Childhood

When do childrenís characteristics change to those exhibited by adults?

Now thereís a question! In the way they think and with such a multiplicity of things children do which adults donít, it is actually very hard to identify exactly when child-like behaviour has fully stopped and the individual is deemed to be behaving like an adult. For almost all children, the process is a gradual one extending through puberty and beyond. Indeed for a number, some child-like qualities pervade right through their otherwise adult lives.

There is one specific trait, however, which does appear to manifest itself quite differently in the adult, as compared to the child: the reaction to rain.

Look outside onto any street in the United Kingdom when the first few drops of rain arrive. Every single woman carrying one will immediately put up her umbrella. In fact, some will even have theirs employed before the precipitation descends, in readiness for when it does appear. Notice too that having been first with the protection, the distaff side is always the last to re-furl its umbrellas, a not inconsiderable number of women even walking around with them fully deployed long after the rain has departed.

Men, it seems, manifest considerably less urgency in unsheathing an umbrella - if they actually have one with them in the first place - and are much more willing to collapse it as the rain begins to ease off. Nevertheless, men do react to the onset of rain, generally by quickening their pace, adjusting their collars or holding a newspaper above themselves, heading for the most sheltered parts of the street or even, as if any excuse were needed, diving into the nearest public house!

Yet contrast all this behaviour to that of children. That same observer whose window happens to overlook a school playground will note a complete disregard by youngsters to the approach and onset of rain. The pluviophilic children simply carry on playing completely regardless of the spots, drips or even the arrival of a heavier onslaught. It is always - always - teachers or parents who have to cajole children towards shelter and, without their presence, the outside playing would continue uninterrupted except, perhaps, during the most ferocious drenching or prolonged deluge.

Accordingly, that begs the question, when exactly did the utterly carefree child turn into the umbrella yielding woman or the scurrying man? At what point did the childís former, unconcerned nature give way to the general reactions of the adult society around him (or her)? When did childhood die?

Perhaps a study brave enough to try and delve to any degree into this particular behavioural aspect might point out that it depends where one lives in the land, because it is true that rain is more prevalent in some areas than in others. Possibly the adult residents in these damper locations have more of an immunity to reacting against wet weather than others living elsewhere, simply because it commonplace and is seen as more of a part of everyday life. If this is true, then it would certainly apply to the children - say in somewhere like South Wales which, when I lived there, seemed to have more than its fair share of rain and of a variety which bounced higher than elsewhere!

The other aspect I noticed about Welsh rain, during my residence in the Principality, was that once it arrived, it seemed very reluctant to depart. Continuous downpours for two or more days were not especially uncommon there and yet in the midst of this the children, as they had for decades, carried on with their regular round of going back and forth to school and playing with friends and siblings, all without giving much thought to the weather, save where it seriously impinged on their outdoor leisure time.

There are a handful of children - long since adults - who will tell you about a certain wet spell half a century ago and the first day the downpours ceased. For Melvyn, Jeff, Philip, Gaynor and many others just like them, stepping outside their front doors into the village that first morning after the rains had gone was like entering a different world, because there was a dense fog. It came about through a combination of no wind, the high quantity of water vapour in the saturated atmosphere after the recent drenching and a slight drop in temperature, causing the evaporating moisture to condense to form a thick blanket. Visibility, they recall, was 50 yards at most and as the children walked to school, all the usual morning noises from the village and beyond seemed to be muffled by the fog. 

Of course, to the children this was all a great adventure; something not unknown but sufficiently different from the rain of the past few days to add a degree of excitement into their routine. Despite their apparent disregard for the torrents which had been falling, they were glad it had stopped and secretly hoped the fog would clear by the next day because that was when the half-term holidays started and they were looking forward to being able to play outside again with their friends.

In fact, unbeknown to them, the sun had already begun weakly to break through on the hills high above the village and, looking down from there, the fog along the valley floor could be seen very slowly dissipating. Still, however, it obscured the view of the children as they congregated at the school that morning, it softened the noises emanating from the playground and it deadened the sound of the school bell, in immediate response to which the children stopped their play, lined up and filed into the school building.

Back then, the first task of the day was normally for the whole school to meet together in the hall for the daily assembly, which included prayers and hymn singing. On this occasion, though, because it was the last day before the half-term holidays, school assembly was rescheduled for the afternoon so the children could finish the day on a rousing note and be dismissed en masse. Accordingly, on this particular day, after hanging their coats on the little pegs in the corridors, the children headed straight for their appropriate classrooms for morning registration and the start of their lessons.

The time was 9.15am. The date was 21 October 1966. The name of the village was Aberfan.

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Within just five minutes, by 9.20am, the child-like qualities of Melvyn, Jeff, Philip and Gaynor had been swept away, swiftly and completely, for they had become victims of a tragic, terrifying and haunting disaster.

One and a half thousand cubic feet of mining debris piled above the village, saturated by the recent deluge and turned into liquefied slurry, started to slide. Within five minutes it had engulfed the village of Aberfan in a high speed landslide. As well as a farm and twenty terrace houses being destroyed, the massive collapse smashed into the village school, filling the classrooms instantly with thick mud and rubble. The inundation rose up to 39 feet in places. Melvyn, Philip and Gaynor miraculously survived. Jeff, with water from a burst main rapidly rising up to his neck, also survived - he was pulled out of the saturated black mess just before 11am. After him, nobody was brought out alive. The eventual death toll was 28 adults and 116 children, mostly between the ages of seven and ten. Childhood in the village died that day.  

© Richard Farquharson, Maulden, Bedfordshire October 2016 (on the occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of the disaster)