There’s a tide in the affairs of men, A moon in the affairs of women.
Death and Nightingales - Eugene McCabe.
Without respite, a month’s worth of rain fell over a day, through a night.
Unrelenting from lead black skies, in truth, it felt like a judgement of spite.
After the flood waters had fallen, I walked the debris-littered river beach,
tattered plastic festoons hung from trees branches, fluttering, wind strewn.
Where white-grey sand had lain, once flecked with old red sandstone,
brought down from Pen-y-fan*, to rest and lie for a while on the river shore.
Now all is gone, a few bared stones hang on, a tree trunk fallen long ago,
exposed by the floods scouring rip and roar. And everywhere,
the signs of man’s disrespect, of careless stupidity, for the hills, for the rivers,
and the old meadow lands, where I walk each day, raked by desolation now.
The heron has taken up its usual quarter, eating anything that moves nearby.
But the salmon avoids its spring run to the reds, where they were born.
The moon commands the spring tide to rise and stem the waters flow,
and cleansing will slow, so maybe the salmon will stay far out at sea.
The woman, walking the river shore, hunkers down on her knees,
places the blue river glass she’s found to her eye and feels once again,
the coloured glass in her hand, shaped by the sand and the rivers flow,
smoothed over months and years, while the silent ghost moon looks on.
*Pen y fan is the highest mountain in South Wales.
In February 2020 a storm hit South Wales. A month’s amount of rain fell in two days. Pontypridd town was flooded, and so many homes and shops were devastated by the floodwater. Three Bridges were closed — thankfully not the Victoria Bridge, which carries one of the main road arteries connecting the town to the motorway network. Shops have moved to vacant premises which are above the flood zone. It’s a slow process. And even now many retail premises are closed, and the town has the feel of a place that is going through hard times and an unstoppable decline.
Homeowners who suffered the worst of the flooding were those whose homes had been built along the sides of the river, but sometime back had been flood-proofed and thought safe. Such was the scale of the flooding on this occasion, no flood-proofing stood a chance of holding the floodwaters back. It was a warning that, with climate change and the ominous reality that flooding on this scale in these narrow spate river valleys will become regular events, we had better be prepared and change so much of what we do.
Mountains stripped of trees by clear-felling so that the ability of the mountains to “hold” water and slow its movement to the river are seriously impeded; together with farm land left bear over winter so that there is a continuous erosion of soil and, again, no holding back of rain water. And everywhere the concretisation of large areas so that water just runs off even more swiftly into a river already gorged with flood.
The town is steadily pulling itself back together. I’m constantly amazed by the resilience folk are showing in the face of what has been two devastating blows, the flood and Covid19. But the struggle to survive the hardship life throws is at the heart of valleys people.
But like Covid19, the floods and extreme weather events, such as the floods of February 2020, have been a warningthat lifestyles and industry have to change. Its dismaying to hear of the call for a return to the old days, when the economy will get back to “normal” and the destruction of Earth continues. The announcements of the release of the vaccines has been accompanied by a call to return to normality. But what on earth does that normality mean? And at what price?
The floods that besieged Pontypridd, a small town in Wales have also been replicated all over the world. A flag is being waved. Sit up and take note.
And we wait for February’s rain whatever that will bring!
“Our lives are brief, a mere fluttering in time. So open the door wide and let the light in!”
So we cut the roses for your grave and let them rest on the wet grass — your life was a golden thing, hope filled and hope given to so many! You will never leave us.
In the early afternoon of Thursday 16th June 2016, after leaving a meeting with her local constituents, the 41-year old British Labour politician Helen Joanne Cox, a married mother of two young children, was chased down the streets of Birstall, England by a man intent on killing her, a killer who was patiently lying in wait. The man subsequently stabbed her, then shot her, and left her to bleed to death in a car park behind the local library.
Murder of an activist
Dress it up whichever way you want,
but what it breaks down to
is the senseless murder
of a woman by a man.
Senseless the loss.
Senseless the pain.
The resort to violence.
The resort to hate.
And the mindless murder
of a defenseless mother.
Whichever way it breaks down,
it’s male violence again.
A tribute to Jo Cox, MP, radical activist, mother of two.
Born 22 June 1974 murdered 16th June 2016.
Jo Cox was murdered by a far right white nationalist. A male.
