On the deckle edges of life.

I haven’t written much lately, I mused upon the length of poems, more precisely on how short a poem can be in “How short can a poem be?” and I transcribed another poem, “New Star Rising” that I’d originally written back in the 1970s.

I’ve had ideas, lots of ideas but most didn’t get past the writing-down-the-title-so-I-won’t-forget-it stage. Whatchamacallit, oojamaflip and the doings was one idea, all those words we use when we can’t remember the word we are looking for. My grandmother was forever saying things like, “It’s on the doings.” That’s do-ings and not the “doying” sound that an errant spring might make suddenly released from its captivity.

Aberfan was another idea.

I was eight years old at the time and something had happened. I remember being at my grandparents, my grandmother and my mother were listening to the wireless. I could see that they were upset, my mother was visibly so, on the point of tears. What was going on? I tried to ask but was not given a satisfactory answer.

1st October 1966 was a Friday so this must have been sometime in the afternoon, after I’d got home from school. Back then we weren’t constantly updated with “news feed” as we are today. People, grown-ups, would have gone to work in the morning and not have heard any “news” until they got home. In 1966 my mum had a part time job and three children to look after. I would have walked home under my own steam, but my younger siblings would have been collected from their school and then we would have walked around to my grandparents’ place, a few minutes away.

One word, no, two words kept being repeated, abber fan … abber fan, (that’s what it sounded like), and I had no idea what it was or what it meant, all I knew was that my mum and her mum were upset.

What does it take to make grown-ups cry? Grown-ups don’t cry, that’s the province of children. By the age of eight I’d done my fair share, not wanting to go to school for one reason or another, minor spats with siblings and friends, going to “the clinic” to get vaccinated and the like, but Adults? They didn’t cry. Well, they did cry. In 1964 my father’s father died and I remember dad walked in through the front door and said to my mother, “Dad’s gone.” And burst into tears. Mum hugged him and I felt that it was inappropriate to watch so I looked away. Adults cried then, but only in extreme circumstances.

The next day I again asked my mum what had happened. She sat down with me and explained. That much I remember; I don’t remember her explanation verbatim, but it obviously left its mark on me.

So yes, I was going to write about Aberfan, I’d done a bit of research and read up a bit on the subject.

The Merthyr Vale Colliery was begun in 1869 and produced its first coal in 1875. Coal was of course used on an industrial scale in the UK as well as other European and ‘developed’ countries for all manner of uses from the beginning of the industrial revolution and into the 20th century. Power stations burned coal to produce electricity, Railway companies used coal to power trains, factories used coal to power their machinery, ships burned coal to ply the oceans, just about every household burned coal to heat the house and provide hot water and to cook with.

In the early 20th century, there were over 3,000 coal mines in the UK employing well over a million miners not to mention all the ancillary staff that were needed to run a coal mine. In Wales which was abundantly blessed with coal deposits, 10% of the population had an occupation in the coal mining industry.

A by-product of coal mining is all the spoil, the earth and rocks dug up which contain no or very low-quality coal, a product that isn’t financially viable, and this spoil was dumped on spoil tips. In 1916 at the Merthyr Vale Colliery, they ran out of space on the valley floor to dump the spoil that they were producing and so they started to dump the spoil on the hillside above the nearby village of Aberfan.

By the early 1960s there were several spoil tips above the village, the only one still in use was number 7, having been begun in 1958. At around quarter past nine on the morning of Friday 21st October 1966 after several day of heavy rain which had permeated the spoil tip turning it into a viscous black slurry, somewhere between 110,000 and 150,000 cubic metres of the tip broke away and slid down the hillside into the village below.

What was described as a black tidal wave crashed across a disused canal and then over a railway embankment and into the village proper, destroying all in its path, this included a farmhouse and cottages on the hillside and in the village 20 houses, the Pant Glas Junior School and part of the nearby County Secondary School. When the slurry came to rest it was 12 metres deep in places and as soon as it stopped moving it began to solidify. 144 people were killed, 116 of them schoolchildren.

That was the enormity of what my mother had tried to convey to me, an eight-year-old far more concerned with the exploits of Fireball XL5, Stingray and Thunderbirds than what was happening in the real world.

