Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Aberfan by O. Reader


Click this for the music:

            This is not a humorous post. This is the story of one of the biggest peace-time disasters in the recent history of the UK that occurred close to where I now live.
            Most people of a certain age can remember where they were when certainly key events happened - the shooting of John F Kennedy in Dallas is an obvious example. Here in Britain, many of a certain age can remember where they were when they first heard about the Aberfan disaster, 50 years ago. A huge tip of mining waste suddenly slid down a mountainside and engulfed a junior school and nearby houses, killing over a hundred small children.
            The news broke when I was living in the English county of Berkshire, sharing a trailer with a work colleague in a religious ministry. My colleague (I should say friend - we are still in touch) came from Wales, and that week his parents were visiting and staying with us. We saw the grainy images on the TV and black and white photographs in the newspaper. Aberfan? I’d never heard of the place. Eight years later I was married and living only three miles from where the disaster happened.
            The South Wales valleys were slaves to iron and steel and particularly coal. Frankly in the great scheme of things in the British Empire, the people who dug it out of the ground were expendable. There were plenty more where they came from.
            Shortly after I came to Wales I was living in the capital, Cardiff. Cardiff is a pleasant city, quite small by my standards since I come from London, but well designed with good parkland. Just a few miles north the mining area started. It was another world. It could have been on Mars as far as native Cardiff people were concerned. No-body in Cardiff went north unless they had to, and when the valleys folk came south on various railway lines on Thursdays (because that was half-day closing for valleys shops) to their shame Cardiff people would snigger at them. That is probably an unfair generalization, but the attitude was certainly common.
            The mining areas were a mess. The tops of valleys still had a few farms from the old days, but the actual valleys were ruined by the industry. All along the sides of the valleys were great huge mountains of mining waste. Reportedly the largest man-made “mountain” in the world at one time was in Bargoed, just two valleys over from the Merthyr Valley and Aberfan. These huge spoil heaps just kept on increasing from all the waste that was left after the coal was extracted in the bottom of the valleys.
            So Aberfan was no different to most other places. There was a huge colliery that joined up underground with numerous other workings. It was a typical village of drab, mean little houses, poor essential services, miners’ social clubs, and various chapels now in decline. For much of Welsh mining history it was a tale everywhere of poor wages and very dangerous working conditions. What it did do was forge very close communities. Education was the only escape from working underground. No doubt this same scenario also played out in other mining areas both in England and America.
            Of course, the huge ugly mounds of debris on the mountainside had been known to slip a little. A road got damaged in the Aberdare valley in the 1930s. But no-one got hurt, so why worry? And of course, they were supposed to watch the tips and monitor them. But here at Aberfan it was so high up it would never crash down the hillside to get anywhere near the village. It couldn’t happen.
            Well, of course it did happen. And anyone with a basic knowledge of Welsh will know that the very name of the village refers to a watercourse. And in their “wisdom” they put this tip on top of a spring and kept adding to it year after year after year.
            So, finally, on the morning of 21 October 1966, when the children had just started school, it slipped. It was foggy in the village and no-one had a chance of seeing it coming. It rumbled down the hill at terrifying speed. Even if the warning telephone from the top had been operative, which typically it wasn’t, they couldn’t have warned anyone in time. It smashed into the Pantglas Primary School and many surrounding houses. What made the tragedy even worse was that just above the school was the path of the old Glamorganshire canal. It had been sold to the Water Board years before and they used it to run a water supply for Cardiff in two huge pipes all the way down from the reservoirs in the Brecon Beacons. The thundering mass ripped open the pipework adding millions of gallons of water to the mix. The slurry that hit the school at high speed was an estimated 12 meters (39 feet) deep. And the water from the pipes just kept on coming.
