John Summers

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Edge of Violence/The Disaster

12: Mountain Road Again

The phone call from the editor of the very, very glossy Fleet Street magazine came that morning. He wanted to talk to me about Abertaf. Over the phone the fruity Oxford accents I’d already found out could hide the tenderest of Socialist hearts: ‘...Abertaf ... well, there’s a perfectly bloody appalling situation down there, by all accounts. Well, they’ve got every penny of eighteen hundred thousand and more in the Abertaf Disaster Fund and as far as we can make out only a couple of hundred measly quid paid out of it. They’ve even got the bereaved parents paying for their own grave spaces for the dead children. It’s a fact. So we thought you might like to write us a piece on it?’

I was sitting up in bed in the Swiss Cottage flat to take the call. The new portable electric typewriter on my knees, I’d been trying to tap out a few words for that next book I wanted to write, if I was ever going to write it. Finishing the cigarette I was smoking, I stabbed it in the ashtray by the bed. I said into the phone: ‘Abertaf’s a long way from London. People might say we were just interfering.’

‘About time some bloody interference was done then, that’s all we can say,’ said the magazine editor. ‘Two million quid and having to pay for grave spaces for their children! And we’ve just heard that when Germany donated free hand-made metal lanterns for all those hundred-and-fifty-odd graves at Easter, apparently the authorities went around all the bereaved parents and made them pay for those lanterns out of their own pockets.’

Mental picture of this glossy magazine: all shiny pages stuffed with advertisements for Rolls-Royces and good food guides and accounts of county balls.

I said, ‘Okay, I’ll go down there.’

The voice went on, ‘Good! Jolly good. We’ve been into the situation already and it seems that because of the British Charity Commission laws framed way back in the time of Alfred the Great, by the sound of it, nobody is ever likely to get anything substantial out of this Fund anyway –’

‘Really?’

‘– because there’s no precedence for any substantial payment being made out of this fund-no precedence in British Charity laws, that is, laws originally framed with a pauper outlook in mind. Although there are a good many people in high places who would like to see something of a change made. But it’s going to need a whack of the right sort of publicity to do it. Think you might like a crack at it? We thought since you’re from that part of the world...’

I arrived in Abertaf on the Wednesday night. The Abertaf tip was still as high as it was on the day it happened. Contrary to everything I’d seen in the newspapers only a small proportion of the bloody thing had ever actually fallen and the chuttering yellow bulldozers were still working high up there on the black pyramid of threequarter-mile-high slurry. The arc lights were burning as bright incandescent stars on the tip to light the workers during the night.

Over a coffee in Fleet Street with the editor of the glossy before coming down, I’d glanced at all the press cuttings about all the other British disaster funds there’d ever been …

In Norfolk in 1942 when an American bomber had crash-landed on a school, and killed a couple of dozen or so children, US airmen in Britain had contributed a fund of forty thousand pounds for the injured and surviving children who came out of the school alive. Now those children were grown up with families of their own and still most of the original forty-thousand-pound fund was intact, unspent.

Abertaf Fund Stands At £1,800,000 – said one of the newspaper headlines in the cuttings and now the Abertaf Fund was still burgeoning at a rate of over two thousand pounds a week and with cheques still coming in from all over the world.

The magazine editor had told me: ‘We’ve checked and all that’s been paid out is a maximum of two hundred and fifty pounds. On top of all that the mayor down there has gone on record saying he thinks everyone’s eyes in Abertaf will be closed, they’ll all be dead and still most of the Fund money will be unspent and after that it will go to the Exchequer ... Well, that’s what always happened up till now, you know. It’s quite true. There’s absolutely no provision under the British charity laws for making any large grants from any British disaster fund –’

I braked the Ferrari on Abertaf mountain road and sat there for a long time looking down the valley and the tip. I wished there was somewhere other than a hotel bedroom I could go to sleep tonight; I wanted to sleep again between the silent strong stone walls of the Ras Farm and hear the slow ticking of the brass-faced clock on the wall. I hungered for a high cold night under the moon and stars high over the sleeping valleys, and I would have liked to sleep with the noise of wind in the chimney-piece whipping the stones around me, while I could be under the eiderdown my grandmother herself had made, in the sweet comfort of a real home, and not just another strange hotel bedroom again: but never, never more: look, now the place that had been the Ras Farm was just a blackened, flattened smoothed-over place left by the tracks of the yellow bulldozers working across the side of the Abertaf tip.

I drove down into Abertaf and up to the cemetery. The colder mountain wind had started up with nightfall and the sounds of springtime were being blown away across the mountain top on the coldening wind.

Now it was spring in Abertaf ... The rooty smell of wild spring grasses blowing down from the tip, still black and omniscient up there; ponies with their roughened winter coats soaked by the first spring rains were wandering through Abertaf’s streets, empty of children.

And on the massed graves were spring flowers and little plastic spaceships, and dolls and other toys: still being piled by the hordes of sightseers who were coming in weekend pilgrimages by coach and car to see Abertaf. Sightseers who peered awed into the windows of abandoned homes heaped high with now hardening coal slurry and smashed furniture, and looking at those black clawmarks on the school’s white walls where rescuers’ hands had worked in the dark.

In the cemetery below the mass of the Abertaf tip the graves were laid out in fresh rows upon rows, banked with flowers. And it was only when you saw the rows upon rows of fresh-dug earth in the parallel lines of graves that you realised again that it really was so many people who died here in Abertaf: more than a hundred of them children.

And in the banks of fresh expensive flowers in the parallel rows of graves, a woman was adding a toy on one small grave and saying bright-eyed, ‘It’s her birthday today.’ And another woman was pointing and saying with equally moist bright eyes, ‘There’s another birthday further down the row…’

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