“It’s not about creating an equal country, but it is about stopping the development of an underclass cut off from the rest of society.”
“Every decade or so, the world is tested by a crisis so grave that it breaks the mould: one so horrific and inhumane that the response of politicians to it becomes emblematic of their generation — their moral leadership or cowardice, their resolution or incompetence. It is how history judges us.”
In 1942 Juliette Greco, who has died this week, wrote in her autobiography that she and her sister were arrested by the Gestapo when she was sixteen, as her mother was active in the Resistance.
She was held in a small cell with a light permanently on, the usual sleep deprivation, before interrogation. She later wrote of her Gestapo interrogator “I will never forgive him” — “I know that I myself will fight until the last day of my life, against oppression, against intellectual terrorism, indifference and the denial of the only treasure that is worth preserving at all costs: the right to live as we choose, to think, to laugh, to give, to change, to love without fear whatever and whoever we love.”
Juliette Gréco, singer and actor, born 7 February 1927; died 23 September 2020.
In these times more than any other it is crucial — mandatory that all people oppose the politics of hate, and those who use violence and fear to promote hate to destroy our freedoms. Freedoms that have been hard won by our forebears and should now be cherished and not let go of easily!
My entire professional career of 37 years involved working with men who were violent, abusive and above all hated themselves — transferring that hate onto others as some kind of vindication of their worth, but like all bullies they make themselves feel alright by making other peoples lives miserable and not alright. Women and children, the most vulnerable are their victims — which tells you everything you need to know about them.
In the most extreme cases these men end up killing others whether its Jo Cox, MP in Birstall England or Heather Heyer in Charlottesville, Virginia and so many black lives because they are African Americans living in America. If our political leaders espouse or are sympathetic to those who project violence and hate within our society — we only have one choice. Vote them out! And to paraphrase Juliet Greco “I know that I myself will fight until the last day of my life, against oppression, against intellectual terrorism, and indifference”.
In the Cymer*, a gold eyed, grey white heron, stilted stands, where two rivers collide, commands the stream in its stiff eyed gleam, one peat whiskey brown, the other bottle green.
In the break and rush of an old fords remains, in its broken, rapid cold crackling ice water, among worn rounded scoured stones, Graylings, Queens of the Stream, gleam and glide, ride the current, sails aloft, hunting nymphs unseen.
In the slow wash of the silt drop zone, Goosanders dive through darkened swirls, hunting with sharpened eyes and beaks, while green necked mallards cruise serene, and gold skinned eels burrow roots of trees, lie glass-eyed grey through winters dream, and the Cymer’s deep dark pool, waits the run, of spawning silver spring Atlantic salmon.
Meanwhile horse eyed on the rivers path, blinkered people thumbing dull blue screens, walk their way, virtually oblivious to the snare.
*Afon — Welsh for river.
*Cymer — Welsh for the meeting of two rivers.
Afon Rhondda will be published in The Atlanta Poetry Review Spring 2020 Edition.
Lightest pale yellow whitening, stretching away moorland grass, waving with the winds shift, slow gusts flow on the uplands plateau, distant raven specked black wheel, unhinged mating glide soars, in white grey clouded skies above the flat worn track.
Sinister Catherine wheeled turbines, hypnotically spin now, the latest transient seal that this margin land has no value, this hard edged landscape has no worth in any time, giant windmills that stud and transfigure the landscape, the latest scarring, killing the calm of the ghost road,
another sacrifice made of wilderness, and in this time a land of golden plovers and the call of curlews, nothing is sacred where sustainability is concerned. I walked wild on the high slopes when I was a child, in a sheep trailed playground on black curtained slopes,
too many lives unlived, cut short and each one, someon’s child, someone’s daughhter, someone’s son. For so many days I’d walk out on the ghost road, through summer, through winter snows,it was a place to breathe clear air, a place to be alone, a place to sketch Ffynon Saith’s black worn stone,
on the flat mountain plateau tops, where men once walked, with open still splayed nerves naked in white daylight, so many breathless men, taking the air on a Sunday, in the silence of a long year, in those hardest times, too many deaths, too many sudden unannounced leavings
a gathering place for the collection of remnants, of a day’s thoughts, a place to make sense somehow and of blanking out teenage doubts, a place of quietness, a place for forgetting, a place of dreams.
