MY NINTH BIRTHDAY October 21st, 1966. A day I will never forget.
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn I was a proper little show-off. ‘Too clever by half’ said my Victorian grandmother who lived in the flat downstairs. ‘You spoil him, Muriel. Children should be seen and not heard. Be quiet, John! When you begin to PAY a little Then you can begin to SAY a little.’ There were plenty more such epithets. If I asked what was for tea on the days she was in charge of me she’d always say ‘Air pie and a walk round’ or ‘Bread and pullet’ and when she read about the latest exploits of the royal family or anyone else remotely wealthy or privileged in the pages of her beloved Daily Express she’d often exclaim with heartfelt approval ‘It’s not for the likes of us!’ (When, years later, I read ‘The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ by Robert Tressell and heard that particular servile catchphrase again I felt retrospectively vindicated in my instinctive determination back then to do the exact opposite of nearly everything she told me.)
Despite my grandmother’s best efforts I was seen, heard and then some - in school and out. Self-assured and confident. Playing the violin and recorder. Writing little poems and songs and about to begin a massive project about the American Civil War based on the battle stories printed on the back of the unbelievably gory bubblegum picture cards we boys bought on our way to school. Cards with titles like ‘Crushed By The Wheels’ ‘Wall of Corpses’ and ‘Messenger of Death.’ (Two old pence for two cards a fake Confederate dollar bill and a piece of gum. If you’re male and over 50, you’ll probably remember. After endless swapsies and games of flickers I eventually got the whole set. That’s when I started the project.) My form teacher liked me and let me help other kids in class. I had lots of friends and if wannabe bullies hit me I hit them back. Like I say, a proper little show-off.
It was my ninth birthday. At Manor Hall Junior School when it was your birthday you couldn’t wait till lunchtime - but you had to. Then you stood in front of everyone else in the canteen a big, colourful plastic cake was brought out with proper candles on it you blew out the candles everyone sang ‘Happy Birthday’ (even the kids who thought you were a show-off wanker: the teachers made sure of that) and you got the chance to grab a handful of sweets from a big jar. As far as I can remember I was the only one with a birthday that day so I had everyone’s undivided attention. I was really looking forward to it. But I never got to show off and I didn’t want to show off. My ninth birthday was different. It was October 21st, 1966.
Before we went to the canteen for lunch and my little birthday cameo we were told there was going to be a special assembly in the school hall. Everyone wondered what had happened: even I realised they wouldn’t have one just because it was my birthday. The headmaster, Mr. Young, came in looking very sad and told us that earlier that day a huge mountain of coal waste had engulfed a junior school like ours in a Welsh mining village called Aberfan and many children the same age as us had lost their lives. He asked us to pray for them. We all did. Some of us cried. They still sang ‘Happy Birthday’ in the canteen a few minutes later but it wasn’t a happy birthday at all. I kept thinking about those children. After I’d got home and talked to my parents and had my birthday tea with my friends I tried to write a poem for Aberfan - but I couldn’t. The poem I wanted to write was far too big for a nine year old. We did a collection at school the money was sent to the disaster fund and then as happens when you’re a child with loving parents at a supportive school other things quickly came along to take the sadness away. But on my birthday for the next few years I always thought about the children of Aberfan.
Years later, I learned about the underground springs below Colliery Waste Tip No 7 on the hill above the village which caused the coal waste to turn to slurry and crash down on the school - springs easily spotted on maps which were never even consulted. I learned about the negligence of the authorities and the insensitivity of the press. Some things never change. I learned about the father who - as the inquest into his child’s death declared the cause to be ‘asphyxia and multiple injuries’ - shouted out ‘No, sir. Buried alive by the National Coal Board.’ I learned how a ruling was made that parents had somehow to prove their childrens’ deaths had caused them anguish before they could benefit from the disaster fund - and that some of the money from that fund was used to clear the other waste tips above Aberfan because the Coal Board refused to pay for it to be done. I learned about the long-term psychological effects of the disaster on the whole village. In short I learned how the lives of working class people were held cheap. So cheap.
But that was much later. Back then I was a child. A proper little show-off who didn’t want to show off on his ninth birthday trying to write a poem for children like him - for the children of Aberfan.