I like travelling by train.
The train connects me with the outside world. The train winds its way southward from the town centre near the head of the valley, snaking along the course of the river through villages that merge into a long strung out conurbation. It takes just as long in today’s world of electric engines and automatic doors to reach the outside world as it did in the days of steam trains – the days when I was young and in awe of the old mausoleum of a railway station designed, as it happens, by none other than Isambard Kingdom Brunel. There used to be four platforms and crates and crates of pigeons. Now the old station is the site of the local Tesco and across the car park one solitary rail track stands behind the small brick shed that is the ticket office.
This is my journey: one hour to cover twenty-five miles stopping at eleven stations to get from Merthyr Tydfil to Cardiff and connect with the world beyond the valley. This has always been the journey. I sit back and reminisce, and observe the effects of post industrialisation on a landscape created out of the first flush of the Industrial Revolution. But always I remember. After the second stop down the line, as we pull out of Treodyrhiw station wherever I am sitting, whichever way I am facing, I bow my head and remember. And pray God to grant mercy and peace of His Infinite Bounty.
De-industrialisation means trees are coming back to repossess the valley which now looks magnificent in all the hues of varying seasons and weather, of which we have a great deal. There was a time when I would muse about my favourite coal tip. It was perfectly conical, rising suddenly from a patch of flat land on the valley floor. To the initiated it was obviously man-made, the detritus of coal mining not a naturally occurring outcrop of unnaturally perfect symmetry. Confusion might arise because this little mountain was copiously clad in grass with one vigorous sapling, a veritable tree, thriving half way up its steeply sloping side. They say it’s the worms, something special about our worms, talented like no others at naturalising the bleak devastation of an industrial landscape.
I used to be amused by this particular vignette, this almost post modern signifier of the complex interrelationships of man, nature and industrial brutalism. It made me smile as, on every journey, I noted the progress of the sapling and contemplated the particular qualities of the grass worms conferred on industrial waste. Until the day I could no longer look.
A chug or chuff or two further down the valley there stood three as yet nude, rude and raw great tips, conical at their their tip tops but spreading wide skirts over the mountainside. These harsh black graceless piles of industrial realism were thrown up by the last working coalmine in the valley. They are gone now. Where they once stood an unnaturally green swathe of specially seeded grass is conspicuously spread over the gentle undulation of the mountainside.
So what exactly am I remembering? A bright, crisp October day that followed a week of rain. A perfect autumn day of blue sky and sparkling yellows, browns and rust colours of mountainside, bracken and trees. A day more than forty years ago. A day when all that passed as normal in my world of valley and mountain suddenly rebelled to disgorge death and devastation. I have never been able to forget the detail of that day. Though most of the time I forget to remember consciously. The scenes run continually inside my head. I have only to turn my mind’s eye to catch sight of them. And in sight of those memories it all comes flooding back, tears well inside, I feel the old familiar sense of defeat, hollowed out by anguish and incalculable sadness.
The day of the Aberfan disaster is, has been, and I presume always will be alive in my mind. It is the day when one of those naked mountains of spoil turned liquid and rampaged down the mountainside to consume all the houses in its path and the village junior school just as everyone was settling into the first class of the morning.
What is man that coal should be so careless of him,
And what is coal that so much blood should be upon it?
(Idris Davies, Gwalia Deserta)
There is an answer to the poet’s question. One hundred and sixteen children crushed and buried with their teachers, half a dozen houses and their occupants gone in seconds, 144 souls in all consumed by the obscene tide of slurry. An army of volunteers digging for days where there could be no hope. Their only triumph the heart rending discovery of little broken bodies. No I never was privy to that part of the story – except that it was visible, reflected in the eyes of those who were. I saw them and their look will haunt me all my days.
