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



Rogers didn’t hear any more of the proposal for classes in economics; but he had joined up with the local branch of the Labour Party. There was to be a public meeting at which the local M.P., Bernie O’Malley, would speak. It wasn’t often he came to Coal Flat. He had been member for the district for seventeen years, but since Labour had come to power he had held several ministerial portfolios, which didn’t leave him much time to visit his electorate. The local branch of the party considered it a triumph that they had seized the chance of his presence in the district, and that he had agreed to speak.

Rogers persuaded Flora to come with him. Her father wasn’t keen that she should go, but Mrs Palmer just looked knowing and said not to worry. When Rogers, trying to appear casual, asked Don if he would go, Don snorted: ‘Politics! At that time of day?’ and grinned as if to an offer from a swindler.

The Miners’ Hall was about a third full. ‘It’s full every Sunday night for some lousy American film,’ Rogers thought. ‘Yet they page 110 can’t turn out to hear their own delegate to Parliament.’ The president of the local branch was in the chair, a broad red-faced man who never wasted words, Archie Paterson by name, the secretary of the local branch of the Gold-dredge Workers’ Union; Archie was known locally as a fighting man, slow to rouse but uncompromising once in action. When Rogers first met him he felt, as he did with the miners’ leaders, conscious of not being a manual worker, of being in their eyes a theorist and not a fighter, It made him feel inferior.

Bernie O’Malley arrived by car and walked up the aisle, a white-haired old man in a navy suit. There was a collective murmur but no clapping. The meeting started a quarter of an hour late, because Bernie was late and so were many of the audience. Archie opened up by saying that there was a lot of criticism these days about the way the Government seemed to be moving to the right. He made no secret of it, he was one of those who thought they should head hard left. He didn’t like the way the Gover’ment had been handling strikes the last year or two. The war was bloody well over now, and they couldn’t plead national emergency any more. Well, tonight they had their representative in the hall and he hoped he’d get a fair hearing while he explained to his electors why Gover’ment policy was heading that way.

There was loud clapping and Bernie got up. He started quietly, but as he got into his stride he got into the platform habits he had used since the days when he was a militant union organizer on the Coast, striding and stopping in mid-stride, waving the notes he never looked at, mopping his brow with them, thumping the air to underline his points. He was glad, he said, to have this opportunity to meet his old comrades of Coal Flat, and to have his old friend Archie Paterson in the chair. Well, he was a great friend of Archie’s old man, now passed away, and, well, he had a good lot of happy memories of the old days—before the time of some of the audience —when him and old Ted Paterson were organizing a saw-millers’ strike. They won too, and Labour would keep on winning. That’s what Labour was in for, to keep on fighting. (Some of the men called, ‘Hear, hear!’) Well, old Ted had taught him a thing or two about the struggle, and though he could remember Archie here when he was in short pants, p’raps Archie had picked up a thing or two from him as well as from old Ted.

Well, that wasn’t what he’d come along here to talk about tonight, pleasant memories though they were. Questions had been asked—and trust young Archie not to mince words—that was what he liked, a man who spoke straight from the shoulder—no palaver—page 111 you knew where you were with a man like that. Questions had been asked about the way the Gover’ment was heading. Quite rightly too. That’s what an M.P. was there for, to represent his electors and if he didn’t listen to his electors there was one thing for him—they should give him the Order of the Boot. (A few of the audience called, ‘Hear, hear!’ more loudly and with a touch of irony.) Absolutely. Like Bob Semple used to say about hit-and-run drivers—give them their running-shoes.

Well, the Gover’ment had nothing to be ashamed of. It had a good record. (Someone called out, ‘Whitewash!’) Let the man stand up who could deny that the working man was better off than before Labour got in. A bloody sight better off too, and the people knew it; that’s why they continued to vote Labour. Friends, he had something to say to them. He wouldn’t deny that there was just now a slowing-down of the Labour programme. But there was a good reason for it. They lived in difficult times. They lived in a changed international situation. One of the biggest powers of the world had subjected its own people to a regime of tyranny—

Jock McEwan shouted, ‘Baloney!’

Not only its own people either, but half of Europe lived in terror of the iron heel, the secret police, forced labour, the knock on the door at three o’clock in the morning.

There were loud cries of, ‘Where’s your evidence?’—‘Which capitalist paper do you read?’—‘Nonsense!’—‘Lies!’

‘Oh yes, ask yourselves,’ Bernie said. Did they ever get knocked up out of bed at three o’clock in the morning? Was New Zealand a police state? Well, did they want the world to be submerged in the system of atheistic communism—the system that denied God and Christianity—-

‘You’re supposed to be a politician, not a bloody missionary!’

