We’re here this evening to celebrate a remarkable novel written by a remarkable writer.
Even if you don’t know Louise, I think you’ll have picked up from what she’s said her enormous enthusiasm for writing, and her dedication to the detailed research that was necessary to undertake a project of this kind.
She’s spoken of the spark that gave birth to what became Black River: the discovery of written evidence in the National Archives of very serious concerns about the methods and words used by some journalists in their coverage of the terrible events in Aberfan on the day of the disaster and its aftermath. The local MP was concerned, as were members of the local council and senior officials at the Welsh Office. These concerns were conveyed as far up the political ladder as 10 Downing Street.
What did the concerns amount to? Some reporters were manipulating bereaved parents to get stories that showed them and other residents of Aberfan in a bad light. Equally they were taking advantage of the privileged status they had been accorded in being allowed to attend community meetings where emotions were laid bare to write sensational stories. Such behaviour undoubtedly added to the human suffering in a village devastated by the appalling loss of so many of its young.
Yet until now these concerns have hardly had a public airing. We know that just three people, including Louise, have accessed the relevant documentation at the National Archives. And we know from the correspondence itself that proposals to do something about the sensational reporting – and quite simply to give the village a break – were ruled out as impractical because of the perceived power of the Press.
It’s fair to say that the Welsh Office wasn’t solely motivated by concern for people in Aberfan. There was also a worry about how the image of South Wales would be affected, and any impact the negative coverage would have on potential investors in the local economy, or on visitor figures.
In bringing this to light, Louise has performed a valuable historical service, adding an extra dimension to our knowledge about the appalling tragedy of October 21 1966.
Let’s not underestimate the responsibility that accompanies anyone who writes about disasters like Aberfan. Although we’re 50 years on, there are still many people alive who remember the day vividly. Additionally, the disaster has come to be regarded as a defining moment in Welsh history, tinged forever with overwhelming sadness. Without diminishing the magnitude of the tragedy, considerable comfort has been derived from portrayals of the stricken community and tireless rescuers pulling together in a selfless effort to save lives and recover the bodies of those who perished.
That’s wholly true, of course, but there are other aspects of what happened that needed to be brought out: the culpability of those whose negligent approach to safety caused the tragedy in the first place, the appalling meanness of the Government in expecting the disaster fund to be used to pay for the restoration of the site. And now the need to recognise that the media were not all blameless extras who weeped with everyone else and acted in a scrupulously professional way.
Even so, there’s an overriding obligation to respect sensitivities when writing of these matters. Showing respect while telling the truth is the way to achieve that – and I’m sure those who read Black River will conclude that Louise has approached this incredibly sensitive theme with integrity and compassion.
We mustn’t, of course, forget that she’s written not a non-fiction work, but a novel. There have already been some in social media who have questioned the value of using fiction to bring out discoveries made during factual historical research. I think it needs to be stated as forcefully as possible that at its best the novel form can provide a perfect way of bringing historical circumstances to life. Of course the main two characters of Black River are fictional creations. But that doesn’t detract from the way they illuminate the central theme. Nor is it the case that they are mere ciphers for the author’s ideas. They are living, breathing characters as you will quickly discover from the dramatised readings which follow shortly.
Research for the book didn’t just entail accessing documents from the National Archives. It involved talking to many current and former journalists who either had personal experience covering the tragedy and its aftermath, or strong views on the way it was covered. As a journalist myself, who was a schoolboy at the time of Aberfan, it was refreshing and inspiring to see someone from outside the newspaper industry like Louise take such an enthusiastic interest in its practices, its mechanisms and its vocabulary. In fact she became so enthused that there’s a deleted scene from the novel where Julian the trainee reporter gets a guided tour of Thomson House, the now demolished head office of the South Wales Echo where he worked with Harry, the other main character. It’s worth reading and it’s reproduced on the novel’s website.
Black River is also very much set in the broader South Wales context of the period, where there were corruption trials, concerns about river pollution and artistic censorship. Sometimes these themes overlap in the novel, creating a richer world. The weaving together of the different elements derived from many hours of further research in which Louise scoured the archives of the South Wales Echo for relevant material.
The purpose of this evening’s event is, as I said at the beginning – and as we all realise – to celebrate the publication of this important Welsh novel. And that’s precisely what it is: a truly Welsh novel that takes an important social theme and delivers a multi-layered story in a serious yet highly readable way. In Wales, we need more novels that look at our country as it is and has been. Investigative fiction like Black River can play a part, but there are other techniques that can be used. Whimsy is one, although sometimes I think publishers are looking for too much whimsy and not enough tangible substance. Serious novels don’t have to be earnest and don’t need the tone of a sermon. But there’s absolutely nothing wrong with tackling serious real issues in a lively way. If more of such books were published in Wales, I’m sure our society would be all the better for it.
Today, however, the focus is firmly on Louise Walsh and her book Black River. I urge you to read it – you won’t be disappointed.
Just finally, Louise will be a speaker next week at a conference about Aberfan organised by Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies. One of the other speakers is the iconic veteran broadcast journalist Vincent Kane, who reported on the Aberfan tragedy at the time. In his talk he will condemn those with power whose negligence allowed the disaster to happen. But he will also speak of a betrayal by the media. In the years following 1966, he will say, a general climate of opinion developed in which the surviving community of Aberfan were seen to be “the problem”. They were accused of being “awkward, greedy, grasping troublemakers” when in truth, he will say, they were the victims.
It’s difficult to conceive of a more pertinent vindication of the path Louise took in writing Black River.