Black River author Louise Walsh, who was born in Cardiff and studied archaeology at Cardiff University, talks to Martin Shipton, Chief Reporter of the Western Mail.
Louise Walsh (Sian Trenberth Photography)
When did you first become interested in writing?
In school my favourite things were reading and writing but with my first novel, Fighting Pretty, I saw an opportunity. The Welsh Boxing Squad had been created for women but I was too old. I mean, I got in, but I was a bit on the old side. Also I wanted to capture it, almost like a photograph.
Why did you want to do that?
It’s a world that has its own poetic charm. People who don’t know boxing might think it’s very violent and tough but it has its own dignity. Boxing has any number of vivid characters and the boxing gym itself is a beautiful place, particularly when it’s empty. It’s theatrical, so I wanted to capture it in a non-fiction book about boxing.
So how did the non-fiction book turn into a novel?
I went along to Cardiff Writers’ Circle with the first few chapters about women’s boxing in Wales and they said that I had a real flare for writing and suggested I turn it into a novel because a novel about women’s boxing would probably sell better than a non-fiction book about it. It was a welcome challenge.
And how long had you been in the boxing world when you decided to write the book?
I went to my first boxercise class when I was in university so that would have been in 1999: my third year. A few years later, I decided to take boxing more seriously and train at Gelligaer boxing gym.
I had been at the boxing gym over a year when I had the idea of writing a book. I didn’t mention it straightaway, but my trainers soon found out. You can’t keep a secret in the Valleys!
What made you do it?
Boxing? There’s a big difference between boxing and boxercise, but when I went to Cardiff University sports hall and hit the pads for the first time it was a great experience. Boxing is all about timing. If you get the timing right, you can punch very hard even though you’re not a big person. But I was late. I was a bit too old by the time I got into the Welsh Boxing Squad. I knew I wasn’t going to last very long, but wanted to challenge myself to see how far I could get. I had a good punch, but in the amateur world it’s all about speed. And I have always been slow to warm up.
It’s quite an unusual thing for a woman to get involved with.
Yes, there were about six or seven women on the amateur circuit in South Wales. I think you have to be a particular type of person to challenge yourself in that way: stubborn and resilient.
What was it that drew you to boxing?
Being good at it was a start.
But how did it start? Was it a bit of a whim? Did you used to watch boxing?
No. I never used to watch boxing. Not until I took it up myself. My brother went to a boxing gym when we were young. Women weren’t allowed in. I thought it was pretty unfair. We’d drop him off and you weren’t allowed inside. So perhaps it was the mystery of it and I can’t emphasise enough the pleasure in doing something well without any real effort. I never felt like boxing was even exercise – just…
Was it about self-defence?
No. It’s just a game and it’s tactical. It teaches you a lot about yourself and life.
So the book was published and it must have had some positive feedback.
Yes, it did. It had a good review in The Guardian, a good review in Boxing News and in the Western Mail. So it did, yes. Good – for a first novel, but I knew when I was writing it, it wasn’t going to be the best novel in the world because it was my first. All the writing experts say that – in the books about writing – your first novel is going to be limited by the fact that it is a process of learning and mastering the writing craft. You have to be very lucky/talented to get everything right first time.
So after Fighting Pretty was published were you actively looking for another theme?
Yes, it’s all about momentum. So that’s how I hit on 1967 because my grandfather had always wanted to write a novel, and I was close to my grandfather.
That’s actually also where the boxing element comes in too because he was a very good boxer. There is that connection as well. He loved poems, stories and writing. He had this dream of writing a novel about Newtown, the Irish community in Cardiff – the six streets – which got demolished in 1967. I started going through the microfiche South Wales Echos in Cardiff Central Library’s local studies section to try to get acquainted with the periods 1967 and 1968. You get familiar with the old newspapers when you read them in sequence, the way you would reading a daily newspaper today. You get used to the stories and you want to see how they would develop. So it’s funny. I became as acquainted with 1967 as I would reading daily newspapers now.