—No doubt there were people in this country who were genuine believers in the propaganda put out so skilfully by the hirelings of the country mentioned. No doubt there were honest, sincere people who thought that communism would be in the interests of the working man. But these were the people he’d come to warn. They were the ones who were being misled. What did the Communist Party think of those people? They chucked off at them behind their backs—sniggered at them and sneered at them, because the communists were exploiting them to their own dirty ends. Dupes they were, that’s all. He didn’t mince words. He was like their chairman that way. Good old Archie—didn’t mince words. Hard words, he’d admit, but hard words were needed in desperate times like these—-

page 112

There were frequent interjections and Bernie looked to the side to see if Archie was going to order anyone out of the hall, but Archie didn’t move.

But if there were sincere, misguided weaklings, there was a lot of bloody rotters too! The communists themselves—they were the ones! Jockeying to get into power themselves, exploiting innocent fools to their own ends, acting like slaves to the orders of Moscow. ‘They were the ones that were fomenting all these industrial disputes. Would a working man kick against his own Gover’ment when he was ten times better off now than he ever was in his life before? All these strikes and disputes had one source—the bloody Kremlin, that was where. Oh yes—evidently there were some of old Joe’s boys in this very hall—oh, yes, they could kick and squeal and try to create disorder in this hall as much as they liked. But he had enough faith in the common sense of his old comrades of Coal Flat to know that a few power-hunting hirelings of Joe Stalin wouldn’t be able to break up a citizens’ law-abiding meeting which was evidently what they’d come along to do.

There was a loud outcry of interjections. But after one or two cries, ‘Give him a go!’—‘Give him a fair hearing!’, the interjectors sat listening, though half the audience was restless.

Oh yes, but did the audience know what they were squealing for? Because he’d tell them, then. Because these strife-stirrers and trouble-makers didn’t like to hear a few home truths, that was why. Yes, that was why. Well, he’d like to tell the audience that there were unions in this country that were affiliated to the World Federation of ‘Trade Unions—a known and proven organ of communist propaganda and Russian imperialism.—Yes, in the old days they had condemned British imperialism, quite rightly too, and they’d beaten it. (Shouts: ‘When was that?’) There was no British imperialism now. (‘Go to Africa and see!’—‘What about Malaya?’) But a man had to speak out against wrong whether it was done by his friends or his enemies—or by his enemies pretending to be his friends! He was that way that, he couldn’t help it, he had to denounce imperialism whether it came from Russia or Japan or England or the Fiji Islands—-

Jimmy Cairns called, ‘So do the Fijians!’

And the Russians were the new imperialists. When it wasn’t one country, it was another; that was the way of the world. And the World Federation of Trade Unions was a known agency for their imperialism. And the New Zealand unions that were affiliated with it were, wittingly or unwittingly, furthering the aims of the new Tsars of Russia. Well, friends, what he’d been leading up to was a page 113 promise that the Gover’ment, the working man’s Gover’ment, with the real interests of the working man at heart, was going to use its influence to dissuade unions from having any connection with this organization. It was going to use its influence to persuade the union memberships to pull out of it and sever connections with it. Because it would do them no good.

That was what the Gover’ment had to watch. The domination of Moscow was a bigger threat to trade unionism in this country than anything the employers could do. ‘We tamed the employers long ago!’ Bernie thundered. ‘We’ve got to tame old Joe Stalin now!’

There was a loud outcry at this stage. Bernie didn’t speak against it. He was an old hand at managing stormy meetings and he hoped to ride triumphantly as the noise subsided. But it gathered and there were shouts, ‘Sit down! Sit down!’ Archie got up and thanked Mr O’Malley for his speech. Bernie looked huffed and sat down. Archie’s thanks were perfunctory and he invited questions.

Jock McEwan was first. He didn’t ask any questions: he made a short speech himself. He said the present Labour Government was betraying the working class, and trying to justify itself by trotting out the old red bogy. The Government needn’t wonder if it lost the next election because it was already carrying out a Tory policy and the Tories could do it better.

Jimmy Cairns disagreed with the last speaker; he didn’t reckon the Tories could carry out a Tory policy any better than Labour was already doing.

Ben Nicholson said it was sheer nonsense to say there was no British imperialism. The doctor cited recent reports from Malaya that trade unions were having a difficult time fighting the planters for elementary working rights.

Young Arty Nicholson got up and said: ‘What about our seven-hour shift?’

Bernie got up and said, ‘I thought it was about time I had a question instead of a speech. Well, son, I can tell you I’ve been pressing for that. The Gover’ment keeps to its promises. The miners’ll have their seven-hour shift by the end of the year.’

Rogers clapped loudly till he found that the miners themselves were so sceptical that they were clapping half-heartedly. Rogers himself got up.