There were appeals, outpourings of redundant sympathy expressed through genuine acts of compassion: they wanted wet weather gear for the men digging through the dirt and people sent children’s toys and children’s clothes to a town where an entire generation of children were lost to life. There were reporters and cameras everywhere and visits by dignitaries, royal and political. So, eventually, there had to be appeal funds and arguments about what to do as a memorial. It all came after. First, they took the little bodies back halfway up the mountainside to the village cemetery. There they made a garden of rest where parents and friends could come and visit the lost generation of the village. You can see the enclave of white marble arches surrounding closely packed graves. It’s visible from the train. So I bow my head and remember and pray, pray and remember every time I go in or out of the valley. I never have to wonder what it is I am remembering. The agony abides. That is the reality of disaster. That is its true memorial.
I learnt a lot about memorials working on the local weekly newspaper, my first job. We were a young crew just out of school or university, learning our trade together, desperate to be Woodward and Bernstein or Lou Grant – the American tv series we watched avidly intent on picking up pointers about being ‘real’ reporters. Even in those more naive times, clearly we had a lot to learn.
I remember the day when Steve came back to the office in tears. Allegedly two supposedly distinct and separate newspapers shared our office, locally referred to as the Merthyr Distress (Express) and the Rhymney Liar (Leader) – because ironically things were only true if printed in these newspapers of record. Anything else was mere noise written or said by people from ‘off’, in the interests and according to the sentiments of strangers. The Rhymney valley did not exactly generate sufficient news for a paper all its own. So Steve turned out as much as he could and for the rest: Rhymney got Merthyr’s news. This, surely, was not enough to make a strong lad cry.
Steve had been to Senghenydd for the first time that day. On another October day in 1913, I don’t know how crisp or bright, 439 men and boys from the village died when the firedamp down the pit ignited and the coal dust exploded. It caused a chain reaction of explosions resulting in the worst colliery disaster in British history. More than sixty years on and a junior reporter still had to tread carefully and listen to the agony that abides in the people who remain and came after in a place where the memorials are alive.
It was the same whenever we had to cover stories in Aberfan. There was the perennial challenge of the recurring ‘vandals hit community centre’ story. The community centre was built with disaster appeal money. It stood just across the road from the clutch of modern houses built to replace the ones swept away and re-house the survivors. Whatever questions one asked, they all led round to and back through the October day that defined this village, located it in time and preserved it in the aspic of other peoples’ sensitivities and expectations. One was always talking about that day whether it was explicitly mentioned or not. Yet no one I ever spoke to in the village believed in memorials or anniversaries. Their houses groaned with gestures of remembrance provided by strangers as aid and comfort for their distress. Obviously, the survivors did not have the heart to throw such mementoes away, but there also seemed to be a peculiar ambivalence towards them. It was as if strangers wanted to direct these peoples’ remembrance in the ways deemed appropriate. Whereas people in the village where just getting on with their lives, the agony abiding and ever included.
So why am I telling you all this? As I write it is another bright and crisp October day and we have recently memorialised the tenth anniversary of 9/11. It seemed that for weeks wherever I turned on television, radio, the papers, magazines, the internet, everything – space itself – was devoted to every aspect and nuance of the trauma of that day. And I admit I avoided it all. No, a more accurate statement is that I turned away from it with conscious and deliberate calculation. The agony of that event abides within me. Like everyone else with access to a television screen, the events of 9/11 are stored in my neural network. They have coalesced with my personal benchmark of agony nearly experienced. Every time I think about 9/11, I end up thinking about Aberfan. The conjoint identification is the shared grief I offer to the horrific, devastating, overwhelming incomprehensibility of that abomination, that sacrifice of innocence in pursuit of patent evil.
And yet I cannot help wondering what it is I am being asked to remember? And conveniently forget?
