Title: Coal Flat

Author: Bill Pearson

Publication details: Paul’s Book Arcade, 1963, Auckland

Digital publication kindly authorised by: Paul Millar

Part of: New Zealand Texts Collection

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Coal Flat



Jock McEwan got off the trolley and followed the other miners down the slant dip. With familiar boots they picked their way over the rails, along planks at the side, down again on to the rails, dipping their lamp-lit helmets where the cross-beams were low, making their long sullen way to the coal face.

In spite of the brash cross-barracking of the men and lads on the trolley, each of them entered the pit, as on every morning, with an initial response of sullen resignation. Going underground was putting the sunlight behind you for eight hours, your headlamp your only feeler in a day of barren dark. It was a grim and heartless place to work in—rough grey walls, a floor of coal dust deadened with stone dust and caked with oil, stacks of timber and rails in side-cuttings. There was no life below—only the rats that lived on crusts from the men’s cribs and a white mould that might appear on all timber surfaces one moist might in January and die a week after. Down below you took on the mentality of citizens whose sleep might at any time be disturbed by an air-raid siren, who had lived like this for years. Extracting the earth’s frozen power, you lived at enmity with it. At any time it might fall and bury you. A random spark might strike off an explosion, or a race of boxes run loose downhill. You were always on the alert; though you had worked here without a scratch for twenty years and though you hardly acknowledged the thought you never knew that you would see the sun again that afternoon. The town that lived off raiding the earth carried its casualties—Alec, carpentering on the surface, limping because of his heel torn to the bone by a winch-cable; Sandy with three fingers bitten off where two trucks collided, reared from their bumpers and kissed where his hand tried to hold one of them back; Fred with an eye torn out when a badly-aimed sprag flew back from the spoke of a downhill truck; and the graves in Karoro, from falls of stone, and explosions. Underground you had to settle your habits into realizing that you were a cog in a lumbering inefficient machine page 206 for gutting the earth and that any mistake you made might cause a breakdown or an accident to other men. An error of judgement was a sin, an oversight inexcusable. When you were broken into the mine mentality you had what they called pit sense.

In the last cavel Jock had been paired with Ben Nicholson. Ben had immigrated from Scotland twenty-seven years before as a lad of twenty. Motherwell had no work for him, and the whole of Lanarkshire was hard pushed to provide work for youngsters. He grew up to play on slagheaps, and between the mean grey rows of company houses; Dad drunk on pay night, Mum with fingers worn and blackened with work, bent and nagging, driven by worry; bath-night on Saturday for church on Sunday. Ben had weathered his upbringing with surprising kindliness. He was a good mate at any cavel and any miner was glad to be paired with him. New Zealand had made him benign and tolerant; his eyes twinkled with a kindly Scottish understanding, his face was stern enough and lined, but ready to ease into a wry shrewd smile. He was a man confident that socialism would come but perhaps not in his time; he would work for it, but like a man taking time off for a smoke, he would enjoy himself between efforts. Jock was narrower. He had a single-purposed zealot face that seldom relaxed. He hadn’t forgotten the years of youth he shuffled away in broken boots among the sullen tenements of the Gorbals, with the smell of rotten plaster and cooking fat and open drains, his mother scratching up the next meal from his father’s slim pay packet, his eldest sister who walked out on the family to take up a stand in Sauchiehall Street. In those enforced hours of leisure he had conscientiously read bitter political tracts and cold outlines of economics and he formed his mind to a purpose. If life was easier here in New Zealand it could not cuddle away the memory of the time when he had strength for hire and no one would buy it, and people still drove in cabs, ate fully and slept warm, who could have employed him. He was afraid of Ben’s easier approach, and he was more afraid still of the apathy of the lads who had been born here. They had grown up to good times, a bigger demand for coal than the mines could satisfy, a forty-hour week, bank-to-bank shift, and all the extra emoluments for difficult working conditions —sweat-time for working in a moist atmosphere, wet-time for working ankle-deep in water, dust-time for a dusty atmosphere. They took it for granted that they had these conditions; they didn’t acknowledge that they had them only because the old-timers had fought for them.

At the face they had to wait till the trolley was hauled up again, so that the trucks could start running.

page 207

‘Don Palmer says they’re putting up the beer,’ he said.

‘Oh ay,’ Ben said. ‘Prices are going up still. It’ll get worse before it gets better, I think.’

‘A man should refuse to pay it,’ Jock said.

‘Well, there’s nothing to stop us, if we want to do that.’

‘You mean boycott it?’

‘Ay. If we boycott it, we’ll force the price down.’

‘It’ll be a hard thing to do. There’s too many of us like our beer.’

‘Well, you’re always saying these lads don’t know what discipline is. I like my beer myself and I don’t care that much about an extra penny. But I’ll give it up if everyone else will.’

‘It’s not the extra penny. It’s the principle. Everything is getting an extra penny tacked on to it.

‘Table a boycott, then. Put it to the union. It’ll not be only us. I bet once we start we’ll have the whole Coast out. The dredge fellows, the sawmillers, the other miners, the wharfies in town.’

‘It’d be a bit of a change for the publicans to be without work. Will you call a meeting this afternoon and we’ll see what the lads think?’

When the trucker brought some empty boxes they filled them and Jock began to work with fierce energy. ‘Easy on it, man,’ Ben said. ‘You were like that last time I was with you. I believe in working at a good steady pace. You get more coal out that way. If you carry on like that you’ll be buggered before you’re fifty.’ But it was hard for Jock to relax. They got ahead of the truckers and had to stop for a while. ‘Come on, you lazy buggers,’ Jock called. ‘We want to get more coal out than this.’