            The time was 9.15 a.m. Fifteen minutes earlier most would have been saved. Another few hours later it would have been the same. This was the last day of term and they only had a half day timed for school.
            One hundred sixteen children between the ages of seven to ten perished. The final death toll including older children and adults was 144. I won’t go into the attempted rescue attempts. You can read about them online if you have a mind to. The miners came up from the pit and used their expertise to do what they could. Most died instantly from drowning or being crushed. An elderly man who is a patient of mine (and who incidentally got the MBE for his life’s work) was on his way to conduct a First Aid examination near the school and was one of the first there, but could see immediately where it was hopeless and where hope may still exist. He spent several days with his team of stretcher bearers working around the clock recovering little bodies and taking them to the temporary mortuary in a local chapel. To this day he is saddened that he only rescued one person alive, and that was a woman in one of the nearby houses. When the force of the landslide demolished her home, a metal fire grate came out of the wall and pinned her down, but somehow created a pocket that allowed rescuers to get her out in time. His haunting memory is of a neighbour whose boy didn’t want to go school that day. She insisted that he went, which as a parent is what you would naturally do. But, however irrational, imagine living with the consequences of that decision for the rest of life.
            And now comes the angry bit. However, you cut it, the National Coal Board was responsible for what happened. They ignored warnings and viewed their workforce as unimportant other than as tools, and then after it was all over, they tried to wriggle out of blame. The chairman of the Coal Board didn’t go to Aberfan immediately - he had a prior engagement elsewhere to receive an honor, so chose to do that instead. Faced with the responsibility of removing the debris and potential further disasters from other unstable tips all along the valley, they didn’t want to pay up. A huge fund for survivors and the village in general was raised from a generous public throughout the British Isles. It was insisted that £150,000 from THIS fund should be used to help take away the remaining tips, which they pontificated were “safe”. And they got away with it too! It was only in 1997 that the money was finally returned to the relief fund by the British government of the day.
            At the end of the day, no-one was disciplined; no-one lost their job or even just got demoted. The official enquiry balked at using phrases like “callous indifference” but settled on “bungling ineptitude” instead. Engineers had only bothered with conditions underground, not on the hillside. Their evidence was likened by the tribunal in a memorable phrase, to that of “moles being asked about the habits of birds”. The Coal Board ultimately made an offer of compensation - £50 per child. They were forced to increase it to £500. A damning memo that came to light (after what in Britain is a 30 year rule before classified documents are released) was the suggestion that, if in interviews parents appeared to be not that close to their dead children, maybe they could get away with paying less.
            So they cleaned up the valley; in fact they cleaned up all the valleys. There is now a leisure center in Aberfan - paid for from the relief fund - and while other similar centers in other villages have closed in recent years, directing attention to the larger towns for such facilities, they will never be able to close this one. I have been to children’s parties there, my daughter had her wedding reception there, and Mrs O goes swimming there. And there is a memorial garden with little walls set out in the shape of the classrooms of the doomed school that is immaculately kept.

