I was always terrified of change. In fact I was always terrified of everything. The dark, water, being alone, being in crowds, relationships, loneliness. I masked it all and developed the persona of a cool, quiet guy, unruffled, calm. But beneath the surface I was paddling away like mad. Caught in an endless debate of should I, shouldn’t I? I was terrified of consequences, thinking they would be invariably bad...or troublesome....or maybe just unpredictable.
Perhaps I was a control freak as they say. Couldn’t handle the unexpected so forestalled it by anticipating the worst. Strange, by nature I never thought of myself as a pessimist. Always full of good advice to others to look on the bright side, always telling them that things would surely get better.
Only later did I twig that part of it came from my mother who was permanently tuned to the awfulness of life, whose Methodist upbringing induced guilt from any enjoyment; who had a Hindu’s belief in the inevitability of fate and karma, and the inevitable price that was to be paid for pleasure, egotism, or selfishness. She was a good woman believe me and I don’t suppose she anticipated that her own fear of the unknown, would be my legacy from her. Not that it was the only one. Although my father read avidly, I have no doubt my early love of books and sensual addiction to the scent of must and lavender polish of our local library was down to her. Strange that our mutual and vicarious escape into books was comforting rather than frightening; those fictional or historical worlds were never going to impinge on ours. In fact we lived in a bubble immured from the physical realities of a strange world beyond. That real world may well have been on another planet.
Anyway that’s not I wanted to tell you about. But of course it is relevant. But then again it is giving the game away. Don’t telegraph your plot or theme. Show don’t tell. I’ve done the courses believe me.
To escape the oppressive and stultifying atmosphere of home I chose to go and study well away. Actually I didn’t choose anywhere. Like the Dice Man I listed my six possibilities on a UCCA form and waited to see which one, if any, would come up. God knows where I could have ended up. Oh yes, I put down the LSE but that was just bravado. I knew they’d never have me with my academic record. But you never know. I ended up in Swansea, two hundred and fifty miles, virtually eight hours away by rail in those days. No, I didn’t have a car. No-one I knew had a car. I knew of Wales. I had been on day trips to Rhyl with primary school and the Pioneer Working Men’s Club. It was a foreign country, with its own language, and an irrational dislike of the English.
I was in terror from the off, but a terror tempered by a heady scent of unbridled freedom. I was seduced by it; missing lectures because I could; never attending the inductions because of the appeal of the beach, the novelty of short-skirted girls with plummy accents, the waspish wit of my new friends; the insouciant and uninformed belief that I knew what a library was thank you. I wore a flat cap to signal my roots, polished my shoes to indicate my self-respect, and generally made a prat of myself. I was living in digs with a cockroach-infested kitchen with four other lads and having the time of my life.
The 60s revolution hadn’t quite reached West Wales by then. I went alert to the political undertow, the Freedom Movement, Civil Rights, US involvement in Viet Nam, but it hadn’t yet become a lifestyle issue. You didn’t have to wear Levis, loons or beads to be on the left. You didn’t even have to get out of your armchair. Liberalism was for the chattering classes, a posture not challenged by a need for action. It was safe, so I was safe. Of course I was a conservative old school labour man. Old fashioned values, although my father’s admonition to work hard, and play hard” was somewhat thwarted by the unanticipated choice to play all day, every day, if you wanted. I didn’t forget about the consequences I just had no idea what they might be. I was living in a book. In someone else’s world not mine. It was a fairy tale, a dream from which I was going to wake up to face the grimy reality of industrial northern life.
I hadn’t been there a two months when it happened. It was Friday morning. I’d just fallen out of an interview with the Dean of the Faculty, who was taking a personal interest in failing students. My first essay had received a squiggle that I had to get deciphered; As and Bs I knew, alphas and betas, OK. But I hadn’t a clue what was on that paper. Gamma someone offered, slightly embarrassed. I reeled out smarting and ashamed, despite my bravado. We were interrupted in the coffee bar by an indistinct tannoy announcement encouraging students to instantly leap onto a waiting bus to be taken up the valleys to help out on something. It was as unclear as that. By lunchtime there was a buzz of rumour and speculation across the campus. School buried by landslide. Hundreds dead.
