Bitter limp fruit

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The spoil of a coal waste heap credit ©robcullen2016

Rob CullenMar 18

Imagine fishermen labouring in a heavy swell
pulling in the trawl to find silver bitter limp fruit
entwined in the mesh of drip green nets,
the dead eyed souls of their own young children.
And we stay silent for our history is never told
silenced from the hour, the days, and the years
for we are edited out of the hours of our times.

Imagine coal miners hollowing out the seams,
men stripping coal a mile and more underground
and the hooters above ground call them away,
brought up into blink white light to see the black tip
the waste of their toils washed into the village,
spewed over the school where small children,
sang hymns and songs and were supposed to be safe.
And we stay silent for our history is never told
silenced from the hour, the days, and the years
for we are edited out of the hour of our times.

Imagine the trail of letters written foretelling concerns,
the dead nerved fears that a disaster would occur
and the NCB replies not days, not months but years later.
And on a grey fog filled October day after weeks of rain,
a small children’s school and a day of devastation,
exactly in the manner and the way foretold.
And imagine if no one was held to account,
and those families told make the slag heap safe
from the proceeds raised for the disaster fund.
And we stay silent for our history is never told
silenced from the hour, the days, and the years
for we are edited out of the hour of our times.

Imagine the miner, the father, the brother, the son,
looking out at the sprawl of waste they’d dug.
Imagine the mother, the sister, the daughter,
looking out at the grey listlessness of another day.
Of the silent keening, the numbed grieving,
of the impossibility of using words to describe.
And we stay silent for our history is never told,
silenced from the hour, the days, and the years
for we are edited out of the hour of our times.

Imagine the mothers bringing up children,
the happiness and hopes for the future.
Imagine the sisters who stayed off school.
Imagine the brothers too slow and were late.
Imagine the vacuum where a life had once been.
Imagine a young life where a vacuum is now.
And we have been silenced, our history just words
our fututre is silent and will never be told.
Silenced from the hour, silenced from all our days.
Silenced from the years, silenced from all that might have been.

©robcullen 10/10/2016.

This poem will be published in The Atlanta Poetry Review Spring 2020 Edition.

Footnote: The Aberfan Tribunalfound that repeated warnings about the dangerous condition of the tip had been ignored, and that colliery engineers at all levels had concentrated only on conditions underground. In one passage, the Report noted:

“We found that many witnesses … had been oblivious of what lay before their eyes. It did not enter their consciousness. They were like moles being asked about the habits of birds.”

In the House of Commons debate on the Inquiry Report it was asserted by the Government, on the advice of the NCB and supported by comments in the Tribunal report, that the remaining tips above Aberfan were not dangerous and did not warrant removal, estimated by the Tribunal to cost £3m, but merely required landscaping — a much cheaper option.

No NCB staff were ever demoted, sacked or prosecuted as a consequence of the Aberfan disaster or of evidence given to the Inquiry.

The government made a grant of £200,000 to the NCB towards the cost of removing the tips, and under “intolerable pressure” from the government, the Trustees of the Disaster Fund agreed to contribute £150,000.

10/10/ 2016

On 21 October, 1966 Tip No 7 which forms part of the main complex of tips at Aberfan slipped and descended upon part of the village killing 116 children and 29 adults.

The tragedy occurred just after nine o’clock in the morning under circumstances which apparently precluded the issue of warning. The presence of a mountain mist obscured the cascading torrent of slag so that, except for an ominous rumble, the villagers were unaware of the catastrophic fate which was about to overtake them. To make matters worse the roaring torrent burst the water main in the disused canal and several million gallons of water were released converting the slag into slurry or a muddy slime. Immediately in the path of the torrent was the junior school which was attended by pupils in the age range five to eleven years and classes had already begun. The school received the direct impact of the rolling mass and it was not long before the slurry found entry into the school through windows, doors and other apertures caused by the effect of the damage. Some account of what followed has been given by those who survived the disaster and it seems that, with the total unexpectedness of such an onslaught and the attendant delay in realising what was happening, there was naturally a time lag between the engulfing of the school and the attempts by those inside to escape or to take measures of safety.

Nearby was the senior school which was attended by pupils in the age range eleven to fifteen years. Little damage was done to this school where, in any case, it so happened that classes commenced later than those of the junior school. However, many of the senior school pupils were on their way to school when the avalanche of slurry descended, some of them were engulfed by the slurry and either trapped or injured by the floating debris which it had gathered up during its decent. Many houses were damaged or destroyed causing injury or death to their occupants and others who were in the vicinity.

