Troubled visions of white ash and concrete-grey powder water-logged my mind. Just as I had ‘understood’ and ‘contextualised’ the events of September 11, I witnessed Jules and Gedeon Naudet’s 9/11, the documentary of the events, as they followed the firefighters into Tower One. Their cameras witness death, dense panic and ashen fear. I did not need to see this – it was too intimate and shocking. But it was the drained, grey visage – where the New York streets and people appeared like injured ghosts walking through the falling ruins of a paper mill – that will always stay with me.
Not surprisingly I was drawn (safely?) back in time, away from the grey-stained New York streets, when another series of images seismically shifted by memory palate. Aberfan was the archetypal coal mining town, but what made it distinct was tragedy. On the hill above the village, coal waste from the mining process was dumped on water-filled slurry. Heavy rain on October 20, 1966 made way for a better day to follow. The dense rain dislodged the coal tip, and at 9:15, the slurry became a black tidal wave, overwhelming people and buildings in the past. There have been worse tragedies than Aberfan, if there are degrees of suffering. In the stark grey iconography of September 11, there was an odd photocopy of Aberfan, but in the negative. Coal replaced paper. My short piece explores the notion of shared tragedy and media-ted grief, utilising the Welsh mining disaster as a bloodied gauze through which to theorise collective memory and social change.
Tragedy on the television
A disaster, by definition, is a tragic, unexpected circumstance. Its etymology ties it to astrology and fate. Too often, free flowing emotions of sympathy dissipate with the initial fascination, without confronting the long-term consequences of misfortune. When coal slurry engulfed the school and houses in Aberfan, a small working class community gleaned attention from the London-based media. The Prime Minister and royalty all traveled to Aberfan. Through the medium of television, grief and confusion were conveyed to a viewing public. For the first time, cameras gathered live footage of the trauma as it overwhelmed the Taff Valley. The sludge propelled from the Valley and into the newspapers of the day. A rescue worker remembers, “I was helping to dig the children out when I heard a photographer tell a kiddie to cry for her dear friends, so that he could get a good picture – that taught me silence.” (“The last day before half-term.”) Similarly, a bereaved father remembers that,
during that period the only thing I didn’t like was the press. If you told them something, when the paper came out your words were all the wrong way round. (“The last day before half-term.”)
When analyzed as a whole, the concerns of the journalists – about intense emotion and (alternatively) censorship of emotion - blocked a discussion of the reasons and meaning of the tragedy, instead concentrating on the form of the news broadcasts. Debates about censorship and journalistic ethics prevented an interpretative, critical investigation of the disaster. The events in Aberfan were not created by a natural catastrophe or an unpredictable or blameless ‘act of God.’ Aberfan’s disaster was preventable, but it became explainable within a coal industry village accustomed to unemployment and work-related ‘accidents.’
Aberfan was not merely a disaster that cost life. It represented a two-fold decline of Britain: industrially and socially. Coal built the industrial matrix of Britain. Perhaps this cost has created what Dean MacCannell described as “the collective guilt of modernised people” (23). Aberfan was distinct from the other great national tragedies in the manner the public perceived the events unfolding in the village. It was the disaster where cameras recorded the unerring screams of grief, the desperate search for a lost – presumed dead – child, and the building anger of a community suffering through a completely preventable ‘accident.’ The cameras – in true A Current Affair style – intruded on grief and privacy. A bereaved father stated that “I’ve got to say this again, if the papers and the press and the television were to leave us alone in the very beginning I think we could have settled down a lot quicker than what we did” (“The last day before half-term.”). This breach of grieving space also allowed those outside the community to share a memory, create a unifying historical bond, and raised some sympathy-triggered money. To actually ‘share’ death and grief at Aberfan through the medium of television led to a reappraisal, however temporary, about the value and costs of industrialisation. The long-term consequences of these revelations are more difficult to monitor.
