September 27, 2006

The latest from Gaping Void brought back some harsh memories from my youth. Although we lived in North Wales when I was young, we still regarded Cardiff in the south as our home. Every holiday we went back there to sleep on floors with cousins and perform honour visits to aunts. We spent days in the Museum, and then went drinking sarsaparilla in the arcade. We had the odd trip to Barry Island and went fossil hunting on Penarth Beach.

In 1966 we were on our last day of one of these visits when the news of the Aberfan disaster came on the television. It was another of those occasions where you remember where you were at the time generations later. I can see in my minds eye the mahogany table with the markings round the edge where we played with our toy racing cars. The shelf with family photographs and the view through the french doors onto the back garden strewn with the remnants of a game of cricket. 116 children were killed that day by the slag heaps thrown out by the production of coal, to feed the growth of the Empire.

Decades later I took my own children for a trip to the Big Pit and we went down the mine as tourists. At the bottom we stood by a huge fire door and the guide, a ex miner, put out the lights. It was, to quote Dylan Thomas starless and bible black, nor after a few moments did it seem to us that there was any prospect of light. In a different generation I might have sat there terrified on my first day of work, younger than I was in 1966 opening and closing the door to let the coal trains through. Sitting in absolute pitch black darkness surrounded by noises, the source of which I could only guess at. My father escaped being a Bevan Boy by the skin of his teeth and ended up instead in the RAVC on the North West Frontier for World War II. Another of those small events in history, but he came close. The rest of the family managed to avoid the mines.

Coal Mines were not just a constituent part of South Wales; to a large extend they defined it and from which the culture of work, chapel and rugby emerged. If you wanted another tough, hardened prop forward, the saying went, you just whistled one up from the nearest pit. Mining communities world wide were and remain special. The Miners Libraries of South Wales brought a generation of literacy and political activism. In the slate mines of North Wales, miners would gather during their breaks to debate religion and politics, in marked contrast with the drawing rooms of the newly rich and enfranchised. A richness other than money; although too many of the wrong people became rich through their toil. The Marquis of Bute spent money so gained, building mock castles. My Great Grandfather served him as Head Game Keeper, until he died of a heart attack and the whole family were thrown on to the streets and thus into the slums of Cardiff docks to make way for his replacement: that one is personal. A very different form of service from that provided by the solidarity of the mines and the communities that grew up around them.

Danger and glory often go together, but so, with regrettably greater frequency do greed and indifference. Let us return to Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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