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Aberfan 50 years on: how best to remember the tragedy?

In 1966 a coal slag heap collapsed on a school in south Wales, killing 144 people, most of them children. Poet Owen Sheers went back to the pit village and, using the people’s own memories, created a ‘film poem’ to commemorate the disaster

• Click here to read extracts from The Green Hollow

‘How to talk about it? That’s been a struggle from the start.” Jeff Edwards, 58, pauses and shifts his weight in the armchair. We’re sitting in the front room of his house in Aberfan where for the past hour Jeff has been describing for me some of the difficulties experienced by the village in trying to negotiate the ongoing tightrope between memorial and healing, between sharing and silence, in the wake of the disaster that befell them 50 years ago. “Personally I found speaking about it better for me,” he continues, “in terms of my recovery. But other people, well, they just cannot speak about it at all.”

It was the last Friday before half term – 21 October 1966 – and, like hundreds of other children across Aberfan, Jeff set off for school that day looking forward to the holiday ahead of him. School would finish early, at midday, after which lay the promise of a whole week of playing with his friends in the orchards and farmed fields on the slopes above the village. A heavy autumnal mist was still lying thick in the valley when Jeff left his home for school. From early on, however, Aberfan had made itself heard, if not seen. Children who lived at the bottom end of the village, near the “black bridge”, would have woken to the colliery hooter at Merthyr Vale pit sounding the change of shift, and to the rattling of the “journeys” too – drams [trucks] on tracks carrying coal waste, tailings and grit up to the top of tip No 7, looming on the mountainside above the rows of terraced houses.

My idea was to begin with a single voice, then to have the voices of the village grow exponentially to a climax of 144

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