical Narrative

petermemeWhen I was 11 years of age I had a wonderful history teacher. We studied the Anglo-Saxons and he did his best to give us an idea of what it was like to live about 1,500 years ago.  It was compelling stuff but sadly it did not last. By age 14 I had given up on history, my early inspirational teacher being replaced by a boring and lifeless one who made us learn facts and dates by rote. It would be many years before I started to realise that to understand our present situation we need to understand where we have come from.  I also realised that the history I wanted to grasp was not the history taught in schools or on the TV and there were few monuments to the events I found significant. I learned quickly about the way in which the establishment controls the historical narrative. I wanted to understand the fight to be a free citizen, the struggle for liberty, the campaigns for equality and a fair wage. But the overwhelming narrative was about monarchs, wars, generals and empires. It was easy to find out why the Duke of Wellington was a hero of Waterloo, but not that he was despised in many places and physically attacked on the streets for his repressive attitude and support for the 1819 carnage in Manchester at the Peterloo Massacre.  Many people have heard of Abraham Lincoln, but far fewer of the Englishman William Wilberforce who fought a long and courageous campaign to abolish the British slave trade in 1807. So why the blatantly one sided treatment of history?

The Necessity of Controlling the Historical Narrative

It turns out that there are a number of reason. Firstly it goes against the still prevalent so-called Whiggish theory of history.  Briefly this says that the social history of first England and then Britain is one of gradually increasing liberty being handed by the government to the people at the point when they have developed the sophistication to handle the responsibility. ‘Don’t worry’, this narrative reads, as we are on a one-way journey to freedom.  The reality is very different. Freedoms have been fought for and won, not benevolently bequeathed us by a kindly establishment.  Here are just a few of the more prominent examples.  The Thirteenth Century Magna Carta was signed because the barons threatened (yet another) bloody civil war; the autocracy of kingship was ended in the Seventeeth Century as a result of an armed Revolution; the increased franchise and social developments of the nineteenth century took place because the government feared another revolution following the growth of popular movements such as Chartism.  But it was not a one way trip and freedoms could be taken away!

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