Gwyn Griffiths reviews To Hear the Skylark’s Song by Huw Lewis
To Hear the Skylark’s Song: A Memoir of Aberfan by Huw Lewis (Parthian £8.99)
HUW LEWIS was a few months short of his third birthday when a mountain of colliery waste hurtled down on the village of Aberfan, crushing Pantglas Junior School and killing 116 children on October 21 1966.
Every Welsh man, woman or child old enough to remember that day will tell you where they were when they heard the news of that greatest and most shocking of industrial tragedies.
Lewis’s sister Allyson, aged seven, was one of the few survivors, though he was neither a survivor nor one of the bereaved.
While subtitled “A memoir of Aberfan,” his book, written with love and passion, is more about growing up in a south Wales industrial valley village. In time, it will probably come to be seen as a classic portrayal of a Welsh colliery village, an area from where great wealth flowed out and “not much of it ever flowed back.”
Inevitably, and rightly so, there is anger at the government and the National Coal Board, who refused to pay for the Aberfan clean-up until they had looted half the disaster fund and sordid newspapers who knew that tragedy sells copies and cared for little else.
But this is mostly a book about the joy of growing up in a community that treasured its children and a celebration of the freedom that they enjoyed in an age where the streets and surrounding hinterland provided adventure.
There were gardens and allotments kept by the older generation. One of them grew flowers to compete in the local shows, many bred and raced pigeons and one had an aviary, “an eruption of exotic birdsong” and glorious multicoloured plumage. Another bred rabbits for his Sunday dinner.
It wasn’t a bad place for a child, with its characters and variety of local shops in a pre-supermarket time.
Lewis was one of the last of a generation which grew up surrounded by the experience of the south Wales coalfield, where solidarity and sacrifice were a vivid reality. Then came the calamity of the miners’ strike.
That experience aroused his political passion and, until last year, Lewis was the Labour Welsh Assembly member for Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney and for a time education minister.
But this memoir, which does not go beyond his time at junior school except for a few reminiscences of moments spent with his father and with his own children, doesn’t deal with his political experiences.