Friday, 21 October 2016

Aberfan

I'm not quite old enough to remember the awful tragedy of Aberfan that occurred exactly 50 years ago today. But I vividly remember it being discussed, probably a few years later on similar anniversaries to the one being marked today. 

The name Aberfan has become synomymous with the worst mining disaster in British history: a day that was the last dawn for 116 children of the local primary school and a day that destroyed the lives of hundreds, possibly thousands more affected by the tragedy. 

I've been dwelling on it recently, and considering it from a parent's perspective. And what struck me most vividly was the fact that so many of the parents - father's, mainly - would have been miners. Because that was what Aberfan was - a mining village where generations of families would have been employed at the pit, in a hazardous occupation that claimed many lives but which they could never have imagined claiming the lives of their own children. 

Some of the black-and-white photos of years ago show men in miners helmets helping with the rescue. What must it have been like for the men who mined the material a by-product of which was smothering and crushing their own children? How could such men return to work, knowing that what they were doing, that some of the material falling at their feet, had been the immediate cause of such catastrophe. 

The men weren't to blame, of course. The National Coal Board paid expensive lawyers to try and prove that they weren't responsible, either. Very much in the tradition of the old private mine owners, that. 

But grief is anything but rational, and the raw emotion and the close connection between livelihoods - life - and the senseless deaths of 116 children along with 28 adults cannot have been far from these men's thoughts. Imagine being them. Digging the graves of their own children...

Each pick, each shovel full of wet, black shards of coal,
Each newly-excavated space a hole
A child might fill, until the mine is full,
Until the coal you dig has covered every one. 

Heavy wet slag sliding like hot tar downhill.
While far, far underground you dig and drill
And dig some more. The pitiless fossil
Falls to the floor, covers your boots 

Like ash, blackens your face 
And closes you in darkness
Like your daughter, her small body 
Now entombed in a new grave 

Dug for her by her own father,
By his father and his father's father.
Back in time forever, to when this coal
Was first discovered.

Soon the sirens will be heard.
The shift will end for him, 
For her, forever. The cage hurries 
Miners back to light, to air.

Worried faces gather at the pit head.
And you walk, then run and then
You're sprinting down the hill
To where she lies with all

The others, trapped in airless darkness.
No cage will ever rise, no siren sound
The end of this eternal shift of blackness:
They lie frozen, like a fossil, underground.
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