A man-made mountain of lumpy black treacle collapsed into itself last Friday and slid down upon the school at Aberfan ‘just after morning prayers.’ The phrase is not, as I had first assumed, a distasteful journalistic device for somehow mixing inappropriate irony with an even more cruel piety. The phrase was also used in my presence by some of the stricken people of Aberfan, and with just enough frequency to force one to look for the bleak significance that seems to lurk behind the words.
When people are faced with a disaster so complete and so terrible, they cluster in small, hapless groups and begin to manufacture their own sort of optimism as though to try and keep at bay the resignation and despair they know will have to come. At Aberfan, before and after daybreak on Saturday, ‘hope’ was created among some of the bruised bands of people standing ankle-deep in slime. It was an unbearable thing to witness, a collective self-deception that was as inevitable as it was tormenting.
‘Hey. Hey,’ cried an old man in a tight muffler to a young woman standing with splashed stockings in the queue outside a telephone box. ‘I’ve just heard that some little boy dug himself out and wandered off on his own without telling anybody!’
‘Do they know who?’ her voice lifted itself beyond the normal upward inflexion of the Welsh lilt.
The old man’s head seemed to shrink back into his shoulders. ‘No,’ he said, very quietly, probably realising at that very moment that what he had almost shouted was completely untrue and unforgivably cruel. He stood still awhile, then mumbled again and shuffled off towards the growling yellow machinery at the top of the rubble. The woman stared after him.
‘It’s what a boy might do,’ she said, either laughing or crying, ‘wander off like that. He might think he’d done something wrong, see.’ The others in the queue moved their heads or twitched their hands in a tiny conspiracy of guilt.
The wild rumours were about as helpful, and fell into exactly the same category, as the redundant prayers. As the chill morning dragged on into first light the incredible, almost cretinous tales and miracles ebbed away, leaving only a miniscule and hardly discernible residue of hope to temper reality. ‘That stuff’s like roof insulation,’ someone said. ‘It don’t leave any gaps.’ Pause. ‘You never know, though.’ The bereaved either waited on the steps of their grim Bethania or retreated back into the splattered rows of shrivelled, rust-coloured houses. White smoke from their chimneys climbed up in a dead straight line towards the surrounding hills where a few sheep grazed. A man said that this was a sure sign of rain. Everyone looked up at the invading slag once more.
As the rain came again, thickening and darkening the sky above the surrounding mounds of black, brown and grey-green, anxious eyes turned once more to the gigantic conical slag still towering so malignantly above the village. All hope had done by now, but the tip might still slide further into the beleaguered houses, might yet scatter the busy yellow machines and shovelling men. It was then, especially, that one felt the enormity of the dead slag’s power, and the disgust that such gargantuan waste should have been piled at people’s backyards. Why should it be? Why is it thought necessary to be so loathsomely uncivilized?
The past is piled all around one here, and the bad, mean-minded, short-sighted methods of the past have not yet been discarded. Hence the fatalistic language and the half-formulated idea that some God has cheated. ‘If only…’ people kept saying at Aberfan. ‘If only’ it had collapsed earlier in the morning. ‘If only’ it had fallen after midday, when the children would have dispersed in noisily happy throngs for their half-term holiday. ‘If only’ it had stopped raining a day earlier. ‘If only’ someone had rung the Coal Board the night before. ‘If only’ the powers that be had taken the slightest notice of all the earlier fears and warnings about the tip. If only… If only… If only…the inevitable, tragic punctuation of any disaster.
But there are much more resounding, much more accusing, much more fundamental If Onlys.
If only the National Coal Board took seriously the conception of a publicly owned industry designed to serve the whole community, not least that section upon which it depends for all its wealth.
If only the so-called socialists who run this ugly country would yap less about their glorious heritage and do a damned sight more to remove the inglorious legacy which is still rammed down so many people’s throats every time they open their mouths to breathe.
And not even then, especially not then, will it be possible to say that Aberfan ‘was not in vain.’ Do not dare to say that. Aberfan was in vain. Those children were murdered. This was no senseless Act of God, but a crime committed by senseless man.
This is an edited extract from Dennis Potter’s article, originally published in New Society on 27 October 1966, now published in full in The Art of Invective: Selected Non-Fiction 1953–1994.