 The tips have gone now. There is an occasional grassy hill that looks a little unusual in shape, but basically, all the tips have been removed. Trees have been planted, grass has grown, and millions upon millions of GBP have been spent on South Wales from European money. Where once there were collieries, now rivers and lakes and country parks flourish. And people from Cardiff? Now many want to live in “the valleys” - the title has taken on a whole new meaning - now it means living in the countryside - being only half an hour from the city (traffic permitting) and even nearer to the Brecon Beacons National Park. The little homes have been brightened up, and new estates (think Pete Seeger singing Little Boxes) have sprung up where once there was industry. Of course, there is very little work, but most of those who do work just commute down the valleys to the cities, Newport, Cardiff and Swansea.
            It has been an interesting time to live in an area. When I was sent here by the religious organization I worked for it was grim. You had to wash your front doorstep and not leave the washing out too long because of the dust from the pits. Now, with a country park outside the back door, and the innate friendliness of local people that fortunately still survives, I don’t think I would want to be anywhere else.

Sunday, August 28, 2016


A princess with beach float.

On the beach - France

Sisters and a Cousin

 Finding 'stuff'

On the Beach - Trip to France

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

From O. Reader


When we moved into our house it had not been lived in for three and a half years. I suspect it was one of those messy divorce cases where no-one was prepared to sell, so if one side couldn’t have it, they would make real sure the other party didn’t get it either. Several lifetimes earlier when villages were self-sufficient it had been the chemist shop. It was originally a mining cottage, and according to the 1900 census held a family of husband, wife, four strapping children and two adult lodgers. Quite where they put them all I still wonder. Probably night shift and day shift and don’t ask too many questions about the bedding. Anyhow, that’s history - when we came on the scene, it was in really dreadful repair. But we were strapped for cash and I was struggling to learn a whole new career, and it was all we could afford. No financial institution would have considered it for a mortgage, even if we could have afforded one. (And if we could have afforded one, we probably wouldn’t have bought THIS anyway!)  But our initial budget allowed us to replace the roof, get some basic heating in, and we camped for rather a long time upstairs while I struggled with Do It Yourself books from the library to tame the ground floor. Ah me - if only I had known then what I know now...etc.

It is all a long time ago.

One of our first “luxury” purchases was a set of fitted wardrobes to replace the school cabinets from my mother-in-law’s old nursery school that we had used at our previous basement flat. They were wall to wall and in fact, traveled around the walls as well. But they were intended to be installed once for all time.

In fact, over the last thirty years or more they have been taken out twice and rebuilt twice. Once was to add an extra sliver of cupboard to really be wall to wall - and it was a struggle. But then there was the time the ceiling collapsed. The previous owners - idiots all - had a leaking roof and in typical short-term fashion had filled the attic space with dead carpets (rubber backed) to stop the water coming into the bedrooms. They had obviously put a certain amount of thought into this although I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess on their basic I.Q. This was one of the delights we only really discovered AFTER we had purchased, which probably doesn’t say much for our clear thinking at the time either. (As I said earlier, if I had only known then...etc.) Anyhow, we sorted all that out, but did not realise that all the upstairs ceilings were all on their last legs. What I should have done was kick them all through from the attic before we moved in, and replace the lot. What I actually did was to use some plastic sealant and gallons of a mixture of plaster and paint called Artex and patch it up. And then forgot all about it. Which was a BAD IDEA.

Move forward a number of years. I decide to put a decent ladder into the attic and also a floor up there. It requires enlarging the hole for entry quite considerably. I may have told this story before - I have told it somewhere but can’t remember where, and well - if I have done it here, you won’t remember anyway., So I am up a ladder trying to cross-baton the ceiling since the flooring we have in the attic is fixed permanently, and has a few tons of goods on top of it. As always, everything is done in the wrong order. Tap, tap, tap. Suddenly I see a crack appear. As I look, it increases and gains momentum and runs away from me. Struggling to save it by leaning at an impossible angle on top of the step-ladder I crash to the floor with half a ton of black mortar on top of me. Mining cottages were all built with sticky black mortar everywhere, exacerbated by the atmosphere and surroundings. Oh doom and double doom.

Then my daughter arrives home from school. She finds a blackened wreck doing an impersonation of Al Jolson sitting on a pile of debris and hysterically laughing. She laughs too. We both stand and sit in the rubble and laugh together. Then Mrs O arrives home from college. I remember she doesn’t laugh. Her face is a picture. This causes her daughter and husband to cackle manically all the more. It was not a wise move.

Anyhow, to cut a long and painful story short, we had to replace every ceiling in the top of the house - gutting every room and rebuilding the furniture. So our fitted wardrobes come out again, and because veneered chipboard is not too partial to movement, it had to be fitted back with that many screws and brackets and six inch nails (no - I tell a lie - I resisted the temptation to use nails) that it was now permanent. An earthquake could hit our village, an explosion could rip the house apart, but amidst the rubble there would still have been a set of fitted wardrobes leering out at us.

