Grown men don’t cry.
They did. That day. 50 years ago.
Those who were born or reached maturity after 1966 will not understand the world of that time; no mobile phones, no internet, no rolling news, we had not been groomed by the nightly parade of Sky’s ‘anything with blood’ version of the national news.
200 blown up in an Afghan market place? Time to put the kettle on! 115 miners immured in deepest Chile? Want any more, shall I start the film now? 40 tortured souls trapped on the top floor of a burning inferno? Is that a film or are we still on the news? We have become desensitised to horror, immune to disaster.
50 years ago, as hundreds of people pressed button B in isolated phone boxes and heard the pennies drop into the lower casing – then was the first time they told others of the tragedy that had unfolded in Aberfan. The word was passed from pub to pub, from social club to social club. 116 children had been buried alive, along with 28 of their teachers and carers.
50 years of slag had slid silently down the mountside after heavy rain had loosened it, and crept into those classrooms in Pantglas. Not so silently as it happens, some of those who survived still remember the roar as it gathered speed over the final yards towards snuffing out the younger generation of an entire village. There were men who saw the monstrous slide begin – working high in the mountain, they possessed none of the modern technology that would enable them to warn those down below. ‘Someone’ had stolen the cable to the only telephone.
So many people threw on their clothes, picked up a shovel and took a train across country to Aberfan to help the fruitless effort to dig out the children that they ended up hampering rescue efforts. The tiny Bethania Chapel was used as a mortuary – mothers and fathers arriving to identify their little ones were led past pew after pew containing tiny covered bodies – they might have viewed 90 or 100 of their child’s playmates and neighbours before they found their own child.
During the rescue operation, the shock and grief of parents and townspeople were exacerbated by the insensitive behaviour of the media – one unnamed rescue worker recalled hearing a press photographer tell a child to cry for her dead friends because it would make a good picture.
The Attorney General imposed restrictions on speculation in the media about the causes of the disaster. Years later, a Tribunal offered its opinion:
“…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. Not villains but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan”.
The National Coal Board paid each parent the grand sum of £500 for a ‘lost child’. 90,000 members of the public were so stunned by this event that they collectively contributed £1,606,929 to a charitable fund. Charity Commission staff seriously considered whether to insist that before any payment was made to bereaved parents, each case should be reviewed to ascertain if the parents had been close to their children and were thus likely to be suffering mentally…
50 years later, we wake to the news that the government forces in Iraq have decided to dislodge ISIS from Mosul and dispose of those they don’t kill to some other area of the middle east. Fighter jets will scream overhead; bombs will drop on civilians and soldiers alike; children will be buried in rubble; the media will dart between explosions like demented bluebottles, searching for that heart rending picture of a small child crying.
We won’t rush to help; we won’t rush to raise money.
Some of us will sit in front of our computer screens and watch live coverage of the death and destruction – grateful that we can add ’emoticons’ to the screen to signify our pleasure or displeasure at particularly gruesome scenes.
Meanwhile, Corbyn bemoans the brave new world where coal mines are closed and no longer a nationalised industry; he dreams of the romance of an age of richly embroidered banners, and colliery brass bands, men proudly marching in his wake, demanding the right to risk being buried in an avalanche of coal, to have the right to build ever higher heaps of slag above welsh villages – to send their children down the mines too.
I struggle to understand Darwin’s Theory of Evolution.
‘Live’ death and destruction, Facebook, emoticons, sheesh!