So how did you make the transition between writing about the Irish community in Cardiff to Aberfan?
Sadly, Newtown wasn’t a big enough story. I realised that pretty early on. I had the idea of actually using a journalist as the main character in Newtown because I wanted an outsider who was nevertheless interested in what was happening to Cardiff’s Irish. But it wasn’t a story which could be sustained over a novel. I was reading around 1966 and 1967, generally looking for how to pull this Newtown story together. Then I came across a reference that pulled me in a different direction. I think it was probably in the book Aberfan: Government and Disasters – a reference to the Welsh Office and a problem with the Press. I came across that reference in 2012, so Leveson was on in the background and I wondered: ‘What problem with the Press?’ I kept coming back to it: ‘What problem with the Press?’ Are they talking about a Leveson kind of problem? I located the archive where the documents were stored and sent off for them.
And what did your research turn up?
When the documents arrived from the National Archives it was perfect because all the information was there about the specific problems the Welsh Office were having with the Press, but more significantly the action they were taking too.
The Welsh Office had a number of ideas to curtail the amount of sensational stories appearing in the Fleet Street press. When I looked at the stories themselves, they were illuminating to say the least.
So that captured your imagination?
Yes, I would say that by the time the documents turned up from the National Archives I had already started putting together the structure of the story. The important thing with a novel is that the character drives it. My character had already started living and breathing and the story was taking shape. The Welsh Office documents supported the story I wanted to write.
It was a big undertaking and I wanted to do the story justice. I was very lucky in that my application for the Literature Wales Mentorship Scheme was successful and over a period of about four months I met up with an assigned mentor, Phil Carradice, who provided encouragement.
The central character of the novel is a South Wales Echo reporter called Harry. How would you characterise him?
Quite introverted but with delusions of grandeur. In fact, in the beginning I wanted to give him a series of monologues because he’s not very talkative. Everything is held in, so with Aberfan he has some form of post-traumatic stress but he internalises it. But then you wouldn’t have been talking to everyone about your feelings in 1967 anyway if you were a journalist, I don’t think. He’s very contained.
Is he a man with a conscience?
Yes. Absolutely. When he was younger he didn’t care so much and I think that comes across in the novel. He has worked in Fleet Street as well so he’s done some of the things that he is now not happy about Fleet Street doing. But as he’s getting older he’s more reflective about his place in journalism and how journalism works. Throughout the novel, he’s haunted by his colleagues’ behaviour on the day of the disaster but he’s also as haunted by his own.
The issue that is at the centre of the novel is the Aberfan disaster. Were there sensitivities that you had to be aware of when writing?
You’d have to be a very hard person to approach what happened at Aberfan cynically. I think it helps to have no particular agenda. I have no personal connection to Aberfan. I’m not a journalist or a politician. And I really did my homework. So I approached it objectively.
I feel strongly that it’s important to ask questions about Welsh history. In being too hands-off, we also let off the people who should have been held accountable. We tend to accept the version of events that we’re given – in this case, by the Press. I do think the NCB got let off. The villains of the piece were off the hook.
Was the behaviour of some of the parents and the bereaved questionable?
No. It took me a while to figure out where the journalists were getting their stories, and when I did I realised it went a little way to explain the reporting of Fleet Street journalists. Journalists were obviously given full access to cover public meetings for those affected by the disaster. As John Summers wrote in The Daily Telegraph Magazine on 6th October 1967:
“The myths and the paper talk, the news-angled stories of ‘stricken Aberfan’, are all blowing away like smoke after a battle, and the reality of Aberfan as a new battlefield of human emotions is being revealed.”
This new ‘battlefield’ was being revealed to the press in meetings where the grieving parents attempted painfully and publicly to negotiate the release interim payments from the disaster fund. Journalists should never have been given access – and they certainly wouldn’t get it today.