But finally, as a consequence of making a killing on eBay, I agreed this year to replace the furniture with something “modern”. There is a Scandinavian company called Ikea that has great huge outlets designed to wear you out buying things you don’t need as you follow the yellow brick road (and they really DO have a road with arrows on it) to get out of the place. But they have modern fitted units that go right up to the ceiling - something our old units did not do. Instead the tops were where we would store things like guitars and dust. They have all sorts of useful features in them but give you more floor space by taking up less depth. Originally their stuff was always light wood, and our home needs a lot of oak if it is to be kept to its restored period look, but now they have sensible finishes. Crucially, for only 25% on top of the bill they will come and fit it for you. This really appealed. I have built numerous bookcases and fitted a kitchen or two, and of course these original wardrobes were my handiwork. But I was young then. I would leap out of bed at six and work through the day constructing through until bedtime, whistling a happy tune as I worked. Now I leap out of bed at six and attack in the same fashion and by about breakfast time I’m done for. Mrs O, who wields a mean paint brush, feels the same way. So next week it all comes and they will fit it. I hope I am not writing a post about disaster afterwards...

There was only one snag. We had to clear the room of the old wardrobes, cupboards and contents, bed and massive amounts of belongings. I am really quite sensible with possessions, realising that books first and then CDs and DVDs are the priorities. Mrs O has a weakness for clothes. These last two days we have cleared the room. It is amazing how much stuff Mrs O has... Well, er, we have. We are determined that it won’t all go back when the room is restored. But it is currently filling up other bedrooms and my office and the downstairs living rooms. How we managed to have so much stuff in one room is amazing. And all the other rooms look suspiciously like having the same latent problem.

So over the last couple of days, after having visitors stay for a convention and a bumper day of treating foot conditions to wear me out before we started, I have dismantled the wardrobes and reduced them to suitably sized bits to go to the local dump where they take such things for free. Five carloads it took. And the ironwork, screws and bolts, there are several boxes of those for recycling. To coin a phrase, I ache, therefore I am.

The carpet comes tomorrow to a completely cleared room. We then continue sleeping on camp beds downstairs for a week until the IKEA people come to put up the wardrobes. I hope they don’t postpone it. We camped at folk festivals recently. That was fun. Living room carpet surrounded by cardboard boxes is not quite the same.

Our son in law is an engineer and he checked our measurements. But there are niggling worries - usually at 3 a.m. - I hope it is measured up correctly and that the sizes in the catalog really are what they say they are.

What was that about Murphy’s law..?

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Mystery Photos

My best guess is France. They're part of a group taken 1914-1920. Most are from Europe, some South America, two from Burma. Can you identify the place?

Friday, August 12, 2016

Cute Shoes - By Quadratus on Devient Art

Cute shoes on its mate makes a dragon's heart flutter:


By Quadratus. Find his work on Deviant Art
I'd call this cute shoes in the night.

Tuesday, August 02, 2016

If one of my daughters was Alice ...