A question I have always asked – and the events of September 11, Bali and the second Gulf War have not helped me – is if a community or nation personally untouched by tragic events experience grief. Sympathy and perhaps empathy are obvious, as is voyeurism and curiosity. But when the bodies are simply unidentified corpses and a saddened community as indistinguishable from any other town, then viewers needs to ponder the rationale and depth of personal feelings. Through the window of television, onlookers become Peeping Toms, perhaps saturated with sympathy and tears, but still Peeping Toms. How has this semiotic synergy continued through popular memory? Too often we sap the feelings of disasters at a distance, and then withdraw when it is no longer fashionable, relevant or in the news.
Notions about Wales, the working class and coal mining communities existed in journalists’ minds before they arrived in the village, opened their notebook or spoke to camera. They mobilised ‘the facts’ that suited a pre-existing interpretation. Bereaved parents digging into the dirt for lost children, provide great photographs and footage. This material was ideologically shaped to infantilise the community of Aberfan and, indirectly, the working class. They were exoticised and othered. It is clear from testimony recorded since the event that the pain felt by parents was compounded by television and newspaper reportage.
Television allowed “a collective witnessing” (McLean and Johnes, “Remembering Aberfan”) of the disaster. Whether these televisual bystanders actually contributed anything to the healing of the tragedy, or forged an understanding of the brutal work involved in extracting coal, is less clear. There is not a natural, intrinsic sense of community created through television. Actually, it can establish boundaries of difference. Television has provided a record of exploitation, dissent and struggle. Whether an event or programme is read as an expression of unequal power relations or justifiable treatment of the ‘unworthy poor’ is in the hands of the viewer. Class-based inequalities and consciousness are not blinked out with the operation of a remote control.
When I first researched Aberfan in the 1980s, the story was patchy and incomplete. The initial events left journalistic traces of the horror and – later – boredom with the Aberfan tragedy. Because of the thirty year rule on the release of government documents, the cause, motivation and rationale of many decisions from the Aberfan disaster appeared illogical or without context. When searching for new material and interpretations on Aberfan between 1968 and 1996, little exists. The release of documents in January 1997 triggered a wave of changing interpretations. Two committed and outstanding scholars, upon the release of governmental materials, uncovered the excesses and inequalities, demonstrating how historical research can overcome past injustice, and the necessity for recompense in the present. Iain McLean and Martin Johnes claimed a media profile and role in influencing public opinion and changing the earlier interpretations of the tragedy. On BBC radio, Professor McLean stated
I think people in the government, people in the Coal Board were extremely insensitive. They treated the people of Aberfan as trouble makers. They had no conception of the depth of trauma suffered (“Aberfan”).
McLean and Johnes also created from 1997-2001 a remarkable, well structured and comprehensive website featuring interview material, a database of archival collections and interpretations of the newly-released governmental documents. The Website possessed an agenda of conservation, cataloguing the sources held at the Merthyr Tydfil and Dowlais libraries. These documents hold a crucial function: to ensure that the community of Aberfan is rarely bothered for interviews or morbid tourists returning to the site. The Aberfan disaster has been included in the UK School curriculum and to avoid the small libraries and the Community Centre being overstretched, the Website possesses a gatekeepping function. The cataloguing work by the project’s research officer Martin Johnes has produced something important. He has aligned scholarly, political and social goals with care and success.
Iain McLean’s proactive political work also took another direction. While the new governmental papers were released in January 1997, he wrote an article based on the Press Preview of December 1996. This article appeared in The Observer on January 5, 1997. From this strong and timely intervention, The Times Higher Education Supplement commissioned another article on January 17, 1997. Through both the articles and the Web work, McLean and Johnes did not name the individual victims or their parents, and testimony appears anonymously in the Website and their publications. They – unlike the journalists of the time – respected the community of Aberfan, their privacy and their grief. These scholars intervened in the easy ‘sharing’ of the tragedy. They built the first academic study of the Aberfan Disaster, released on the anniversary of the landslide: Aberfan, Government and Disasters.
Through this book and their wide-ranging research, it becomes clear that the Labour Government failed to protect the citizens of a safe Labour seat. A bereaved husband and parent stated that
I was tormented by the fact that the people I was seeking justice from were my people – a Labour Government, a Labour council, a Labour-nationalised Coal Board (“The last day before half-term”).