At the time I was staying in digs in the Mumbles, that idyllic peninsular at the west end of Swansea Bay, with four other students. One of our number, Rod, a second year history student was on that first bus out. We didn’t see him until tea time on the Saturday. We watched the television news in silence on Friday evening as grainy footage revealed chains of people passing buckets of slurry away from the school site in an almost primitive ritual of displacement, The tall patrician JM, mature beyond his twenty years, who had come back for his second year with a classic Morris Minor convertible, suggested we leave at 6.00am the next morning to join the helpers despite the TV warning that all access roads were closed and that there was little to be done by well-meaning amateurs. I was full of emotion. Coal was the life-blood of the Welsh valleys; the pit owners, whether private or state, the enemy. The failure to anticipate the massive land slip that engulfed the school in Aberfan was being laid firmly at the door of the National Coal Board. One hundred and twenty three children dead or missing in one small village. I knew the mountainous landscapes of waste and slurry associated with mining. They were the playgrounds of my childhood. My family had been pit workers for three generations.
It was still raining; the insistent rain that had undermined that huge heap of coal waste, that had turned it to slurry; that had swollen underground streams and allowed it to slip under its own vast weight to bury that school without warning at 9.10 on that Friday morning. The valleys were grey and mournful. We came to the first road block and were turned back by a polite but serious constable. JM had an alternative plan. We would drive to Mountain Ash , a village in a parallel valley, and walk over the top. I was beginning to feel a little uneasy about our motives and what difference exactly our presence would make. We weren’t exactly dressed for rescue work; we weren’t part of someone’s rescue plan.
The walk up to the crest of the ridge dividing the two valleys was pleasant enough. The upper slopes of these valleys had a covering of young woodland and despite the insistent drizzle, the air was full of Autumn aromas and sounds. I don’t think I was aware that we were about to descend into that stricken village down the spine of the monster that had engulfed it. We skated down on streams of shale, or surfed ankle deep in slurry towards the invisible mist-shrouded silent cataclysm below. Four students, none Welsh, walked out of that mist into a scene from a mediaeval painting. The point of impact was easily determined being the focal point for a number of lines of matchstick people which on closer inspection were human chains of misery.
Although there was movement there was stillness. Although there was noise there was silence. Although the sky was clearing, the mist being burned off by a rising sun, the rain clouds passing east to reveal a blue sky, the atmosphere was tangibly grief-laden. We worked our way into the village, me feeling conspicuous and guilt-ridden at our unasked for intrusion. We watched exhausted men and women ritually passing buckets and bowls of slurry along lines of aching arms to be disposed of hundreds of yards from the epicentre of the disaster. We caught the drift of fragmented exchanges. Not conversations but mantras. Any news? No news. Have a break. Go home. Have a cup of tea. No I’ll just stay a bit longer. You never know. JT unabashed stopped someone to ask how things had gone overnight. Only the slightest hope now that someone would be brought alive. But still hope. That is the nature of hope. It always operates against the odds. The landslide had washed all colour out of the landscape and the people. We avoided the police presence. We observed the incongruity of the press and papparazzi mincing around in their city clothes; the tv front-men, camera crews in tow, shin deep in sludge.
My own guilt at this point broke me and I slipped into a line, as if I’d been there all the time, despite my relatively clean student uniform of jeans and reefer jacket. I kept my mouth shut unless spoken to, I sat on my opinions. After two hours I could not lift my arms above my chest and I marvelled at the stamina and grit of the men and women who resolutely stood their ground, who kept those buckets moving, who passed muffled words of support, of solace, of hope up and down that line. “Go and have a cuppa, boyo... I’ll keep your place”. It still brings tears to my eyes. A valley man, grey from crown to ankle with dried or drying slurry, keeping my place in a communal token of hope as if holding back the inevitable flood of despair, the inevitable landslide of grief and guilt that would swamp the entire community when eventually all hope was gone.