O. Reader's Further Adventures

Cambridge 2016

            We have just spent four days at the Cambridge Folk Festival - an annual event that has launched the careers of many. Decades ago Paul Simon appeared in the club tent and was paid 15 GBP for the privilege. Today many wannabe hopefuls have the same sort of ambition.
            So this is a roundup of impressions, written in a trailer in the New Forest, now that I have a keyboard and intermittent internet back.
            One of the biggest problems in camping at festivals like Cambridge is getting all your gear to the campsite. At other festivals like Shrewsbury you can park your wheels next to the tent, but this festival is too big with several thousand tents on site. We were assured that this year the entrance would only be 400 yards from our car park. Great! And this was true - just 400 yards. It was the extra three miles to the end of the queue that was the killer.
            So we staked our place for two hours in the queue before the gates opened, and were just glad that we were no further back as the queue disappeared into the distance both ways. Fortunately we had our folding chairs with us.
            I have to say that Mrs O likes to “be prepared”. The four of us came with four trolleys, purchased from a German discount shop and very good value. Daughter and son-in-law had one trolley, and Mrs O and I had three.
            I tried to explain to Mrs O how I’d once pedal cycled from end to end of Britain, from John O’Groats to Lands End in a week, and how I carried my tent and all essential supplies on my bicycle. I was reminded that when I arrived at one or two contacts’ doorsteps along the route (the other times I generally slept rough) I was greeted with a certain recoil and the suggestion that I might like to take a shower... But I was young and foolish then. And single. I actually cycled back from Lands End to Cardiff at the end of the trip to film a wedding, and two years later I was married to the bridesmaid. All together now - aaah.
            But I digress...
            At least with all our luggage we could rest at the side of the road and watch various souls of various sizes and shapes glumly tramp past in search of the end of the queue. Quite a few had obviously been to the same German discounter for trolleys. Several used wheelbarrows and at least one used a Wheelie Bin. (But I see I’ve done my comic song post on Wheelie Bin Fire some years ago, so you are spared that now.)
            After two hours we finally moved, and after the British experience of dutifully forming a queue, there was a mad scramble to find our pitch once inside. Our daughter wanted us to be under her “special tree”. I’ve come to appreciate that the gentle pitter-patter of bird droppings can be quite soporific.
            Folk festivals in Britain are very respectable. Some of my straight-laced contacts sort of raise an eyebrow when I openly tell them where I am going. “A festival” they repeat? Imagine an impersonation of Lady Bracknell’s line “A handbag?” from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. But these festivals really are not Woodstock. They are very family friendly, hardly ever a policeman in sight for a crowd of well over ten thousand. There are sing-arounds, and kids doing face painting and juggling and careering around on unicycles. And of course there are the clothes. One exhibitionist came as a Native American, and another gentleman came as a tree. I wish I’d taken a photograph. And the older folkies came in traditional dress - earth mothers in Kaftans like tents, and gentlemen of a certain age with bald heads and pony tails for compensation, and this year - hats. Bowler hats (think Laurel and Hardy’s derby hats) and top hats - generally in bright red with feathers attached. I was tempted by a red top hat and Mrs O threatened to put me wearing it on Instagram. Good sense prevailed and I blew all my money on CDs instead.
            The other notable feature of folk festivals in Britain is how very clean they are. Washroom facilities are exceptional under the circumstances, and virtually no litter or trash is dropped. If it is, it gets picked up and put in the right bag - disposable, recycling, etc. - immediately. It goes with the ethos - friends of the earth, save the whale, save the planet, etc. For Britain, which has been dubbed the effluent society, this is good.
            And certain traditions remain. On Sunday morning before the music started and we were all staking our claim to a piece of grass and struggling with the Sunday papers’ crosswords, they played The Archers over the sound system. This is a British radio soap opera that started in 1950 and is still going strong. Billed originally as “an everyday story of country folk” it started life covering animal management, post-war government agricultural quotas, and harvest tips. Now, in good soap opera tradition, it tends to concentrate on incest, domestic violence, and rather frequent murders.
            And what about the music? Oh yes, that’s why we came. Last year’s line-up was as good as it will ever get. This year the one international singer was American Mary Chapin Carpenter, but there were a lot of British “folk royalty” whose names would probably not mean much to readers here. I also caught up with Amy Goddard on a couple of occasions. She got an interview and sang live on a local radio show. And I spent a lot of time in workshops on how to sing (somewhat necessary) and song writing - although my song writing tends to gravitate towards unkind parodies of existing work. There’s probably a word to describe that - an uncomplimentary one no doubt - but hey, I’m of an age where I really don’t care.
            The musical highlight was an American four piece called Darlingside. It was their first visit to Britain to start a minor-league mini-tour and they were on Stage 2. But a headliner was taken ill, and immediately after their one planned performance (which I didn’t see, being wedged in the audience for Stage 1) they were catapulted onto the main stage to do it all again, and extend it to an hour. They were a four part harmony group - imagine barber shop meets the Beach Boys meets Crosby, Stills and Nash - multi-instrumented, who only used one huge old-fashioned mike. Fitting around that and making the sounds harmonize by voice and mike control is an art, and they had it perfect. I know they had only brought 400 copies of their debut CD over for the whole tour, and they all went at Cambridge instantly. And yes dear reader, I queued and got it signed.
            I’ve not heard it yet - my daughter commandeered it and an email tells me it is very good but a tad “over produced”. That’s a common failing of much modern folk/acoustic music in my book.
            I’m being called - I promised Mrs O we would venture out in the rain for a meal in a 2fer - that’s two steak meals for the price of one - so I gotta go. As that famous classicist Bugs Bunny always signed off - that’s all for now, folks...