Saturday, 22 October 2016

Where I was: Aberfan

Everybody in the UK active on social media who was alive at the time seems to be posting or tweeting where they were at the time of the Aberfan catastrophe, so here is my contribution. I cannot remember exactly where I was except that it would have been in south London, because there were other momentous events in my life taking place at the time. The Centralised Licensing Project (to become DVLA) had just been set up and I was preparing to get married. I would have learned of Aberfan from BBC Radio (it would be several years before we acquired a TV set). One thing I do remember is the thought that it had been a disaster waiting to happen, something the Guardian leader-writer of the following day also intuited:

How could it happen? A heap of waste, a man-made hill, dissolves in the rain and suddenly engulfs a school. South Wales is a land of slag-heaps. Its people live in their shadow. Why did this one move? The Coal Board must find out, and the answer may not be soothing. Miners are not careless men, but in some way had not forseen the waste they had piled round Aberfan had become unsafe. South Wales will be a restless places until we know why. Meanwhile mere words can do nothing to help.

The Welsh, who are used to tragedy, have now suffered their worst. The pits themselves do not kill children.

A disaster which overwhelms a school is a disaster of a special type. In ten minutes a community has lost something like half its children. Their absence will haunt their valley for sixty years to come. No amount of sympathy can fill a gap like that.

[...]This disaster was not natural, it was man-made. Aberfan is one of scores of communities in South Wales which huddle at the foot of slag-heaps. It is idle to pretend that an exceptionally wet October could be the only reason for yesterday's disaster; Wales is accustomed to heavy rain. There must have been other reasons too, connected with the way the heap was built, or was allowed to grow, and with the gap that was built, or was allowed to grow, and the gap that was left between the heap and the village. These are things that can be controlled. There must be a safe way for the Coal Board to get rid of its waste. There must be a way of ensuring that yesterday's tragedy is not repeated.

As a Guardian reader at the time, I would have read and agreed with this. We eventually found out, in spite of Coal Board obfuscation, that the Aberfan disaster was indeed effectively genocide or at least corporate manslaughter.Though the slag-heaps have gone, there is no evidence that the corporate (both private and public) mindset has changed.

The only other firm memory is of my late father-in-law returning from a photographic trip through Wales the following spring. He related how he had passed through a village which was unnaturally quiet and found out only later that it had been Aberfan.

Friday, 21 October 2016

By-election bumper bundle

There was a significant by-election in Blaengwrach ward yesterday. It resulted in a Plaid Cymru gain from Labour with a swing which would indicate trouble for Labour in the council elections next May, unless there is a major change in Labour's image before then.

Crocker‐Jaques, Peter Damian (Welsh Conservatives / Ceidwadwyr Cymreig)      4  0.9%     +0.9%
Edwards, Carolyn (Plaid Cymru ‐ The Party of Wales)                                   225 47.9%     +3.5%
Evans, Thomas John (Independent)                                                                58  12.4%   +12.4%
Price, Sarah Ann (Welsh Labour / Llafur Cymru)                                          143  30.5%    -20.1%
Pritchard, Richard Herbert (UKIP Wales / UKIP Cymru)                                 39    8.3%    +8.3%
Plaid Cymru gain. Turnout 32.6%. Swing from Labour to PC 11.8%

There were other by-elections in principal authorities in the UK yesterday:
Kettering BC, Rothwell: Conservative gain from Labour 
Bracknell UA, Central Sandhurst: Conservative hold 
Weymouth & Portland BC, Wye Valley: Conservative hold 
Braintree DC, Bumpstead: Conservative hold 
St Albans BC, Clarence: LD hold 
Middlesbrough UA, Central: Labour hold 
Kings Lynn & West Norfolk BC, Heacham: Independent gain from Conservative 
Medway UA, Strood South: Conservative gain from UKIP
Braintree DC, Witham North: Labour gain from Conservative
Labour should not be losing any seats to the government party at this point in the electoral cycle, even in Tory heartlands. The other point of interest is the loss by UKIP in an area in which they appeared to be strong at the 2015 general election.

