If you are of a certain generation, there are some dates that you remember effortlessly.
My memory of 21 October 1966 is of a bright day marking the start of half-term.
As I ran the short distance from the school gates to my house – we lived opposite – I was only slightly puzzled by the unexpected sight of my mam on the doorstep. Even the hug she gave me felt like nothing more than one of those embarrassing things that mothers do in front of your friends.
It was only then I realised that there were far more parents than usual waiting for children.
I should imagine that the same scene was being repeated across South Wales as word spread of a previously unheard of place called Aberfan and the terrible events that had happened there.
The cold facts are that over 40,000 cubic metres of accumulated rock and shale from an overhanging colliery spoil tip engulfed much of the valley community without warning. This included Pantglas Junior School where morning registration had just begun.
The death toll was 116 children and 28 adults. It happened in a matter of minutes but the traumatic memories remain fifty years later.
We like to tell ourselves it could never happen now but the truth is that today’s safeguards are the result of a needless tragedy.
Recriminations continue even up to this day over how much was known by senior coal board officials as to the potential dangers. The same rancour is felt about the massively insensitive act of taking £150,000 from the official Disaster Fund to help remove the remaining spoil.
The eventual findings regarding motive were a damning piece of understatement, although some thought them more fitting for a counsel for the defence:
‘We reject an observation that what has been revealed here is "callous indifference" by senior National Coal Board officials to the fears of a tip-slide expressed to them. Callousness betokens villainy, and in truth there are no villains in this harrowing story.
In one way, it might possibly be less alarming if there were, for villains are few and far between. But the Aberfan disaster is a terrifying tale of bungling ineptitude by many men charged with tasks for which they were totally unfitted, of failure to heed clear warnings, and of total lack of direction from above.
Not villains, but decent men, led astray by foolishness or by ignorance or by both in combination, are responsible for what happened at Aberfan. That, in all conscience, is a burden heavy enough for them to have to bear without the additional brand of villainy.’
Several years ago, I visited the hillside memorial at Aberfan. I looked at the names of a lost generation and could only guess at the grief each represented.
Among the flowers was an inscription which had been overwritten in biro several times over the years.
It posed the unanswerable question: “What do you do when there are no more tomorrows, when all you have is the past because today is too terrible to bear?”
Another hand had scribbled underneath: “We can only remember”.
Investing in the east
In these post-Brexit days of fledgling trading ambitions, I understand that local moves are afoot to find new opportunities in China.
I’m sure details will emerge soon but I’m pleased to hear that tentative links with the city of Wuhan are reaching fruition. The city is the capital of Hubei province and with over 10 million inhabitants it is the most populous in Central China. It is also one of the most prosperous.
Previously, such visits to ‘partner’ cities have been hackneyed ventures based on as much forethought as goes into your average fortune cookie.
There appears to be considerably more research and preparation in place this time around. It’s also encouraging to see the business community are involved.
Cultural and academic links with Wuhan are already underway. It makes eminent sense to translate those links into investment.
The prospect of up to 2000 new students, each with significant spending power, is just one example of how the economy could benefit. Interesting times.
Reform kicked into the long grass
Here’s a multiple choice quiz question: Was the Williams Commission of a few years ago set up to (a) review and advise on a restructuring of public services in Wales; (b) provide material to fix the wobbly tables in the canteen at Cathays Park or (c) serve as a façade of reasoned consultation while ministers bullied local authorities into mergers behind the scenes?
Some cynical individuals might argue that all three apply. Others, including me, would disagree.
Back in 2014, the Commission argued for a radical overhaul of public sector bodies in Wales. The problem was that it was oblivious to the underlying politics at work.
Local government Secretary and arch-pragmatist Mark Drakeford has inherited a dog’s breakfast from his predecessor. Unsurprisingly, he has since announced that LG reform is on the back-burner although voluntary mergers are acceptable.
Given the problems already facing Welsh government, there’s little point in creating another – especially when the downsides outweigh the benefits.