The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers: How to talk about it

As I researched the details of what happened at Aberfan, I realised this was a historical story with a deeply urgent contemporary resonance: a story of what can happen when a community is run by a corporation.
(Owen Sheers)

On Friday 21st October 1966 a slag heap shifted.  It slid inexorably towards a small mining village in South Wales, destroying several houses and at least one farm.  The worst hit building was Pantglas Junior School.  In total, 144 people were killed.  116 of them were children.  The name of the village was Aberfan.

I remember this disaster; I was a contemporary of the children in that school.  I remember the shock waves and the disbelief and later, the country’s sadness.  I would have been nine years old.

 

I connected none of this with the only book held in my library by Owen Sheers: The Green Hollow.  A few years ago I had read another of Sheers’ books, Resistance: a sensitive, lyrical, romantic, dystopian novel, which imagines the aftermath in a remote Welsh valley after Germany had invaded Britain.  It has stayed with me.  I can’t decide which genre it belongs in or even whether I liked it or not; I thought I might read it again for Dewithon 19 and get a clearer perspective.  But this is a different library and it didn’t hold Resistance.  It did have The Green Hollow: a book by a Welsh writer about a Welsh tragedy.  The die was cast.

On his website, Sheers is described as novelist, poet, playwright.  The Green Hollow – which is the English translation of Pantglas, the name of the school – is described elsewhere as a ‘film poem’ – a fusion.  Sheer’s other works suggest his art is marked by this fusion of genres and mediums.  The Green Hollow was commissioned by the BBC to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the disaster in Aberfan in 2016.  I didn’t see the resulting programme when it was broadcast at that time.  It won the BAFTA Cymru Award in 2017 for best television drama and for Sheers as best writer.  Having read the book of the poem, which was published in 2018, I felt compelled to watch the drama itself the following day.

Book, poem, drama – however one describes or comes to this work, it is equally powerful.

Sheers presents the work in three parts but always as a series of voices.  The children and parents: speaking at that time and speaking today; the rescuers: some called in and others who happened to be there at the time; and the survivors.  In this final section he includes those who were there – speaking in the immediate aftermath and speaking today – and he also includes voices from those who did not live in Aberfan then but have arrived since and form part of the community that lives there now.

The first part of the poem, ‘Children’, creates a picture of the village as it wakes up on that foggy October morning.  It takes us to the moment that the avalanche hits:

ANNE

But then it got louder than thunder ever can.

And faster.

I looked out the window, saw Jack-the-Milk,

Then – and I still don’t know why,

I had no time to think –

I put the book I was reading over my head.

Seconds later, the darkness came in,

As if all the eyes in the world, had chosen then to blink.

The middle section, ‘Rescuers’ introduces voices from outside the families, people who happened to be in the area or were called in as events unfolded.  These are the words of Sam, a young journalist:

I had my notebook and my pen,

but I couldn’t take them out.

So instead, I climbed up on to it, 

that mass of underground waste,

and joined a chain

passing back buckets of slurry. 

It was only after a bit that I noticed –

it was still moving.

The whole dark body of it, 

a slow buckle and seep

like a small coal muscle

hard but supple, flexing under our feet.

Sheers explains his thinking:

It was beginning with the idea of voice – of giving Aberfan a voice – that led me towards the style of the piece, a form of verse drama created from first person accounts; a series of rhythmically driven dramatic monologues underpinned by internal and line-end rhyme and half-rhyme.

In this he succeeds brilliantly.  The language used is simple and clear, the rhythms and rhymes flow without effort.  The impact of the subject matter is all the more powerful through the simplicity of the voices.

The final section, ‘Survivors’, brings the piece into the present day.  It returns to the voices of those children who survived, and to the voices of the parents: those whose children survived and those whose children did not.   We hear them in the aftermath; we hear them at the inquest and we hear them as they are now – fifty years older.  It also includes voices of the children and adults of contemporary Aberfan.  It is a piece which looks forward as much as it looks back; which celebrates as much as mourns.

DAN

I remember, for example,

the one appointed to me, he’d say

don’t think about bad things,

like what happened,

but happy things, like your birthday.

My birthday! How could he have known? 

There was no worse thing. 

I’d been looking forward to mine,

Twenty, thirty friends at a party.

But when the date came

there were only three, four of us about,

and that’s when it really sunk in. 

My friends, they’d been wiped out.