What we are presented with is a superior grief, a suffering beyond all others. We are confronted by a very specific public truth insistently constructed from 9/11. The missing element in this memorial is common humanity, any possibility of shared experience of agony and loss. If the events of that one day in all their graphic detail and unimaginable terror are set upon a unique pedestal and made particular, then the response they evoke cannot be extended to all the other victims, the nameless and uncounted innocent dead heaped at the feet of the heroic dead of 9/11. In a world reduced to heroes and villains there is merely collateral damage in these other lives blown to oblivion, the oblivion that has no memorial, no remembrance. No agony can abide for us in things not nearly experienced because they were not of us, but separate and different.
The events of 9/11 have been made particular to the American soul and its national consciousness. They have been wrapped so tightly in the American flag that proper reflection is strangled. To me this is tragedy piled on agony. And it has its consequence in the most barbaric statement in contemporary politics: we fight them over there so that we do not have to fight them here at home. Keeping the streets of America – and Britain – safe vindicates untold, unconsidered and therefore unimaginable agony elsewhere. We are entitled to our security, quite simply they are not. Barbarism is placing personal exercise of power above justice and equity for each and every irreplaceable human being. And so Afghanistan and Iraq just happened. Time to move on, we are where we are. Except that we must all stop for the tenth anniversary of 9/11.
Our ability to feel, to empathise with the pain of others, is the great redeeming human and humanising capacity. It is what raises us to the consciousness that we are not lumbering robots, mere happenstances of random chance necessities. To rise to stand with angels, however, there can be no selective empathy, no equivocation about which agony is more worthy of our sympathy and attention. Suffering is made by politics, that most human, in the sense of error prone, undertaking. We cannot be politic or economical in recognising the human costs and consequences of political action. We are all responsible and answerable for the choices made in our name, with or without our informed consent, with or without democratic process.
It is a tragedy of immense importance that 9/11 has been constructed, manipulated and used to such devastating single minded nationalistic purpose. A day wrapped in memorial flags, symbolic, iconic and detached from consequences, exonerates empathy from anything but its own uniqueness. It diminishes our common humanity. And I fear makes no contribution to better mutual understanding. Justice is not done to innocent suffering when we are confused about who is innocent and who merely unfortunate.
I could not in all conscience be party to the memorialising of 9/11 because the agenda mobilising all the hours of television and the column inches overtly and tacitly underlined that the meaning of these memorials was political. Since 9/11 too little of politics has matured into thorough examination of consequences and culpability. When we place politics before shared agony, experienced equally in America as much as in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan or anywhere that the tentacles of evil action and reactive response have reached, we are not intent on and committed to nurturing peace. We stand further apart ten years on because there are so many and so few memorials.
So what is it I am hoping we will remember? There is nothing in isolation. Evil arises in a context; it feeds on failings in individuals as well as communities and countries, it gorges on ignorance and negligence. Evil expresses itself through individuals but it is nevertheless a collective responsibility to understand how and in what ways it was permitted to arise and flourish. War is not justice, nor is it a surgical implement to open the pathway for justice. War compounds injustice, adds to the charge sheet of evil deeds and the body count of innocents slaughtered. We have as much responsibility to prosecute the evil done in the prosecution of war as in the perpetration of atrocity that was turned into a provocation for war. Unless we can arrive together at such points of equity we have learnt no lessons from 9/11. Not only will failure to find equitable understanding make a nonsense of such memorials as we permit, it will prevent us everywhere from fashioning reconciliation.
I like travelling by train. It gives me time to think. Next time I take the train I think I must bow my head for more than just the innocents of a day some 40 years ago. I must bow my head and pray for mercy and peace for all who have suffered: those of whose agony I am aware, and those whose suffering is a remote blur, a theoretical abstract probability. I need to bring the human cost of 9/11 and the events, the cycle of war, death, dearth and destruction that came in its wake, nearer and nearer to my conscious understanding until the agony of all the innocents becomes part of me, a living memorial. I owe the dead of 9/11 and all who died in the aftermath the old familiar sense of defeat, hollowed out by anguish and incalculable sadness.
And then I need to make politicians feel just the same.
I like travelling by train: its fills you with ambition as it carries you onward to new possibilities.