The search for the injured and the dead continued for several days. Altogether 116 children died bereaving 99 families some which suffered multiple losses not only children but also of adults. In addition 28 adults were killed including the breadwinners of families and in cases persons who had assumed some measure of responsibility for certain of their relatives. Then there were the injured 29 children admitted to hospitals although many of these returned home within 24 hours, after receiving treatment, eight of them however suffered injuries which are likely to affect them the rest of their lives.

Source: United Kingdom Cabinet Office

Tip no. 7, which was 500 feet above the village of Aberfan, near Merthyr Tydfil, started to slide at 9.15 am. It was the last day before half-term at the Pantglas schools below. The valley was in low cloud, so that nobody saw the slide. Everybody heard it, but it was coming too fast to outrun. It first hit a farm, killing everybody in it. Then it engulfed Pantglas Junior School, killing 109 children and five teachers. Only a handful of the children aged between seven and ten survived. The tip comprised colliery waste, liquefied by the springs underneath. The liquefied flow slide of about 100,000 tons of slurry lost energy and solidified again after hitting the school and neighbouring houses. They were buried as completely as Pompeii. A total of 144 people died.

For 50 years up to 1966, millions of cubic metres of excavated mining debris from the National Coal Board’s Merthyr Vale Colliery were deposited on the side of Mynydd Merthyr, directly above the village of Aberfan. Huge piles, or “tips”, of loose rock and mining spoil had been built up over a layer of highly porous sandstone that contained numerous underground springs, and several tips had been built up directly over these springs. Although local authorities had raised specific concerns in 1963 about spoil being tipped on the mountain above the village primary school, these were largely ignored by the NCB’s area management.] Photographs, diagrams and an analysis of the 1966 flowslide, as well as locations of earlier slides at Aberfan are given in a paper by Prof. Alan Bishop.

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credit: Prof. Alan Bishop.

“Aberfan Colliery spoil tramway in 1964. The spoil heaps are at top left and the school is the red brick building at mid left

Early on the morning of Friday, 21 October 1966, after several days of heavy rain, a subsidence of about 3–6 metres (10–20 ft) occurred on the upper flank of colliery waste tip №7. At 9.15 am more than 150,000 cubic metres (5,300,000 cu ft) of water-saturated debris broke away and flowed downhill at high speed. It was sunny on the mountain but still foggy in the village, with visibility only about fifty metres (160 ft). The tipping gang working on the mountain saw the landslide start but were unable to raise the alarm because their telephone cable had been repeatedly stolen — although the official inquiry into the disaster later established that the slip happened so fast that a telephone warning would not have saved any lives.

The front part of the mass became liquefied and moved down the slope at high speed as a series of viscous surges. 120,000 cubic metres (4,200,000 cu ft) of debris were deposited on the lower slopes of the mountain, but a mass of over 40,000 cubic metres (1,400,000 cu ft) of debris smashed into the village in a slurry 12 metres (39 ft) deep.

The slide destroyed a farm and twenty terraced houses along Moy Road and slammed into the northern side of the Pantglas Junior School and part of the separate senior school, demolishing most of the structures and filling the classrooms with thick mud and rubble up to 10 metres (33 ft) deep. Mud and water from the slide flooded many other houses in the vicinity, forcing many villagers to evacuate their homes.

The pupils of Pantglas Junior School had arrived only minutes earlier for the last day before the half-term holiday. The teachers had just begun to record the children’s attendance in the registers when a great noise was heard outside. They were in their classrooms when the landslide hit: the classrooms were on the side of the building nearest the landslide.

Nobody in the village was able to see it, but everyone could hear the roar of the approaching landslide. Some at the school thought it was a jet about to crash and one teacher ordered his class to hide under their desks. Gaynor Minett, then an eight-year-old at the school, later recalled:

It was a tremendous rumbling sound and all the school went dead. You could hear a pin drop. Everyone just froze in their seats. I just managed to get up and I reached the end of my desk when the sound got louder and nearer, until I could see the black out of the window. I can’t remember any more but I woke up to find that a horrible nightmare had just begun in front of my eyes.

After the landslide there was total silence. George Williams, who was trapped in the wreckage, remembered:

“In that silence you couldn’t hear a bird or a child.”

NB:From the Records of the Aberfan Disaster Inquiry.Resistance Poetry

Verse as Commentary

Written by

Rob Cullen

Rob Cullen artist, writer, poet. Rob runs “Voices on the Bridge” a poetry initiative in Wales. Walks hills and mountains daily with a sheep dog at his side.

Resistance Poetry

Resistance Poetry

Verse as Commentary

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