Laurie Lee in Aberfan
Laurie Lee (1914—97), the author of Cider with Rosie and As I walked out one midsummer morning, visited Aberfan in autumn 1967, almost a year after the disaster. He found numerous tourists and souvenir-hunters. He described the Aberfan Disaster Fund as ‘sprawling over the village like some great golden monster which no one could tame or put to use’. He heard ‘a village chorus rising all day from the streets and pubs, a kind of compulsive recitation of tragedy, perpetually telling and retelling the story…. Most of them are still living in a state of shock, in a village which remains an open wound’. Here are some further extracts from what he wrote (‘The village that lost its children’ in I can’t stay long (André Deutsch, 1975)).
Fragments of the school itself still lie embedded in the rubbish – chunks of green-painted classroom wall…. Even more poignant relics lie in a corner of the buried playground piled haphazardly against a wall – some miniature desks and chairs, evocative as a dead child’s clothes, infant-sized, still showing the shape of their bodies. Among the rubble there also lie crumpled song-books, sodden and smeared with slime, the words of some bed-time song still visible on the pages surrounded by drawings of sleeping elves.
Across the road from the school, and facing up the mountain, stands a row of abandoned houses. This must once have been a trim little working-class terrace, staidly Victorian but specially Welsh, with lace-curtained windows, potted plants in the hall, and a piano in every parlour – until the wave of slag broke against it, smashed the doors and windows, and squeezed through the rooms like toothpaste.
Something has been done to clear them, but not very much. They stand like broken and blackened teeth. Doors sag, windows gape, revealing the devastation within – a crushed piano, some half-smothered furniture. You can step in from the street and walk round the forsaken rooms which still emit an aura of suffocation and panic – floors scattered with letters, coat-hangers on the stairs, a jar of pickles on the kitchen table. The sense of catastrophe and desertion, resembling the choked ruins of Pompeii, hangs in the air like volcanic dust.
On surviving children:
Prettily dressed and beribboned, riding expensive pedal-cars and bicycles, they are an elite, the aristocrats of survival, their lives nervously guarded and also coveted by those who mourn. By luck, chance, and by no choice of their own, they are part of the unhealed scar-tissue of Aberfan.
The father of a victim, talking to Laurie Lee in the pub:
Of course, we could have lost the boy too. He was on his way up Moy Road when he saw the houses falling towards him. He ran off home; and I couldn’t get a word out of him for months. He had to go to the psychiatrist…. Just wouldn’t talk about it, and wouldn’t mention his sister either. And the two of ‘em worshipped each other. They was always together; slept in the same room, holding hands…. He used to hide when we went to the grave….
Then one night – about four months later it was – we was round at our brother’s place. The boy went outside to the lavatory and I heard him call Dad! Ay, what is it, boy? I said. Come out here! he said. Sure, I said, what’s the matter? It was a beautiful frosty night. He said, Look at that star up there – that’s our Sandie, Dad. Sure, I said, that’s our little Sandie.
The boy’s all right now, and I’m going to see he’s all right…. And I’ll make damn sure he never goes down the pit. He’s not going to grow up daft like me.
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