‘Oh, stop your moaning, Jock,’ the youth called. ‘It’ll only go in income-tax. You don’t expect me to kill myself.’

‘The trouble with you youngsters today is you’re frightened of a bit of sweat.’

‘He’ll learn,’ Ben said. ‘He’s only new. You’re a bloody slave-driver, Jock. He’s pouring sweat as it is.’

‘There’s one fault I’ve got no sympathy with,’ Jock said, ‘and that’s laziness.’

‘Who has?’ Ben said. ‘You’ll be getting like old Ned Seldom. He was a proper slave-driver. I hope you’re never underviewer over me.’

‘I’ll never be an underviewer,’ Jock said. ‘I’ll always stay on the same level as the lads.’

The underviewer came; he must have been satisfied with the trucker’s pace because he had no comments. Just before crib-time the manager came by. ‘You’ve got plenty to keep you going there,’ he said. ‘It’ll be a while before this face is worked through.’

page 208

‘Mr Caddick,’ Ben said. ‘I’d like to call a meeting this afternoon.’

‘What about?’

‘Beer’s going up. We want the lads to boycott it.’

Caddick laughed. ‘That’ll annoy old Don Palmer. I don’t believe you could do it. Some of the chaps have been drinking twenty years and more. You can’t tell me they can knock off a habit as easily as that.’

‘You’d be surprised,’ Ben said, ‘what you can do when you set your mind to it.’

‘Well, you don’t have to have your meeting this afternoon. I want to be getting more coal out.’

‘We haven’t been slacking,’ Jock said. ‘We got more out last month than any month before.’

‘I know. I know. I’m not casting aspersions.’

‘We can hold the meeting anyway,’ Jock said. ‘You know that.’

‘I know. But I’m asking you if you can hold it another time. What about a bath-house meeting first thing in the morning? You’ll lose less time.’

‘I see no objections to that,’ Ben said. Jock faced Caddick, on his guard for a trap. ‘It’s three days yet before the price goes up.’

‘Well, thank God it’s the publicans and not us you’re against this time,’ Caddick said. He had been manager in the company days and hadn’t accustomed himself to the nationalization of the mine. ‘What happens if anyone breaks your boycott?’

‘We’ll see to that,’ Ben said.

‘Well, I hope there’s no strikes come out of it, that’s all.’

In the bath-house the following morning the miners sat on benches with their pit-clothes on, their batteries on their belts and lamps on their helmets. Ben put the plan to the meeting and Jock spoke for it. ‘There are some individuals in this union,’ he said, ‘who are taking things too easy. I’d remind those individuals that it’s a great temptation for a working man to go to sleep in good times. Us older ones have got enough fights behind us to know that the fight isn’t over. There’s a lot of younger individuals here who haven’t had that experience. All they know of working-class unity is that it’s a phrase we’re addicted to using at union meetings. The doctor’s wife said once they’d been bought off with beer-money. Well, you’ll still be earning your beer-money but if the motion’s carried you won’t be able to buy beer with it. Some of you may think it’s a hardship. Well, I’d have you remember the times when workers have had to go without proper food for months on end because they were on strike or on the dole, and they didn’t have any beer-money.

page 209

Jimmy Cairns got up. ‘Well, speaking as an ex-publican myself,’ he said. There were calls, ‘Capitalist! Exploiter!’ and Jimmy continued: ‘Yes, I’ve had my foot in both camps. The only thing I couldn’t do in the victualling trade was to make money. I came out of that pub a poorer man than I went in, in spite of all the coin that passed through my hands.’

‘Think of the beer that passed through you.’

‘You’ll have to work a few Saturday morning shifts to make it up, Jimmy.’

‘Was it true they put an extension of the winch-line to the pub, to haul you down to the face in time in the morning?’

‘Order, order,’ Ben said. ‘This is a meeting.’

‘What I say,’ Jimmy said, ‘is that the quickest way to bring a publican to heel is to stop his trade. If he’s not selling he’s not making money. And that’s the only reason he’s there, to take your money off you. If I do say it myself.’

‘Now you’re showing your hand, Cairns, Robber.’

Arthur Henderson got up. ‘What I’d like the lads to consider,’ he said, ‘is the gravity of the decision they’re undertaking. Well, I always say, a man is a creature of habit, and if a man’s been drinking regularly for nearly forty years as I have, it’s no light matter to say you’ll stop. I get a lot of pleasure out of my beer, and I must say I value the friendship of Mr and Mrs Palmer….’

There were interjections, ‘Sit down!’—‘Count him out!’—‘Time, please, Mr Henderson. We’ve robbed you enough for one night,’ in an imitation of Mrs Palmer’s voice.

‘In a working-class struggle your only friends are in the working class,’ Jock said, ‘besides an occasional intellectual like the doctor.’

‘And not all of them are friends either,’ Ben said. ‘Remember the Seldom strike. One worker against the rest. We don’t want any scabbing in this thing. Either we’re all boycotting the beer, or we take no action at all. Not some in the pubs and some out.’

The motion was carried with a loud chorus of ayes, though the younger ones were glib about it. Arthur Henderson knew he would be the only No, so he voted Aye. And they knew they would have to abide by their decision now.

The last two nights before the boycott, the Saturday and the Sunday, Palmers’ bar was as busy as if it was Christmas. Dad knew why, because Ben had told him of the decision. Rogers was helping Mum and Dad behind the bar. Mum served with great courtesy as she always did, only she emphasized it, as if to say, ‘Your union decisions don’t affect us. We’re friendly to all customers. We’re above politics.’