Pantglas means “The Green Hollow”. It is one of the names, along with Hafod Tanglwys and Bryn Golau, for that part of South Wales where the Taff is joined by its tributary, the Fan. It is best known as the mouth of the Fan, or Aberfan.
I had just turned fourteen at the time. During the summer, despite my growing dislike of football, I had watched England win the World Cup while we were on holiday in Newquay. Over the following years I watched with absolute fascination the developing Apollo programme that would, in less than three years, land a man on the moon. Both of these events have their tangential part to play in the story. But in between came those devastating black and white images. We didn’t yet have BBC2, so we didn’t yet have colour television, but that was probably just as well. The images from Aberfan deserved to be in black and white; I’m not sure they could be understood or fully appreciated any other way.
The coal tips that surrounded the village had been raised above groundwater that the National Coal Board consistently denied existed, though the villagers had played in those streams for generations. There had been reports that the spoil tips had been seen to move, but officially this hadn’t happened, and besides it would be far too expensive to move the tips, probably more expensive than the mine was worth. And the early part of that October had been wet, a lot of rain had fallen.
Just after nine o’clock on 21st October 1966, with a sound like thunder, the coal tips slid inexorably down the hillside and buried the local school, where the last school day before half term had just begun. 116 children died, along with many of their teachers and several others. They were buried alive under slag, under thick black mud, mud that couldn’t be dug out because as soon as one spadeful was lifted, another poured in to take its place.
Fifty years on, the film of antlike figures, miners and army and civil servants and shopkeepers and farmers and anyone who happened to live within reach of Aberfan moving across a black landscape that seems monstrously inhuman is still vivid in my memory. I was the same age as some of those victims.
I didn’t set out to buy a book about Aberfan. I’m not sure I really wanted to read a book about Aberfan. But I love the novels and plays of Owen Sheers that I have read; I account him one of my favourite poets, yet I have never read a book of his poetry. So, in a bookshop in Caernarfon, I picked up what seemed to be his latest slim volume, The Green Hollow. It was only as I read it that I realised what it was I was reading, and by then it was impossible to put down.
It started out as a BBC drama-documentary to mark the 50th anniversary of the disaster. Here it is presented as a verse play, based on the testimonials of survivors and imaginative reconstructions of the words of some of the victims.
The book is in three parts, ‘Children’, ‘Rescuers’ and ‘Survivors’. The first part follows a group of children and their parents as they wake that morning (something in the rhythm of the words at this point reminded me of the opening of Under Milk Wood by Dylan Thomas) and set out for school. It’s a mixture of the usual (plans to go and see a film or watch a football match, the ordinariness of stopping in a sweetshop along the way) and the aspirational (dreams of being an astronaut).
The second part is the testimony of those who worked, desperately, hopelessly, to rescue the children. The medical student who had been on his way to a family christening, the young journalist on his way to what initial reports said was an outhouse collapsing at a school, the bank clerk in his best suit, the mayor’s secretary who found herself drafted in to go door to door and ask if there were any children who weren’t home. In Wales at that time the practice was to draw the curtains when there had been a death in the family; at one point the journalist realised that every house in the street had their curtains closed. Perhaps the most affecting moment came when rescuers got into one more or less intact classroom and found the teacher, a one-time rugby star who had been drafted in only a few days before as a temporary replacement for a teacher who had had a heart attack, obviously trying to protect his huddled class of wide-eyed, wide-mouthed children. Every one of them was dead.
The final part is the testimony of residents of Aberfan in 2016, some survivors and some of their descendants. In some ways this is a feel-good story, the town pulled together and most of the surviving children did quite well for themselves. But the shadow, the hollow eyes, the ghosts never go away. The past is ever present. And along the way we learn that after the tribunal that blamed no-one, prosecuted no-one, forced no-one to resign, the National Coal Board inspected the remaining tips at Aberfan and declared they were safe and there was no need to remove them. It took the formation of a local committee, and the sort of direct action that included sacks of slurry on the Welsh Secretary’s doorstep, before the tips were eventually removed. In a development that seems particularly Welsh, once the committee had been successful the members formed themselves into a male voice choir. The choir is still going.
The Green Hollow is an odd book, falling somewhere between oral history and epic verse, but it is one of the most powerfully affecting things I have read for a very long time.