My memories are inevitably vague, but I think the Aberfan disaster of 1966 was the first news story that I noticed. I was then just starting school, and it would have been difficult to miss the coverage of the landslide of coal-waste avalanching down on a small village. For the first buildings to be hit were the schools, and when the final death toll was reckoned up, it turned out that 116 of the 144 victims were children.
What I obviously didn’t register at the time was the full scandal – the fact that the disaster could have been avoided, had the National Coal Board heeded the warnings that the slurry tip was on a stream that made it structurally unsound.
Nor did I know anything about the continuing story, the second tragedy that engulfed the survivors and the bereaved. As money poured in from around the world, a disaster relief fund was set up, with around £1.8 million contributed (nearer £25 million at today’s prices), most of it from individuals wanting to help out.
But the money didn’t make it through to the intended recipients. Instead it sat in the bank, accumulating interest for the local council.
Which is where my late friend, John Summers, entered the story. Writing then for the Sunday Telegraph, he was the one Fleet Street journalist who wouldn’t let go of the story. He returned repeatedly to Aberfan (just five miles from Rhymni where he grew up), wrote about the families in the Telegraph and in Harpers Bazaar and Queen magazines, and even issued himself the High Court writ that released some of the funds.
All of which is much in my mind because I have today been reading through some of those articles by John and putting them on the site dedicated to him (scroll down to the bottom of the page).
For John himself, it was a turning-point in his life. He began his campaigning as a journalist and emerged as a novelist, the whole tragic story having been incorporated into his first novel, Edge of Disaster. For those interested in his work, it’s worth comparing his articles with the published, and slightly fictionalized, account from that book.
Oh, and for anyone intrigued by the mention in the Daily Telegraph’s obituary of a feud between John and his former lecturer, Kingsley ‘Bopa’ Amis, I recently put the relevant material online as well.