Tonypandy

‘Forty million schoolbooks can’t be wrong,’ Grant said after a little.

‘Can’t they?’

‘Well, can they!’

‘I used to think so, but I’m not so sure nowadays.’

‘Aren’t you being a little sudden in your scepticism?’

‘Oh, it wasn’t this that shook me.’

‘What then?’

‘A little affair called the Boston Massacre. Ever heard of it?’

‘Of course.’

‘Well, I discovered quite by accident, when I was looking up something at college, that the Boston Massacre consisted of a mob throwing stones at a sentry. The total casualties were four. I was brought up on the Boston Massacre, Mr Grant. My twenty-eight-inch chest used to swell at the very memory of it. My good red spinach-laden blood used to seethe at the thought of helpless civilians mowed down by the fire of British troops. You can’t imagine what a shock it was to find that all it added up to in actual fact was a brawl that wouldn’t get more than local reporting in a clash between police and strikers in any American lock-out.’

As Grant made no reply to this, he squinted his eyes against the light to see how Grant was taking it. But Grant was staring at the ceiling as if he were watching patterns forming there.

‘That’s partly why I like to research so much,’ Carradine volunteered; and settled back to staring at the sparrows.

Presently Grant put his hand out, wordlessly, and Carradine gave him a cigarette and lighted it for him.

They smoked in silence.

It was Grant who interrupted the sparrows’ performance.

‘Tonypandy,’ he said.

‘How’s that?’

But Grant was still far away.

‘After all, I’ve seen the thing at work in my own day, haven’t I,’ he said, not to Carradine but to the ceiling. ‘It’s Tonypandy.’

‘And what in heck is Tonypandy?’ Brent asked. ‘It sounds like a patent medicine. Does your child get out of sorts? Does the little face get flushed, the temper short, and the limbs easily tired? Give the little one Tonypandy, and see the radiant results.’ And then, as Grant made no answer: ‘All right, then; keep your Tonypandy. I wouldn’t have it as a gift.’

‘Tonypandy,’ Grant said, still in that sleepwalking voice, ‘is a place in the South of Wales.’

‘I knew it was some kind of physic.’

‘If you go to South Wales you will hear that, in 1910, the Government used troops to shoot down Welsh miners who were striking for their rights. You’ll probably hear that Winston Churchill, who was Home Secretary at the time, was responsible. South Wales, you will be told, will never forget Tonypandy!’

Carradine had dropped his flippant air.

‘And it wasn’t a bit like that?’

‘The actual facts are these. The rougher section of the Rhondda valley crowd had got quite out of hand. Shops were being looted and property destroyed. The Chief Constable of Glamorgan sent a request to the Home Office for troops to protect the lieges. If a Chief Constable thinks a situation serious enough to ask for the help of the military a Home Secretary has very little choice in the matter. But Churchill was so horrified at the possibility of the troops coming face to face with a crowd of rioters and having to fire on them, that he stopped the movement of the troops and sent instead a body of plain, solid Metropolitan Police, armed with nothing but their rolled-up mackintoshes. The troops were kept in reserve, and all contact with the rioters was made by unarmed London police. The only bloodshed in the whole affair was a bloody nose or two. The Home Secretary was severely criticised in the House of Commons incidentally for his “unprecedented intervention”. That was Tonypandy. That is the shooting-down by troops that Wales will never forget.’

‘Yes,’ Carradine said, considering. ‘Yes. It’s almost a parallel to the Boston affair. Someone blowing up a simple affair to huge proportions for a political end.’

‘The point is not that it is a parallel. The point is that every single man who was there knows that the story is nonsense, and yet it has never been contradicted. It will never be overtaken now. It is a completely untrue story grown to legend while the men who knew it to be untrue looked on and said nothing.’

‘Yes. That’s very interesting; very. History as it is made.’

‘Yes. History.’

-Josephine Tey, The Daughter of Time

One of the effects of a 24-hour news cycle governed by Twitter is that the gap between events and the interpretation of events has narrowed to a few minutes, a few seconds. But the most important decision about interpretation is whether something matters at all. The shooting of fourteen police officers at the Black Lives Matters protest in Dallas this past summer was not necessarily intrinsically less important than other events that are permanently enshrined in history, like Columbine or the Boston Massacre or Kent State, except that it wasn’t treated as more than a one-week story, and therefore it faded quickly as part of our collective narrative.

Every time I’ve read about the Dreyfus affair, I come away thinking- this? this is still remembered as a seminal moment in French history over a century later? But Clio, the Muse of History, is I suppose a fickle lady who prefers to play by her own rules.

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