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My Ninth Birthday
I’m sure it won’t surprise you to learn
I was a proper little show-off.
“Too clever by half”
said my Victorian grandmother
who lived in the flat downstairs.
“You spoil him, Muriel.
Children should be seen
and not heard.
Be quiet, John!
When you begin to PAY a little
Then you can begin to SAY a little.”
There were plenty more such epithets.
If I asked what was for tea
on the days she was in charge of me
she’d always say
“Air pie and a walk round”
or “Bread and pullet”
and when she read about the latest exploits
of the royal family
or anyone else remotely wealthy or privileged
in the pages of her beloved Daily Express
she’d often exclaim with heartfelt approval
“It’s not for the likes of us!”
(When, years later, I read
The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists
by Robert Tressell
and heard that particular servile catchphrase again
I felt retrospectively vindicated
in my instinctive determination back then
to do the exact opposite
of nearly everything she told me.)
Despite my grandmother’s best efforts
I was seen, heard
and then some –
in school and out.
Self-assured and confident.
Playing the violin and recorder.
Writing little poems and songs
and about to begin a massive project
about the American Civil War
based on the battle stories printed on the back
of the unbelievably gory bubblegum picture cards
we boys bought on our way to school.
Cards with titles like Crushed By The Wheels
Wall of Corpses
and Messenger of Death.
(If you’re male and over 50, you’ll probably remember)
My form teacher liked me
and let me help other kids in class.
I had lots of friends
and if wannabe bullies hit me
I hit them back.
Like I say, a proper little show-off.
It was my ninth birthday.
At Manor Hall Junior School
when it was your birthday
you couldn’t wait till lunchtime –
but you had to.
Then you stood in front of everyone else
in the canteen
a big, colourful plastic cake was brought out
with proper candles on it
you blew out the candles
everyone sang Happy Birthday
(even the kids who thought you were a show-off wanker:
the teachers made sure of that)
and you got the chance to grab a handful of sweets
from a big jar.
As far as I can remember
I was the only one
with a birthday that day
so I had everyone’s undivided attention.
I was really looking forward to it.
But I never got to show off
and I didn’t want to show off.
My ninth birthday was different.
It was October 21st 1966.
Before we went to the canteen for lunch
and my little birthday cameo
we were told there was going to be a special assembly
in the school hall.
Everyone wondered what had happened:
even I realised they wouldn’t have one
just because it was my birthday.
The headmaster, Mr Young,
came in looking very sad
and told us that earlier that day
a huge mountain of coal waste
had engulfed a junior school like ours
in a Welsh mining village called Aberfan
and many children the same age as us
had lost their lives.
He asked us to pray for them.
We all did.
Some of us cried.
They still sang Happy Birthday
in the canteen
a few minutes later
but it wasn’t a happy birthday at all.
I kept thinking about those children.
After I’d got home
and talked to my parents
and had my birthday tea with my friends
I tried to write a poem for Aberfan –
but I couldn’t.
The poem I wanted to write
was far too big for a nine year old.
We did a collection at school
the money was sent to the disaster fund
as happens when you’re a child
with loving parents
at a supportive school
other things quickly came along
to take the sadness away.
But on my birthday
for the next few years
I always thought
about the children of Aberfan.
Years later, I learned
about the underground springs
below Colliery Waste Tip No 7
on the hill above the village
which caused the coal waste to turn to slurry
and crash down on the school –
springs easily spotted on maps
which were never even consulted.
I learned about the negligence
of the authorities
and the insensitivity of the press.
Some things never change.
I learned about the father who –
as the inquest into his child’s death
declared the cause to be “asphyxia and multiple injuries” –
“No, sir. Buried alive by the National Coal Board.”
I learned how a ruling was made
that parents had somehow to prove
their children’s deaths had caused them anguish
before they could benefit
from the disaster fund –
and that some of the money
from that fund
was used to clear the other waste tips
because the Coal Board
refused to pay for it to be done.
I learned about the long-term psychological effects
of the disaster
on the whole village.
I learned how the lives
of working class people
were held cheap.
But that was much later.
I was a child.
A proper little show-off
who didn’t want to show off
on his ninth birthday
trying to write a poem
for children like him –
for the children
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