I wrote several years ago the following thoughts when constructing a long narrative history of my family titled — “An examination of time.”
The photograph above is like many archive images of the South Wales Valleys in the heyday of its industrial past and the coal industries peak. It is not only familiar because it mirrors so many other photographs of the Rhondda. But the image is all too familiar because it is a photograph taken in 1910 of the village in which I was born in 1950, grew up and left in 1969. The landmarks familiar to me are there in the photograph.
And of course the year 1910 has great signifigance for anyone with a knowledge of the history of this place and the fight by mineworkers forjustice and a living wage in the Rondda and especially those from Tonypandy and Llwnypia. It is the year of the great strike that paralysed the mining industry and left families to strugge in penury and hunger. The subsequent levels of infant mortality and deaths of pregnant mothers was shocking and the highest in Britain. Perhaps the moment this reality struck home was when I discovered the record of my my grandfathers burial and grave to discover there were nine bodies interred.
However my interest in the village is not simply taken up by the associations it evokes or its unusual quality. My curiosity has also focused on the question of the location of the camera when the photograph was taken. The camera in some way had to be suspended high above the ground. However I know that no buildings of that height existed in that part of the valley at that time or since. So I am puzzled as to where the camera was positioned. It is a mystery.
And then there is the matter of the black speck (left of centre in the photograph) which on magnification becomes the form of a young girl running towards the camera. Or at least that was my memory of the photograph when I first viewed and examined it many years ago. I also seem to have elaborated an understanding from the time when I first came across. I rationalised that the photograph must have been taken near the No 6 shaft of Glamorgan Colliery, close to the old dram road tunneled beneath Ynyscynon Road, where the drams could be drawn by long steel cables to eventually spew the pit spoil onto the hilltop known as Mynydd Brithweunydd. Its other name was the “blood field”, purportedly the site of an ancient battlefield. (I wonder how many people know of the blood field and the reason that red bleed of a peat bog each Spring was given that name.)
I’d believed the terraced street to be seen was Ynyscynon Road and that somewhere out of view was my grandfather’s house. And that behind the camera also out of view was a row of tenement housing known as “rotten row” in which children might have friends but with whom they were forbidden to have any romantic attachment and on no circumstances was marriage to be entertained. Such was the fear of the poverty and disease that was believed to be rife there — so called “diphtheria and TB families”.
As mentioned previously the photograph was taken in 1910 the year of the miners strike and the Tonypandy Riots and five years before my mother’s birth. I wondered whether the running girl had seen the funeral procession of the Canadian soldier who had died in 1918 during the great influenza epedemic – which my mother had said was her first memory three years of age.
Or whether the girl herself had died during the influenza epidemic, or hopefully, had survived the poverty and hunger of those days. I wondered too whether she would have seen the great Chestnut tree outside the Ynyscynon Hotel, and the green where men played horseshoes — men including my grandfather. I remember as a child running through the dilapidated walls of the Pub’s old garden and sitting on the rotted out hulk of a great tree that had stood outside the Ynyscynon Hotel. But then it was pulled out and the green tarmacked to make a parking place.
Some two years I’d last looked at the photograph I found myself examining it again — touching base — reconnecting — with what exactly?
But on looking at it again I noticed that the image had changed. Or at least not that the image had changed but that my understanding of it had changed. The image does not in fact show Ynyscynon Road, Trealaw but Partridge Road, Llwynypia a differently named stretch of the same road further along the valley. And the pit shaft was not No 6 but an air shaft or some other kind of minor shaft.
Today in 2018 my understanding of the photograph has undergone another change. I have been researching the number of coking ovens operating in the massive Glamorgan Colliery complex. More specifically I was also researching the number of brickworks operating on the site and the number of women employed in the brickworks. My interest had been spurred by the fact that I was born in the house of a woman who had worked in the brickworks and whose lungs had been badly scarred by her employment there. But I have never been able to find photographic evidence or any detailed account of the numbers of women engaged in this physically arduous work. I found this reference today:
“The colliery (sic Glamorgan Colliery) was also famous for making bricks from clay mined at No 3 pit. Women using hand moulds produced 10,000 bricks per day.”