Sometime afterwards, sitting in the warm, dry, safety of my school classroom, I looked up at the windows and imagined a black morass crashing through them. It had affected me and it’s something that I remember to this day. That’s what I’ll write about, I thought; then news came in of the devastating earthquakes on the Turkey/Syria border. 30,000 dead and counting. Real life had upped the stakes. Suddenly a mere 144 people seemed small fry.

Hard hearted? Unfeeling? Nearly half a century on and I, and I suspect we, have become hardened to disaster. On 31st May 1970 an earthquake 35 km off of the coast of Peru caused the northern flank of Mount Huascarán to collapse completely burying the town of Yungay and 10 neighbouring villages. Nobody knows the death toll, but it’s estimated to be around 80,000. I don’t remember that being in the news, our news. I guess it must have been, but it didn’t leave an impression on me.

It was only last year when I bought an album called “Huascarán” released in 1977 by a (then) Czechoslovakian band called Fermáta, that the scale of the Great Peruvian Earthquake and subsequent landslide was revealed to me.

Huascarán is a concept album and tells the true story of a Czechoslovakian mountaineering expedition that was lost while attempting to climb Mount Huascarán at the time the earthquake happened and the subsequent expedition some years later to climb the mountain as a memorial to the first expedition. Maybe it doesn’t sound like a great idea for an album, but the music is actually quite good – subject to the usual subjectivity alerts. Fermáta, based in Bratislava, Slovakia, are still going and well worth a listen to if you like jazz/rock/prog fusion and I realise that maybe that’s a big IF, but I like it.

On the short poems tack, there is a short poem that I have known and loved for many years. It’s by Leigh Hunt (James Henry Leigh Hunt, 1784–1859) and is called “Rondeau” but informally it’s called, “Jenny Kiss’d Me”. I’ve written about it before but that’s no reason not to repeat it here:

Jenny kiss’d me when we met,
Jumping from the chair she sat in;
Time, you thief, who love to get
Sweets into your list, put that in!
Say I’m weary, say I’m sad,
Say that health and wealth have miss’d me,
Say I’m growing old, but add,
Jenny kiss’d me.

I don’t know what it is exactly about that poem, but I just love it, it’s so short but oh, so sweet. I have the poem in an anthology, The Oxford Book of Light Verse if you must know, and although Rondeau was published in 1838 it always seemed to me that it “sounded” far more modern and I’d always meant to, but never did, look up some of Leigh Hunt’s other poems.

Never did until now. I went to my on-line second-hand bookstore of choice and ordered “Poems of Leigh Hunt”, delivered to my door for under a fiver, a veritable bargain. It was one of those things where there wasn’t a photo of the item, just a description. The book that arrived is over a hundred years old! It’s ex Reading University College Library, see photos below.

The book is only small, 4″ by 6½” by 1⅛” thick, I use inches here unapologetically because milimetrics and centipods didn’t enter into the equation in the UK when it was printed. The pages have deckle edges. I had to Google it, ragged edges on book pages, they’re called deckle edges apparently. The tops of the pages are trimmed, and gilt edged but the side and bottoms of the pages are deckle edged. A throwback to the early days of printing when the paper was handmade and therefore a bit irregular.

Printing and papermaking techniques improved over the years but then in a retrograde move it became fashionable to produce fake deckle edges as a sign that your book was a cut above the rest. Yes, I took that diversion, as one does when surfing the net, of my own volition and read all about it.

The type in the book is small, very small, too small for my tired old eyes, I think I’ll have to go and get my eyes tested but the book itself is a lovely little thing and the few poems that I have read so-far just reaffirm to me that Leigh Hunt was a poet to be reckoned with. He moved in circles with both Keats and Shelley and many other poets and playwrights, and I think it’s strange that his poetry doesn’t appear more in anthologies such as the aforementioned, Oxford Book.

I turned on the news this morning, 33,000 dead. It was reported as mere fact, we’ve become used to the scale. I take refuge in a small, one hundred-year-old book.

Donate to the Turkey-Syria Earthquake Appeal, you don’t have to of course, after all there’s a cost-of-living crisis and we’ve all got out own problems but if you’re reading this then at least you have a computer or a mobile device and the funds to keep it going and the chances are that you could spare a few quid. I’m sitting here in the warm with a roof over my head for which I count myself lucky, many are not so lucky.

One thought on “On the deckle edges of life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s