We left at about four. The mist was descending and it was dark by the time we reached Swansea. It was raining. We spoke to Rod who had been at the village all night and only returned at lunch time. I don’t think the full impact hit me because frankly it was as if I hadn’t been there; as if I’d stepped into the pages of a book and just as suddenly stepped out again. But there were things to do. I was going to my first proper house party that night, somewhere in the Uplands. Not a direct invitation of course but one of those “ask your friends” jobs by a third year history student to one of my new mates, Gibbons. Gibbons had the beard, the confidence and the Levi 501s of a Phd student, looking at least five years older than he was. He wasn’t averse to capitalising on this and embellishing it to his advantage. He also had an endless stream of anecdotes, jokes and in-phrases which were beyond my comprehension but which later I realised he’d stolen from Private Eye. I was a willing audience and something like a creature from another planet as far as he was concerned. He was a good man.
We all met up at The Antelope, Dylan Thomas’s old haunt, which had become our local. After a few pints it was down to Mumbles bus station, pooling our change for the obligatory bottle of red Spanish wine, Don Cortez ,if I remember, and a four pint can of Watneys bitter. As for parties, I hardly knew what to expect. Everyone seemed well spoken and sophisticated....and mature. Some made a point of greeting each other in Welsh. Girls who looked and talked like women, feigned a superficial interest until the language barrier, boredom or someone more attractive passing by, prompted them to excuse themselves. There were no valley voices here, just the careful articulation of the educated young tinged perhaps with a little cut-glass Anglo-Welsh, a little Home Counties. Gibbons was in his element, and the centre of attention, switching effortlessly from his native Somerset which he lampooned without mercy, to an altogether more coaxing, classless, seductive and superficially erudite patter. The others left for the last bus at half ten. All-nighters were not on the agenda then. I had had enough drink to decide on my own exit strategy. My tongue was loosening. I was being introduced as the fellow who’s just been up the valley” I wanted to tell them all to fuck off, to get real, to jump out of their ivory towers. Gibbons had obviously pulled and my continued presence was probably a bit unnerving. We’re off he announced. I presumed the “we” referred to the tall blonde who’d invited him to the party. I was slow to realise that he was not off to his digs and that I was going to make my way back alone.
It would be a nice touch at this point to say that I was picked up by some rich girl having pity on a bit of northern rough, but the reality was that by 1.00am I was on the Oystermouth Road hitching in the direction of the Mumbles. It was raining. I’d never hitched before but everyone I met seemed to be quite familiar with it. Rod at our digs had just been to Tehran, overland, during the summer, an exercise I couldn’t possibly fathom. I felt the complete student when a car pulled up within five minutes. A fatherly figure, smelling of beer, invited me to jump in and showed no hostility to the fact that I was a student or that I was English. He charmed with his Welsh patter as we drove, gently prising my story although my tongue needed no prompting, loosened by drink and starved of real rather than feigned interest. Only when he put his hand on my knee and suggested we should go up to the headland for a bit of fun, did I engage my brain, revert anxiously to my normal reticent state, mumble about my landlady staying up because I hadn’t got a key, and stuck with the mantra for the next mile as he tried to rope me in. Not even the promise of a ten bob note could break my resolve. I’m sure I sounded calm and confident but underneath I was in a complete state of panic.
He dropped me off at the end of the street no doubt expecting to find similar souls looking for a bit of fun on the car parks of those beautiful bays. I did not pause to contemplate the kitchen and its cockroaches. Enough was too much. I lay awake, the events of the day crashing into each other. I had been plunged into a world of the unforeseen, the unpredictable. I was terrified but I couldn’t wait for another day of it, to turn another page of this strange and tantalising book, in this visceral and wonderful, unreal and frightening place.