There is a lengthy but fascinating piece by Sheers here, in which he talks about his concerns over taking this commission, how he went about it and what he wanted to achieve.  It’s worth a read.  Another quote from that article:

Was it possible, then, to create a piece for TV marking the 50th anniversary of the collapse of tip No 7, while also attempting to broaden the field of vision in respect to the village? To paint a portrait not just of what happened, but also of what was lost? What was Aberfan like in 1966? What were the interests of the people, the social life, the sporting obsessions, the bands of the day? What was the deeper history of the place? Why had it become the mining village it was, and what had it been before the discovery of coal under its soil? Perhaps most significantly, what was Aberfan like today? What other influences beyond the disaster have shaped its contemporary character, and how do those who call it home with no connection to the disaster view the village and the area now?

Sheers addressed all these questions.  He also had reservations regarding the impact on the present-day residents of creating such a piece:

Perhaps most significantly though, as a writer, I sensed a destabilising tension at the heart of the endeavour, between the dramatic need to take an audience into the unflinching core of the story and the potential, in so doing, for emotional exploitation at the cost of those who had lived and lost through the disaster.

I have my doubts too, about trying to do justice to Sheers’ work and about appropriating the tragedies of those involved.  In that respect, I have not used photographs.  I could simply say that I found the experience, both of reading and of watching, deeply moving; that Sheers’ work was for me, a tour de force.

But there is another element to Sheers piece, and to the story of Aberfan, which – to use Sheer’s phrase – gives it a frightening ‘contemporary resonance’.  Sheers brings much of this into the final part of the poem, though he flags it earlier, through the children’s voices, just seconds before the clock stops.  We hear about the wider picture.

The tragedy of Aberfan is magnified by the knowledge that serious concerns had been raised about the safety of the tips some years before.  Nothing was done.  It is difficult to stomach the attitude of what was then the National Coal Board.  The tribunal appointed to enquire into the disaster noted: “much of the time of the Tribunal could have been saved if … the National Coal Board had not stubbornly resisted every attempt to lay the blame where it so clearly must rest—at their door”.   It also stated that it was their: “… strong and unanimous view … that the Aberfan disaster could and should have been prevented.” The Coal Board was not prosecuted and no staff were demoted, sacked or prosecuted.  At the tribunal the local MP testified that he had long held concerns that the tip “might not only slide, but in sliding might reach the village”; he added that he had not spoken out because he had “more than a shrewd suspicion that that colliery would be closed”

I am left with the question: which is more important – human lives or corporate business?  Tragically, frustratingly, unbelievably, it remains a question we continue to ask today and all too often we hear the same answers.

It doesn’t take long to read The Green Hollow.  It’s not a comfortable read but for me certainly, it was a seminal read.  I am very glad to have read it, to have watched it, to have learned more about the aftermath.  I am saddened by this needless loss of life,  sickened by the behaviour of high-handed corporate bosses, uplifted by the strength and resilience of the people of Aberfan and indebted to Owen Sheers for using his skills and artistry to commemorate this dark moment in modern Welsh history.

Aberfan seems to have been left unmarked by any British poet laureate … Fifty years on, Owen Sheers has finally offered the tribute due from a laureate.

The Arts Desk

It is Mother’s Day in the UK tomorrow.  I give the final word to a mother as she saw her child off to school:

MYFAWNY

And that’s how we said our last goodbyes,

with all the luxury of easy time. 

But it was already draining,

 running out like sand in the glass,

like that pile of tailings and shale,

already moving, pressed to a shifting

under the weight of its own black hand. 

Reckless with rain, storm water,

And under it, on their way to school,

my son…

dewithon lilies
Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

 

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33 thoughts on “The Green Hollow by Owen Sheers: How to talk about it”

  1. You describe this so sensitively, Sandra, but it’s almost unbearable. I haven’t seen the film or read the drama, but I can well imagine it from what you say, and from what I’ve known about Aberfan since it burst onto the news over half a century ago.

    I was on exchange staying with a French family at the time, and I remember them quizzing me about the village, but I was as much in the dark about the circumstances as they were. Years later, with friends, we walked the Taff Trail from Cardiff up the valley to the Brecon Beacons, and passed through the village. No sign of the hillside scar, but the cemetery was unutterably sad and moving.

    I’ve since seen documentaries on it, detailing the NCB’s criminal refusal to take responsibility. I missed Sheers talking at a showing of the BBC film during one of our recent literary festivals because I was stewarding another event, but I was sad to miss it, its melancholy and the sense of an avoidable tragedy.