Oh, and there was a result in the Westminster constituency of Witney, too. There was a 19.3% swing from Conservatives to Liberal Democrats. Just for fun, as Peter Snow used to say, I fed this into UK-Elect and produced the forecast on this simple swing that the Conservatives would be wiped out completely if an election were held now on the current boundaries. Of course, this does not allow for the decline in the UKIP vote and the fact that Labour support has become patchy.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Wood-burning at Drax

There is news that mv Agnes continues to break previous records in delivering wood pellets to the port of Tyne for onward transmission to Drax power station. It may be good for rail freight in Britain, but the transatlantic and cross-country journeys do nothing for the UK's green credentials.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

Minority acting opportunities

A frequent complaint of British actors of Afro-Caribbean background is that they have to cross the Atlantic to achieve recognition. But it was not always so. Before the advances in civil rights in the USA in the 1960s and 70s, colour-barred US performers found the atmosphere of Europe more congenial. Paris, London and Scandinavia provided second - in some cases, first - homes to black jazz musicians. Singer and dancer Josephine Baker became a French citizen, the part-Celtic Elisabeth Welch settled in London and Paul Robeson was made welcome in Britain (though not by Special Branch) both between the wars and in his later stay in Stratford-on-Avon.

Now another example has come my way, thanks to the "Talking Pictures" slots on Bay TV. "All Night Long" (1962) gave a first screen break to Paul Harris, who went on to a twenty-year career on screen and on stage. (Three years earlier, the same director Basil Dearden had made a breakthrough with "Sapphire", a whodunit with a background of race relations. This is also available on "Talking Pictures".)

Contemporary black US actors may feel hard done by. I believe the British actors' success in the States is down to the same qualities as their white counterparts, instilled by our classical training, of technique, versatility and discipline.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

How British will our "deterrent" be?

This is a schematic illustration of an Astute-class submarine, on which the Successor-class will be based. These vessels are planned to carry the Trident-II nuclear ballistic missile commissioned by the Conservative government. Although the boats will be built in England (largely from French steel, as the Daily Mail, quoting the Mirror, has pointed out), practically all the equipment will be foreign. (The basic illustration is from The Submariners Lounge; I am indebted to Private Eye magazine for the detail indicated by the yellow arrows.)

The Eye adds that should "any of this foreign technology go wrong, the subs will have to be lifted out of the water for complex maintenance. There is a huge crane at their base in Faslane designed to do exactly that. The Shiplift, which cost £314m [...] was built by Jacobs Engineering, based in Dallas, Texas."

Monday, 17 October 2016

Unforeseen Brexit threat to NHS

The Guardian's political science web page highlights a probable threat to the European Medicines Agency based in London. Unlike most of the bad news in the national media about the NHS, there would be an impact on the devolved health services in Scotland and Wales as well as in England.

The writer suggests that we could see delays to the approval of new medicines, that the EMA’s headquarters would move elsewhere within the EU creating a knock-on effect on future investment and relocation decisions by global and European pharmaceutical companies, and that losing the EMA could lead to a significant brain drain.

These considerations did not figure in the public debate leading to the EU exit referendum, but would have more serious implications for ordinary people than other matters which made the headlines. (The moneyed behind both campaigns would not be affected because they largely have private health insurance or can shop around for treatment.) It is probable that there are other hitherto hidden benefits of our EU membership which will come to light in the months before Mrs May intends to make use of the royal prerogative to invoke article 50.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Petition for sensible boundary changes

If you navigate to Peter Black's web site, you will find a side-bar caption "Don't Cut Port Talbot In Half". Click on it to sign a petition which is part of a campaign finding cross-party support. This aims not only to keep Port Talbot together, but also to prevent Skewen being merged with Swansea East.