Scenes from Aberfan

If you come from a mining village like I do you grow up knowing there’s blood on the coal. My grandmother’s brother was killed in the local pit as was my next door neighbour, both crushed by a roof-fall, though on separate occasions. My neighbour on the other side died early from pneumoconiosis – the miner’s black lung which was so common when I was a kid it felt like every house had someone in their fifties and sixties (not older because they wouldn’t make their seventies) coughing up blood at some point.

These coughs were woven into the soundtrack of my youth and the sight of men old before their time struggling to breathe has never left me. However, although these sights and sounds were absorbed locally to some degree as the recognised price of coal – without which our community would not exist – nothing prepared my culture for what happened at Aberfan fifty years ago. Killing a whole school of children and their teachers was never part of the devil’s bargain that had been the coal industry in South Wales. No one signed up for that.

I lived about 12 miles away from Aberfan as the crow flies but that day we were one village: the million or so people still in the Valleys of coal united in feeling a profound grief and then an inchoate anger at the appalling tragedy which today would in my view be understood as a crime of corporate manslaughter. Those were more deferential and less litigious days and the nationalised coal industry was ‘ours’ – in the collective ownership of a largely Labour community.

Yes it had been raining for days which destabilised the slag heap which like a tsunami of black bile drowned these children as they sat in their rows in class.  But it was all foreseeable and had been foreseen and the National Coal Board had been warned years before that the tip was piled sky high over a stream and did nothing.

I was nine when this happened. Our headteacher called us out onto the playground to tell us a school had been destroyed . As a precocious proto anarchist I started to cheer at the idea that a bastion of thought control had been overthrown without realising that my peers had died. Then we were sent home early to find that the water in our taps was tinged with slurry and black with death – our water came from above Aberfan.   My fathers like all the fathers raced up to Aberfan to see what bare hands could achieve. The image of thousands of people digging for survivors is as iconic for me as that infamous photo of the naked , terrified, Vietnamese child running towards the camera  is for 60s anti-war radicals. This was our war. And like wars tend to do, it politicised and radicalised many in my background.

It left a permanent mark on me. I developed an unbenign view of establishments of all kinds which hasn’t really left me. I knew about poverty before October 1966 but not injustice. I knew that mining killed adults but not children. Above all I formed a deep almost Orwell-scale sense of the decency and communal values of a working class culture which seemed both ordinary and extraordinary at the same time.

But I also  realised following Aberfan how fragile the basis of this community was and how leaderless it must have become for no-one in their own Labour government to have taken action to protect them before The Fall, as it were. In my view there is a direct link from Aberfan and its radicalising impact through the UK  Miner’s Strike of ‘84-85 and ultimately on to the vote by Valleys communities for Welsh devolution in 1997. I recognise this even though my own trajectory was away from the leftism of the debacle of the miner’s strike and the Welsh nationalism of ‘97.

It strikes me as nonetheless likely that if , as was said of the ordinary soldiers of the First World War, the Valleys communities of the 60s and 70s were ‘lions led by donkeys’ then the  political shift away from Westminster’s donkeys we have seen in Wales since Aberfan is in part attributable to that terrible October day 50 years ago.

For me personally, it led to a respect for the kind of everyday heroism I saw in my community that day and afterwards –  combined with a determination to do something to ensure such communities get the investment and policy focus they need to flourish. In a small but real way the career I subsequently have had in promoting the renewal of East London and now in seeking for Sydney to be both a successful and a just and equitable city, was shaped that dank, dishonourable day when I was 9 and a few months in a valley long ago and far away – and yet always with me. Lest we forget.

Tim Williams is chief executive officer, Committee for Sydney

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  1. Dear Tim

    I am an artist working with issues surrounding climate change and the effects on human and natural environments. Could you tell me what your thoughts on the recent approval of the Adani mine are?

    Kind regards
    Ngaio Fitzpatrick