    It is engrained in the Welsh psyche though I suspect generations born since have less knowledge and understanding of the event than us oldies. As you point out it’s a model lesson in corporate irresponsibility, a topic that ought to be exercising us more than the faux outrage at the EU supposedly making us a slave state and a vassal nation.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Chris, thank you for reading this post and for taking the time to respond. It was a difficult post to write and I posted, knowing that it would not be easy reading and may garner little response. I felt that having experienced the piece, and been so profoundly moved by it, I couldn’t turn away without it being here – certainly as part of Dewithon but also as witness to my reaction to Sheers’ work and my sadness at the tragedy at the heart of it. The people of Aberfan, and Sheers, and the people of Wales, deserved more than me just mentioning in passing that I’d read this book as part of a community readathon.

      Hearing your own experiences truly brings things into focus. “It is engrained in the Welsh psyche…” Yes, I can believe that, knowing the impact it had on those with no Welsh blood. And I agree absolutely that these matters – this continuing situation in which lives are less precious than profits and where corporate responsibility is shunned and swept into very dark corners – these are the matters that need addressing. Our priorities are so wrong in so many ways.

      As for Sheers, I would love to hear him speak; he has become a writer of huge interest to me and I’ll be reading and watching as much of his work as I can. (Starting, I hope with ‘The Passion’ as Easter isn’t far away.) Thanks again, Chris 🤗

      Liked by 1 person

      1. In person Sheers is slight but has a presence, is quietly authoritative and incisive. I heard him interview another writer (a study of postwar British activity in Germany) and it was clear that he not only had read the very dense history but was au fait with the period and relevant facts, and that his questions were intelligently formulated to elicit the salient point. So impressive a person, for his intellect but above all for his compassion.

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  2. I was still a baby when the accident happened but one would merely need to say the name ‘Aberfan’ to any child of my era and we would immediately associate it with something dark and terrible. I think perhaps a new generation of Welsh kids learned of it in 2016 and I’m sure that like us, once told, it’s a story from their history lesson they’ll never forget.

    A superb post as always, Sandra. I will definitely make a point of reading The Green Hollow in the future. Thank you so much.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Paula, Sheers says that for those in their 20s and 30s, the word ‘Aberfan’ means little. Perhaps that’s as it should be: we cannot each carry the weight of history’s collective griefs. There is a scene in the tv drama where the present-day headmistress of the new junior school in the village talks about the need to mark the anniversary each year and what a delicate path it is to tread. If you do read it, choose a time when you can absorb the shock and the grief of it. It’s took me very little time to read but very much longer to process. 😢 🤗

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  3. I remember Aberfan well, the tragedy that is. I’d just left school, and was working in the library (it paid so well! £10.00 a week!) to earn money for my pre-University gap year, as it wasn’t called in those days. As the news filterd through, we all became totally caught up in the dreadful events as they happened and filtered through to us in those pre-internet days. I’ve read Owen Sheers’ ‘I saw a Man’, was impressed by it, and its unusual way of presenting the narrative, so I think it won’t be long before I get hold of a copy of this to read. He’s very good on dark, life-changing events – I found him a sensitive, thought-provoking writer.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. I think he’s a marvellous writer, Margaret, and an artistic polymath in his capacity to fuse mediums. I hope to work through all his stuff, albeit slowly. I’m thinking I will track down The Passion for Easter – his 3-day drama enacted on the streets of Port Talbot with Michael Sheen. Then there’s his poem for the anniversay last year of the founding of the NHS, which looks to be in a similar style to The Green Hollow. Plus the novels, the poetry, the travelogues…

      And thank you for reading and taking the time to respond. It was long and not particularly cheery and I didn’t expect much reaction to it. Just had to say what I felt 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. J > Your review is much appreciated, and Sandra. I was 9 years old when it happened. My first two experiences of public grief were John F Kennedy and Aberfan. The latter came when I was just old enough to have some understanding of the horror … Which is probably why when the specially commissioned TV commemoration that you refer to came up, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Denise has read the book : it’s lain in the pile for me to read for a good while, but thanks to your thoughtful review, I may yet read it.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, mine too Jonathan. I wasn’t clear about what was happening when Kennedy died but even at the age of 6, I knew it was something terrible. Mostly I felt confusion. I was much more aware with Aberfan, and thinking of it has never ceased to bring feelings of grief and horror: the emotional reaction is still raw and immediate. I can’t recall even acknowledging that it was broadcast at the time, but I do wonder, had I known, whether I would have chosen to watch at that time. I remain very glad to have seen it now, although I’m not sure if I could watch it again. I wonder what Denise felt when she read the book.