There is a rationale for this attitude towards the tragedy. The Harold Wilson Labour Governments of 1964-70 were faced with severe balance of payments difficulties. Also, they only held a majority in the house of five, which they were to build to 96 in the 1966 election. While the Welfare State was a construction ‘for’ the working class after the war, the ‘permissive society’ – and resultant social reforms – of the 1960s was ‘for’ middle class consumers. It appeared that the industrial working class was paying for the new white heat of technology. This paradox not only provides a context for the Aberfan disaster but a space for media and cultural studies commentary.
Perhaps the most difficult task for those of us working in cultural and media studies is to understand the citizens of history, not only as consumers, spectators or an audience, but how they behave and what they may feel. We need to ask what values and ideas do we share with the ‘audiences,’ ‘citizens’ and ‘spectators’ in our theoretical matrix. At times we do hide behind our Foucaults and Kristevas, our epistemologies and etymology. Raw, jagged emotion is difficult to theorise, and even more complex to commit to the page. To summon any mode of resistive or progressivist politics, requires capturing tone, texture and feeling. This type of writing is hard to achieve from a survey of records. A public intellectual role is rare these days. The conservative media invariably summon pundits with whom they can either agree or pillory. The dissenting intellectual, the diffident voice, is far more difficult to find. Edward Said is one contemporary example. But for every Said, there is a Kissinger. McLean and Johnes, during a time of the Blair Government, reminded a liberal-leaning Labour of earlier mistakes in the handling of a working-class community. In finding origins, causes and effects, the politicisation of history is at its most overt.
Path of the slag
The coal slurry rolled onto the Welsh village nearly thirty-seven years ago. Aberfan represents more than a symbol of decline or of burgeoning televisual literacy. It demonstrates how we accept mediated death. A ‘disaster’ exposes a moment of insight, a transitory glimpse into other people’s lives. It composes a mobile, dynamic photograph: the viewer is aware that life has existed before the tragedy and will continue after it.
The link between popular and collective memory is not as obvious as it appears. All memory is mediated – there is a limit to the sharing. Collective memory seems more organic, connected with an authentic experience of events. Popular memory is not necessarily contextually grounded in social, historical or economic formations but networks diverse times and spaces without an origin or ending. This is a post-authentic memory that is not tethered to the intentions, ideologies or origins of a sender, town or community. To argue that all who have seen photographs or televisual footage of Aberfan ‘share’ an equivalent collective memory to those directly touched by the event, place, family or industry is not only naïve, but initiates a troubling humanism which suggests that we all ‘share’ a common bank of experience.
The literacy of tragedy and its reportage was different after October 1966. When reading the historical material from the disaster, it appears that grieving parents are simply devastated puppets lashing out at their puppeteers. Their arguments and interpretation were molded for other agendas. Big business, big government and big unions colluded to displace the voices of citizens (McLean and Johnes “Summary”). Harold Wilson came to office in 1964 with the slogan “13 wasted years.” He promised that – through economic growth – consensus could be established. Affluence through consumer goods was to signal the end of a polarisation between worker and management. These new world symbols, fed by skilled scientific workers and a new ‘technological revolution,’ were – like the industrial revolution – uneven in its application. The Aberfan disaster is situated on the fault line of this transformation. A Welsh working class community seemed out of time and space in 1960s Britain. The scarved women and stocky, strong men appeared to emerge from a different period. The television nation did not share a unified grief, but performed the gulf between England and Wales, centre and periphery, middle and working class, white collar and black collar.
Politics saturates television, so that it is no longer possible to see the join. Aberfan’s television coverage is important, because the mend scar was still visible. Literacy in televisual grief was being formed through the event. But if Aberfan did change the ‘national consciousness’ of coal then why did so few southern English citizens support the miners trying to keep open the Welsh pits? The few industries currently operating in this region outside of Cardiff means that the economic clock has stopped. The Beveridge Report in 1943 declared that the great achievement of the Second World War was the sharing of experience, a unity that would achieve victory. The People’s War would create a People’s Peace. Aberfan, mining closures and economic decline destroyed this New Jerusalem. The green and pleasant land was built on black coal. Aberfan is an historical translator of these iconographies.