Aberfan tragedy 50 years on: a novel about Fleet Street insult being added to injury
Louise Walsh’s novel, Black River, about the media reaction to a tip landslide that killed 144 people, including 116 children, was inspired by research into disturbing reporting
Rescue workers at the scene of the wrecked Pantglas Junior School at Aberfan, South Wales, where a coal tip collapsed killing 144 people, 116 of them children. Photograph: Keystone/Getty Images)
Louise Walsh: If Black River is well received, I may write a prequel, taking a look at the National Coal Board’s role in the disaster. If I do, it will be dedicated to the villagers of Aberfan. But our national responsibility and guilt is something far more challenging
Hundreds of rescue workers dig into a huge pile of rubble after thousands of tons of coal pit waste slid down onto Aberfan, a village in south Wales, on October 21st, 1966, killing 116 children and 28 adults. Photograph: Getty Images
I didn’t set out to write a novel about the October 21st, 1966 tip landslide when a mountainous deposit of National Coal Board colliery waste slid onto the Welsh village of Aberfan, destroying 16 houses and Pantglas Junior School, killing 144, 116 of whom were children. But some stories, I believe, find you.
I had been researching a story set in 1967, focusing on a journalist writing about the Irish community in Cardiff. I broadened my reading to include 1966 and, in a book about Aberfan, came across a reference to the Welsh Office – the UK government department that administered Wales before devolution – and a problem with the press. This was 2012, so the Leveson Inquiry into the ethical breakdown of the British press was on in the background: it fascinated me. I set my other story aside, compelled to find out about the press at Aberfan.
I discovered that the Information Division of the Welsh Office had a number of ideas to limit the sensational stories appearing in Fleet Street and they eventually sent a list of ideas to the Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson.
The most outlandish suggestion they had was the idea of a “Lay Off Aberfan” campaign which they proposed might be run by the Daily Mirror. Idris Evans of the Welsh Office wrote: “Finally, it must be said that an enterprising newspaper could well do the whole of this job for us. Newspapers, generally, increased their sales at the time of the disaster at Aberfan. A single newspaper (eg the Mirror) might well increase its sales on a more lasting basis by starting a “Lay Off Aberfan” campaign. We are confident that such a campaign would ultimately receive the support of newspapers and broadcasting organisations throughout the land.”
The government replied that this was a politically dangerous idea.
It was the Welsh Office’s quixotic conviction that their idea would receive widespread support which grabbed me, and I wondered in what circumstances my fictional 1967 journalist would go along with it. The Lay Off Aberfan campaign became the central plot of the novel as the main character, Harry Roberts, deeply troubled by the scenes he witnessed at Aberfan, becomes increasingly desperate to protect the village from the media.
The traumatised journalist at the centre of Black River was the fictional element of a novel deeply rooted in research, but when I participated in a conference on Aberfan at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, I was surprised at how close this was to genuine experiences.
Elwyn Evans, a former BBC TV news editor, gave an emotional speech at the conference about the guilt he carried after being sent to Aberfan by the Merthyr Express at the age of 17. Evans, on arrival, stood frozen to the same spot for eight hours, too overwhelmed with grief and shock to ask a single question.
Vincent Kane, a veteran BBC Wales broadcaster, ended the conference talking about a different kind of guilt: a regret that he and the Welsh media did little to counteract the growing opinion in Fleet Street that the Aberfan villagers were “the problem”.
Indeed, the language and tone of some Fleet Street reporting became increasingly judgemental leading up to the first anniversary – if not deeply disrespectful. A Sunday Express feature writer told her readers on June 4th, 1967 that: “Today the children of Aberfan are guilty of being alive. Alive in a village where 116 children died.”
And: “Half their children died - so the other half must pay.”
An article in rhe Telegraph Magazine on October 6th, 1967 described one father as: “A short little Aberfan bereaved father with the inflamed face of an infuriated jockey.”
You get the feeling that the description of the father was played for laughs.
Vincent Kane, in his speech, went on to say: “While the journalists, the press and broadcasters, didn’t say as much, didn’t light this fire of rumour, we fanned the flames insomuch as we didn’t jump on it and smother it as robustly as we should.”
In Black River, then, the fiction is that a lone journalist attempts to do exactly that: smother hostile coverage. In reality, however, there was no robust Welsh opposition.
Kane explained further that all the Labour MPs, with the exception of Leo Abse spoke in support of Alf Robens keeping his position as chairman of the state-owned National Coal Board (NCB). George Thomas, the secretary of state for Wales, supported Harold Wilson’s proposal that £150,000 be deducted from the disaster fund to pay for the removal of the tips. Even the Charity Commission once posited the astonishingly cruel idea that monies should be released only to those who could prove “that they had been close to the child or children”.
I find myself wondering what the reaction would have been to these situations had a similar disaster happened in Scotland or Ireland. I imagine it would have been markedly different.
The overwhelming feeling as we approach the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster appears to be one of guilt.
I felt that guilt myself after hearing the survivors speak at the conference. Many are dreading the forthcoming 50th anniversary. They talked of the unfairness of being in the media spotlight every anniversary for 50 years, while the NCB was only in the spotlight for a few months following the disaster. I regretted not having written more on the NCB’s role.
Another regret is not including the village itself in the novel’s dedication. I should have done. I knew, with the 50th anniversary looming that the media were about to descend on the village again. I kept a respectful distance, but not including them in the dedication is an oversight I regret.
If Black River is well received, I may write a prequel, taking a look at the NCB’s role in the disaster. If I do, it will be dedicated to the villagers of Aberfan. But our national responsibility and guilt is something far more challenging.
Black River, by Louise Walsh, is published by Carreg Gwalch at £7.50. More details about the book can be found at www.blackriver.cymru