      Thanks for reading and responding, Jonathan. It was a long and not very cheery post but something I felt I had to write.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I was a young mother of two living in rural New England in 1966. I most likely learned of the tragedy through CBC [Canadian] radio. I do recall a [probably] 10th anniversary feature in Life Magazine [?] with photos.
    My own maternal family was impacted by the ‘black lung’ disease which affected the graphite mine workers in upstate New York in the early decades of the 20th century. Did no one know of the dangers before a generation of local men died coughing?
    Living now in retirement in Kentucky it is difficult to ignore the legends of coal mine disasters in the eastern part of the state and in neighboring West Virginia.
    The rhetorical query is always, why must the ‘common’ laborers and their families become victims in one way or another of corporate greed and shoddy or non-existent safety measures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes indeed. It happens the world over and we seem incapable of making the necessary changes. Tragedies perpetuated by travesties. Thank you for coming by, Mimacat, and for taking the time to comment 🙂

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  6. Beautiful post, Sandra. I too was a child when Aberfan happened – I’d have been six or seven, and too young to really take it in. But I remember it being one of the very rare times I saw my mother cry, which was shocking to me. My father, I remember, was furious – his usual reaction to injustice. Their combined reaction left me feeling as if this event had affected my family personally, although it was hundreds of miles away in a different country. I suspect that feeling was replicated in most British households of the time.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I could have chosen extracts from anywhere in the verse and I’m not sure I made the best choices in terms of encouraging people to read it for themselves. But that final extract I included is so emotive.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. I wasn’t born when this happened Sandra but somehow I feel I’ve always known about it, so it must have still been talked about and thought about for many years after. It must be a great responsibility to write such a book, I’m not sure I could do it, but it sounds as though the result is very powerful.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ‘A great responsibility’ – absolutely, Andrea. I felt that Sheers approached this with such care and sensitivity. And the result is imbued with grief and shock and sadness and anger but also with respect and love and reslience. For me it is a marvellous example of the power of poetry and its capacity to be both accessible and profoundly moving.

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  8. How to talk about this tragedy is a profound question that your review addresses with great sensitivity. That ‘The Green Hollow’ speaks through the voices of people connected with Aberfan seems to be a powerfully direct yet nuanced commemoration. I was also about 9 years old when we first heard about this tragedy, and even so far away in South Africa we felt something of the weight of the loss and a sense of despair that the disaster could have been prevented. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I have been surprised by how those living far from Wales still felt the shockwaves of this tragedy, Carol, and still remember it now. That tagline: ‘how to talk about it’ was said to Sheers by one of the surviving children – now a man in his fifties of course. The question hung in the air in the immediate years after the event and still does so now. I feel that Sheers has done justice to those who shared their stories with him.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I was 11 in 1966 and I have no memory of hearing about this disaster–I guess It seemed too far away from my American life to register. But in so many ways, Aberfan seems to represent something much bigger, as you say–how many times have everyday people suffered because there was money to be made and business to be done? Sheers seems to have struck just the right balance in addressing this really difficult topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, Kerry, those wider issues apply to so many tragedies worldwide. A part, I think, of why Sheers felt able to accept the commission. But mostly I am in awe of his skill and sensitivity in giving voice to the victims – those still living and those lost. Thank you for reading and commenting; it wasn’t the cheeriest of posts to read but it means a lot to me that you did so 🙂

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  10. Unbearably poignant Sandra and very few writers would have been able to bring the same depth, understanding and sensitivity to that black day, as Sheers as done. He has made a thing of beauty out of unbelievable ugliness and despair. Thank you for bringing the Green Hollow to my attention . It’s one of his works which had passed me until now.xx

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Pat, I do hope you experience it. I have huge admiration for Sheers – thanks to you for introducing his work to me in the first place – and I shall be reading a lot more from him. xx

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  11. A beautiful post, Sandra, thank you. I was born in 1967 but feel as if I have always been aware of the Aberfan tragedy. It is so awful for these communities to be known for such tragedies – Dunblane and Lockerbie also spring to mind. It is the least we can do to share in commemoration and lesson-learning. I’ll definitely be picking up Sheers’ work in the future.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Liz, you raise a point that Sheers was very aware of: that these communities become known for such tragedies. It underpinned his thinking in wanting to ensure that this piece reflected the community outside of the disaster and I think he achieved that. I’ve not read much from him yet but the more I learn about him, the more impressed and fascinated I become. His catalogue seems so diverse: I shall be very interested to hear about anything you decide to try 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I can’t praise it highly enough. I’m waiting now for his modern version on The Passion – The Gospel of Us, currently on reserve from the library. I remember this being performed; wish I’d watched it at the time.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. I agree that he is important. I’ve commented on your review of I Saw a Man but I’m not sure if it reached you. It seems to garner mixed reviews. If it has the impact of The Green Hollow and the lyricism of Resistance, I’ll be very happy 🙂

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