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Memories stirred by Aberfan poetry collection

1 August 2016

Professor E Wyn James

Professor E Wyn James was a teenager when the call came to his school for help to deal with the aftermath of the Aberfan disaster.

“I had just arrived in school that morning when a call came for the fifth and sixth-form boys to go urgently to Aberfan because something terrible had happened there,” said Professor James.

So the 16-year-old and his classmates were dispatched from their school in the neighbouring village of Edwardsville in the Merthyr valley.

“We didn’t know at the time the extent of what had happened, but that became very evident when we arrived.”

They were put to work immediately, part of the desperate attempts to remove debris from the disaster site in the hope of finding people alive.

“We were in a sort of chain gang passing buckets back from the ruins of the junior school.”

Mining debris from a nearby colliery had been deposited on the mountainside above Aberfan for many years.

On 21 October 1966, it took just a few minutes for the tip to slide down the mountain engulfing the local school. The disaster claimed the lives of 116 children and 28 adults.

Professor James, of Cardiff University’s School of Welsh, has recently spent a lot of time contemplating the events of that dreadful day.

Professor James and his wife, Christine James, a poet and professor in the Welsh department at Swansea University, have just published a collection of poems about the disaster to mark the 50th anniversary.

He said that working on the volume had been an even more emotional experience than he had expected.

“Although I did not lose close family members like some of my friends, the experience created a sort of numbness for many years,” he said.

One strong emotion he feels is anger about the disaster, and the way in which the tips were allowed to accumulate on the hillside above the school.

“As one editorial remarked at the time, they wouldn’t have allowed such waste tips to overshadow Eton or Harrow,” he said.

Professor James will be talking about his memories of the disaster and discussing the collection of 80 poems, Dagrau Tost (Bitter Tears), together with Professor Christine James at the National Eisteddfod.

The event takes place between 11:00 and 12:00 at Lolfa Lên (the Literature Lounge) on Tuesday 2 August.

The collection features poetry from the time of the disaster right through to some written during recent months.

Professor James said two of the most notable poets to be included are D Gwenallt Jones and T Llew Jones.

“Gwenallt was the most prominent poet writing in Welsh about life in the industrial valleys of south Wales,” said Professor James.

“He published a long poem about Aberfan a year after the disaster, and that poem has a central place in the collection.”

“In many ways it was his final statement on the suffering and bravery of people in the valleys.”

Professor James said that another striking poem included in the collection was written by T Llew Jones, a teacher from Ceredigion who was an important writer of children’s literature in Welsh.

The poem was broadcast in a Welsh-language news programme in the days after the disaster, and in it T Llew Jones draws parallels between the children of the fictional Hamelin and those of Aberfan.

“Although the poems respond to the disaster in a variety of ways, the main focus is on the fact that so many children died in that disaster.”