The community leaders and politicians trusted the press would never forget what the village had been through and they therefore naively allowed journalists the very access which would facilitate a marked change in public sympathy.
These days, if a similar tragedy were to happen, you wouldn’t get the victims gathered together in a community hall to discuss the raw trauma and its consequences in front of the press. Today the law would handle everything. Litigation, mediation and negotiation would all be conducted behind closed doors. The press would know nothing.
When journalists forgot ‘stricken Aberfan’ – so did their readers. As publication of such stories about Aberfan continued, S O Davies, MP for Merthyr, began to receive correspondence from readers of national newspapers criticising the people of Aberfan for their behaviour, with some commenting that they wished they hadn’t donated to the disaster fund.
Therefore, I don’t think we can judge the behaviour of the people of Aberfan. I think they’ve been judged enough – and judged too harshly in my opinion.
Are some of the concerns that some of the journalists and some of the newspapers at the time were making such judgements about the parents?
Yes – and it’s funny how the narrative changes when you read some of their much later pieces or you read a journalist’s information on Wikipedia and they are held up as being very heroic at Aberfan, like they gave a lot of coverage to the disaster fund or something. But if you actually look at the way they were writing about Aberfan and the things they were saying about particular parents in Aberfan, it was very disrespectful and sensational. I think that narrative has been lost in time and we go along with the present day summarising of it that, if they were reporting on Aberfan, we assume it was helpful or sympathetic reporting. The angle covered and the language of the stories at the time though is often quite the opposite.
S O Davies, MP for Merthyr, wrote to the Sunday Express in early June 1967 complaining about just such judgemental and sensational reporting. When you read the article complained of, the judgemental stance is clear. In the article that prompted the complaint, Sally Brompton of the Sunday Express wrote:
“…at meetings they air their complaints about the bereaved. They would do better to discuss what might be done to help their own children survive.”
Journalists and their readers got ringside seats to judge whether the parents’ demands were appropriate or inappropriate and whether their behaviour was dignified or undignified.
Much more recently of course there has been concern about the methods employed by some tabloid journalists with regard to phone hacking etc and the way in which some people were demonised by journalists. Do you think there are any parallels with what happened 50 years ago and what was discussed recently at the Leveson Inquiry?
Yes, completely. I mean, it was Leveson that made me wonder about those Welsh Office papers. I’ve thought about this long and hard and there isn’t a doubt in my mind that if it had happened when the News of the World was phone tapping that they would have been phone tapping some of those Welsh families.
However, given the amount of access to the victims of the disaster journalists had back then, of course, they didn’t need to phone-tap. It may be that there is a correlation between the decreasing amount of access journalists have been given since the 1960s – and the rise in unethical methods of obtaining such information – until Leveson.
What lessons do you think the coverage of the Aberfan disaster all those years ago has for us now?
I do believe the Press needs to be free to report, but at the same time sensationalism sells. Some things don’t change. Journalism will focus on the more sensational: the famous, the angry, the more dramatic or vocal characters. The big characters will get the most attention, yet at Aberfan there were many bereaved parents who were reserved and dignified who didn’t get much of a say – and didn’t feel an inclination to speak out in any event.
I spoke to a woman recently from Aberfan and she said that a lot of the older people in Aberfan wrote about their experiences instead of talking to anyone else about it. They expressed their feelings in poems or prose. They didn’t share their experiences with others. She suspected that in the attics of Aberfan, you’re probably going to find more than one eye witness reflection of the disaster and its aftermath. I think she’s probably right. And if you want the real truth about Aberfan, I believe that’s probably the closest you’ll get to finding it.
I think the residents of Aberfan realised that they couldn’t necessarily trust anyone and that realisation has caused wounds which remain unhealed: the knowledge that even those firmly on their side could inadvertently make life more painful for them.
As the proverb goes, the road to hell is paved with good intensions.