“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” The phrase is one of the most enduring and quoted of modern literature, an almost proverbial reference to the archaic and bygone.
It is the opening line of LP Hartley’s 1953 novel The Go-Between, an eerie story set 50 years on from a tumultuous experience of an adolescent boy; an experience so devastating it propelled him prematurely into adulthood and ruined the rest of his life.
The story of what happened in the south Wales mining village of Aberfan is a devastating one which dealt a similar fate to the children who survived it. It too is a story for which Hartley’s opening line could not be more pertinent.
It is exactly 50 years since tragedy swooped down on Aberfan killing 116 children and 28 adults. Revisiting the “obscenity” of 21 October 1966, and its aftermath is a stark reminder of the incongruities of the past.
Health and safety, counselling, accountability, litigation, compensation – at times met with derision – are the tenets of our modern day. Aberfan is an upsetting reminder of perhaps why and how much our society changed so much in little over a generation.
“Our valley was going black, and the slag heap had grown so much it was half-way along to our house. Young I was and small I was, but young or small I knew it was wrong, and I said so to my father.” – How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
In the village of Aberfan in the heart of the south Wales coalfield it was raining; as hard and unrelentingly as it had been for days, running into weeks. As the children left the coal-fire warmth of home they emerged into streets shrouded with a dense, cold fog.
Mothers waved goodbye from the doorstep, never imagining in their worst nightmares that it would be for the last time.
The 240 pupils of the Victorian red brick Pantglas Junior School wound their way through the gullies, the back lanes of the miners’ terrace houses, crunching over layers of sodden clinker swept from the hearth and tipped there on a daily basis.
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