On the morning of Friday 21st October 1966 a heap of mining waste shifted and slid down a mountainside into the Welsh village of Aberfan, destroying houses and, most tragically, the local primary school of Pantglas. In total 144 people were killed in the disaster, 116 of them children at the school, along with five of their teachers. Writer Owen Sheers has made this event the subject of his sensitive and surprisingly hopeful work The Green Hollow, which Jamie McKinstry encountered at Durham Book Festival.
As Owen explained to a thoughtful and visibly moved audience in Palace Green Library, the title of his work is in fact a translation of the Welsh ‘Pantglas’, but also contains myriad additional meanings which relate to the tragedy, including the conception of grief as a ‘hollow’ and also the ‘hollow’ that the event left in that community. However, Owen also suggested that the title also hints at the green shoots of recovery, in the process reminding us that titles can so often be important doors into a work.
Expertly chaired by Professor Stephen Regan, the talk began by sketching out the overall structure of the work which is divided into three parts, comprising the children, the rescuers, and the survivors, which roughly corresponds, in a chronological sense, to before, during, and after the event itself. Owen explained that having such a structure helped him to give a shape to the work, which he did not want to be a simple and possibly rather stark retelling of the event, but rather a broader view of Aberfan as a community, along with the tragedy, its legacy, and the effect of the event beyond the village itself. Regarding this latter point, Owen was keen to stress that, although deeply affecting for the community involved, this tragedy also had a national and potentially global impact. Indeed, such universality is implicitly suggested in the work when individuals gaze up at the night sky and discuss the imminent lunar landings – it is difficult not to apply the image of looking up into the darkness to the events occurring here on earth in Aberfan. Moreover, it was also suggested that such ground-breaking scientific advances contrasted starkly with the comparably archaic process of piling up slag and slurry on the hillside above Aberfan.
Stephen Regan reminded us that Owen’s work is in fact verse and not prose, relying as it does on rhymes, half-rhymes, internal rhymes and, crucially, rhythm. Through this technique Owen has been able to capture the voices of the characters (if we can view them as such) and therefore remain loyal to those he interviewed during the seven months of research conducted in preparation for The Green Hollow through a technique of, to use his terminology, ‘restrained emotion’. The children, he explained, are actually composite characters; however, the accounts of the rescuers are more authentic, using their real accounts of the rescue and even their real names. In terms of poetic technique, Stephen also observed the similarities with Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, a comparison that Owen noted as being particularly appropriate and, obviously, influential.
A highlight of the event was Owen’s reading from his work where he selected something from each section of the piece. One of the most affecting images that emerged during this extremely moving performance was the account from one of the rescuers, a medical student, who entered a destroyed classroom to find the teacher still stretched over his class, preserved in his final moments of selfless protection whilst his class cowered beneath, their mouths forever open, almost as if singing. The hopelessness of the situation is captured in the pathetic yet poignant ‘nothing to be done’ whilst the effect of the children’s deaths on the families is painfully revealed along the village streets as house after house lies silent with curtains drawn (despite it being during the day), a sign that this is a home that death has visited.Embed from Getty Images
In the final portion of the event questions were invited from the audience and these were initiated by the Department of Theology’s Professor Douglas Davies who added a fascinating personal dimension to the Aberfan tragedy as he explained that he had lived in a nearby village and that his father had played an active part in the rescue operation, as did so many from the surrounding villages. Some questions related to the logistics of writing a piece such as this (especially one that must fit the timed pressures of television) and also the potential for uncomfortable accusations of voyeurism that might accompany any interest in a disaster which touches so many both in a community and beyond. However, perhaps most intriguing were the audience’s allusions to more contemporary events that have been similarly tragic – these included the murders in Norway by Anders Breivik in 2011 and even the Grenfell Tower fire in 2017. Again, the focus was very much on the sense of a seeing the tragedy of a local community in a global context, as well as raising some emotive questions of ‘cultural betrayal’ and ‘resurgence’.
This was a truly fascinating event, both in terms of the subject which was so sensitively presented and discussed, and in what was revealed about how literature, particularly poetry, can creatively represent real events and yet still remain faithful to the deeply tragic circumstances, some horrendous mistakes, and people’s powerful memories and feelings. In his reading from the Survivors section of his work, Owen drew upon the process of coal creation itself, noting what happens to carbon when one keeps pressing down. Given enough time and pressure, the ultimate end product, of course, would be diamonds, something which, from the blackness and hollowness of this event, might have begun to emerge. In The Green Hollow we cannot forget what happened on that dreadful morning but, through Owen Sheers’ skillful and sensitive treatment of both his research, and the memories of those rescuers and survivors, we can see how under the pressure of such horrendous events people, and their words, like diamonds, can be ‘pushed through till we shine’.
Owen Sheers was appearing at Durham Book Festival, which continues until 14th October. The Green Hollow is published by Faber and Faber, RRP £12.99.