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The Disaster

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New English Library, London, 1970
(originally published in Great Britain under the title Edge of Violence by Leslie Frewin, 1969)
price: 30p (6/-); 224 pages

dedication: In Memory of DE and Margid

The blurb on the back:

Journalist Joe Parry returns to his native Wales to find himself involved in the most tragic disaster in this country's history.
He experiences sickening horror when a coaltip slides and buries a school and then in the aftermath sees at first hand monumental bungling and archaic legislation when a National disaster fund is set up.
He also becomes caught up in the violent nationalism of the Free Wales Army and comes to understand the desperate and dangerous urgency that inspires their aims and methods.

'Promises a literary and political storm' - London Evening News
'An important and engrossing story ... told with tremendous verve' - Saunders Lewis, founder of Plaid Cymru

opening lines:
A heavy sugary sunlight this morning. And it was one of those long, boring, silent October mornings so quiet you know something is bound to happen.
It did.

This is an extraordinary book, a modern classic that should be required reading for just about everyone.

The central thread of the story concerns the narrator, a child of a failing pit village in the Welsh valleys, who leaves to join the Merchant Navy. When he has a travel piece accepted by a magazine, he decides that he'll become a full-time writer, despite the underwhelmed response of the magazine's editor:

'A full-time writer ... I suppose you know there can't be more than a few dozen people in the whole of Britain who actually make a living out of full-time writing?' (p.29)

Turns out that the guy's right, of course, and much of the book is about the compromises and petty struggles of trying to survive as a writer. I know that may not sound like the most enticing prospect, but the prose has such an irresistible rhythmic quality, and it contains such superbly observed detail, that you'll be swept away: it's like a cross between George Orwell and Dylan Thomas. Here, for example, is the South Wales petty bourgeoisie:

It is by their delight in double-barrelled names you mark them best. By their delectable taste for, their worship of, the double-barrelled name. The names you saw on brass nameplates up and down the Welsh valleys: outside dentists, solicitors, commissioners for oaths. The mark of the 'professional man' that indicates the essential inferiority-complex of all the Welsh. (p.68)

All of this, however, is essentially the backdrop. It's the context for the central core of the book, which concerns the oppression of the Welsh working-class under capitalism, an historic suffering that suddenly and tragically becomes focussed on a single event: a coal tip collapses, and the resulting avalanche sweeps away a village school, killing more than a hundred children.

This, it scarcely needs saying, is based on the 1966 Aberfan disaster, when the criminal negligence of the National Coal Board resulted in the killing of 116 children and 28 adults. It's fictionalised only in that the name of the village has been changed from Aberfan to Abertaf: apart from that, the scale of the tragedy, the cause of it, the resulting media treatment, and the inability of British law to deal with the situation are all depicted in awful detail.

It is, without question, one of the most moving things I've ever read. Without any expectations, I made the mistake of reading the first chapter - in which the narrator assists the digging out of dismembered children - on a train, and found myself weeping openly. After that devastating opening, we flash back to the events leading up to the disaster, a development which appears to offer some relief, except that the narrator was born during the Depression and the accounts of the deliberate and callous humiliation of the working-class is equally affecting.

And then, one final element: the birth of the Free Wales Army, the radical armed wing of Welsh nationalism. The politics may be inchoate and confused, but the need to fight back by reasserting a pride in Wales and by breaking that 'essential inferiority-complex' is unarguable. It helps, of course, that this was written at a time when the last IRA activity had been some minor border raids rather than the full-scale mainland bombings of a few years later - it still seemed possible to see armed nationalism in Britain as a branch of freedom-fighting rather than terrorism. Which indeed it was: guilty of little more than naivety, and therefore fairly easily smashed by the State.

When I read it, I assumed that the book was, at least in part, semi-autobiographical. The commitment and the passion and the detail are too immediate for it to be otherwise. I have since spoken to John Summers and it turns out that even more than I anticipated is drawn from his experience. At the time of Aberfan he was a journalist with a column on the Sunday Telegraph and wrote about the impact of the disaster for that 'paper and for Queen magazine. In particular he was centrally involved in the campaign to get the money from the relief fund released (the donations that flooded in from people across Britain and the world became tied up in bureaucratic and political self-interests and weren't distributed to the victims and bereaved), and the anger he felt towards those responsible for killing the innocent, and towards their collaborators, still burns fiercely. In part, this is why the book remains so valuable: lessons that should have been learned haven't been - more than 35 years after Aberfan, the concept of corporate manslaughter remains a stranger in British courts.

Just as important, in my view, is that the reporting of such disasters in both print and broadcast media remains unchanged. From Aberfan to Bhopal to the latest earthquake in Turkey or Algeria or wherever, these are seen as isolated events: seemingly random catastrophes about which little can be done but pick up the pieces. Despite the language employed by the media, these are not seen as stories - they have no beginning, and by the end, the press has long since lost interest. They are seen as incidents. The reason why The Disaster is so powerful is that it places Aberfan within a narrative of neglect, oppression and resistance, without sacrificing an honest account of the human suffering.

When first published, the novel received enormous coverage as well as attempts to suppress the tale of betrayal and shame it was telling. There's an Author's Note at the beginning of this edition that puts it in context:

At the time of its publication in hardback, this book was the subject of a Government embargo. Several journalists were prepared to review it yet, for reasons that are still difficult to determine, the majority of these reviews did not appear. The London Evening Standard quoted the publisher as saying: '...it is censorship without legal action.'
In the last few months the author has brought new facts to light, and these are incorporated in this edition. Now, for the first time, the story can be told...

Just as relevant now as ever it was, do whatever you have to do to find a copy of this book. I promise you, you won't be disappointed.

Incidentally, the working title of the novel was The Flag in the Wind, placing the emphasis more firmly on the incipient rise of nationalism, but that was amended on first publication to Edge of Violence and then, on this paperback reprint, to The Disaster. Personally, I think the latter title is the weakest of the lot, but that's the edition I've got so I'm sticking with it.

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hardback edition
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another paperback edition


see an interview with the great
John Summers
on the highly recommended Wolf Man Knew My Father site

read John Summers' obituary of the photographer
Rollie McKenna

read more about the Aberfan disaster and the aftermath

from the maker of...
The Rag Parade
The Rag Parade
The Raging Summer
The Raging Sumer