The photograph below clearly showing the stacks of the brick works in the huge industrial combine hat was the Glamorgan Collieries — locally known as “Scotch” colliery after the Scottish shaft sinkers that were brought in to do the task.
I also happened upon another photograph that I hadn’t seen before which was the reason for the change in the understanding of the original photograph that I began this post.
I had known that there had been heaps of pit waste higher than the houses of Ynyscynon Road. But I was genuinely shocked by the huge mound of pit waste in the centre of the photograph. I had never understood that the slag tip was so enormous. My grandparents’ house is hidden by it, as is my great aunts’ home. It then dawned on me how the original photograph had been taken it was from the heights of this mountain of waste.
However my understanding underwent another change the slag waste heap was not shown in another photograph as the same one taken in 2010. The puzzle of the original photograph remains unresolved.
The first photograph of this article also shows the hulk of buildings, brooding ominously above the village which, I as a child and into adulthood knew as the local hospital. But unbeknownst to me, in reality it had started as a “Workhouse”. In all the time that I had been living and growing up in the village I never heard it once mentioned, or reference made to the “Workhouse”. I know that people feared debt, destitution and homelessness — and the resulting “Workhouse” and all that it entailed. Perhaps that pervasive fear meant that people remained silent. One of the village characters was a Mr. Christmas who was left as a foundling on Christmas Day at the gates of the “Hospital” — he was give work as a kind of janitor and had accommodation in the Hospital where he lived and eventually died. His story was told to me as a child as I was curious about the stories of some of the odd characters who haunted the village like question marks without explanations…not once in relation to Mr. Christmas was there any mention of the workhouse although that was its function throughout my mother’s childhood up until the second world war.
The removal of the tips that towered over my grandfather’s and his sister’s house taking place when I was a child. The viewing point where I suspect the first foto in this article was taken And above the village the Hospital stands, the exact same buildings as the “Workhouse” — there is nothing like fear, fear to silence people, the greater the fear the greater the silence!
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
I count the species in the orchard hedge Maple, Blackthorn, Hawthorn and Hazel thrive Blackberry and Honeysuckle intertwine Elder pruned and cut hard to renew two Oaks, two tall Maples break the line a Red Admiral sits on a Buddleia leaf needing to find a place to hibernate. An idyllic scene a man laying a hedge the clear blue skies under an autumn sun but never far from my mind that other world Of war in Syria, the unrelenting brutality and the suffering of people in these times and of the silence of the people of my kind and of the silence, the discordany unravelling of the myth of the Wests superiority of the myth of the Wests democracy of the myth of the Wests morality.
Politicians assume the cloak of Pontius Pilate and wash their hands of responsibility.
This is a message from the borderlands an endless void a windswept land like all deserts stripped bare of features. So I whisper the message — If you could have heard all that I’ve heard. If you could see all that I’ve seen if you could have been there, far out there and if you could have listened to peoples words, listened to those broken hurting people and that place out there, in here, in me, in you. The dark frontier, that secret place you know I know, we know, we all know, but deny its existence.
But for me there is no choice. I cannot deny its imprint on my mind, my memory is not deaf or unfeeling, its not blind. But I wish sometimes that it might be so. Now what do I do with these memories, the words I do not wish to store, and hold like some mad treasure trove, archive of horrors of mankind, of humankind the stories told and told again.
The faces change but the pain and fear, the words remain. It’s unending, it’s our narrative as long as we survive this story will evolve and grow for we are humans. I worked amongst the desolation, fragments, survivors, of lives that might have flowered in their right time. And that endless unknowing of what might have been of who would I have been if that had not been done to me, to who I was, a child, and unsuspecting. Imagine the innocence and the quiet trust.
And all that time of working to heal — denial. A total blindness to the reality of the harm being done to children everywhere you look. It’s a reality, take a bus or a train, sit in a café you will be close to someone who has survived. And then the guaranteed denial that fact is fact In the face of all that. And then that sound of wheels within wheels grinding, the noise of conversations and the deals in closed rooms to keep silence, to protect the perpetrators and prevent the door room from being opened and the truth from being known and shared.
Forty years of denial, obstruction and frustration. Our lives are brief, a mere fluttering in time. So open the door wide and let the light in!
Child Sexual Abuse By Powerful Westminster Figures Covered Up For Decades, Inquiry Finds.