‘Mr Chairman,’ he said. ‘I haven’t got a question, but I want to protest against the tone of this meeting. As an ordinary rank-and- file member of the Labour Party, I think we ought to at least listen to what our speakers have to say. I don’t say I agree with everything Mr O’Malley says. I’m not a believer in red-baiting myself. page 114 But I reckon we ought to give a fair hearing to the speaker’s point of view.’

Arthur Henderson who had been quiet all the evening called out, ‘Hear, hear!’

Rogers carried on: ‘But at the risk of opposition I want to say that there is plenty of evidence to suggest that Russia has betrayed the principles of socialism.’ (Jock McEwan said, ‘What evidence?’) ‘I don’t see that socialism is helped by the knock on the door at three in the morning, by the secret police, and the grey monolithic state imposing itself on the lives of ordinary citizens—-’

‘Where the bloody hell did you read this rot?’ Jimmy Cairns said across the hall, more as a personal question than a public retort.

‘I’ve read Koestler,’ Rogers said. ‘Koestler’s book Darkness at Noon. (‘You can’t argue from a work of fiction,’ the doctor cried.) ‘The experiences of several other ex-communists too. Like Silone, the Italian. Their experiences are a warning to us. We’ve got to find our own road to socialism. Not like the Russian brand.’

Ben Nicholson was obviously surprised at this declaration from one he had thought of as more or less an ally.

‘Then you don’t want socialism at all,’ Ben said, with more surprise than anger. ‘If you think Russia isn’t socialist.’

‘I do want socialism,’ Rogers said passionately. ‘But not the Russian kind. I believe in a middle road. Socialism without the dictatorship, without these bureaucrats corrupted by power. Because tyranny isn’t socialism.’

He sat down and Flora squeezed his arm to demonstrate her support.

Jock McEwan spoke again. He turned and pointed to Rogers. ‘If a man claims to be a socialist and talks about a middle road, he means one thing. He means leave the capitalist class in power. Then he’s not a socialist at all. He’s a traitor to the movement.’ Rogers was flushed with a sense of fight. The accusation exhilarated him, he felt as though he was a martyr for truth.

The doctor rose. ‘I’m sorry at the turn this meeting’s taken,’ he said. ‘We’re playing into the hands of those who want to betray socialism. I have no idea whether the main speaker intended this or not. But it’s always been the aim of the right-wing leadership to split the Labour movement, to set us fighting within our own ranks. And that’s what we’re doing now. Mr Chairman, I propose that we stick to questions and not speeches from the floor.’

‘Yes,’ Bernie O’Malley said. ‘The truth was coming out and some people don’t like it. So now after all this time, they want to stick to procedure.’

page 115

‘I’ve a question,’ the doctor said. ‘Does the Government propose any amendment of the Arbitration Act?’

‘That’s easily answered,’ Bernie said. ‘No. We believe that industrial disputes should go to the Arbitration Court, and if unions refuse to abide by the decisions of the court, we’ll take action.’

‘What action?’ the doctor asked.

Bernie did not want to be pressed on this. ‘Time will tell,’ he said. ‘We’re getting fed up with communist-agitated disputes.’

Rogers got up again: ‘Mr Chairman, there’s one other matter I’d like to bring to the attention of the meeting. It’s not strictly for a public meeting, but there won’t be another meeting for a month and I think it’s urgent.’

‘Go ahead, then,’ Archie said.

‘I think the local branch should take some action with regard to these children’s comics which are on sale in the town. They’re full of war and crime; sex, violence and cruelty. They’re bound to do a lot of harm to children’s minds.’

This took the meeting by surprise. Few of the audience had seen these new comics, or, if they had, thought there was anything to worry about in them.

‘Comics!’ Jimmy Cairns said. ‘What next? Let the kids have their fun, for God’s sake. Even if you are a schoolmaster.’

Ben Nicholson looked thoughtful and puzzled. The doctor seemed at a loss. Arthur Henderson got up and said: ‘As I see it, though strictly I’m not sure if I’ve the right to say this since I’m not a member of the Labour Party or any political party, what action can you take? You can’t stop a bookseller carrying on his lawful trade. And, anyway, a schoolteacher should be glad to see children wanting to read.’

Rogers said, ‘You haven’t seen them, then. You ought to read this.’ He waved a red-and-yellow covered comic.

Jock McEwan said, ‘I think Mr Rogers is drawing another red herring across our path. We came here to talk about the policy of the Government, and he gets up and talks about bloody comics. I reckon he’s out of order.’

The doctor moved that the matter be referred to the next committee meeting.

When the speaker had been thanked half the audience got up without clapping. Jock McEwan went to the doctor. ‘I’m bloody well surprised at young Rogers,’ he said. ‘I knew he was a bit of a waverer. But I never expected that from him—“grey monolithic state”. Where’s he get that from?’

page 116

‘He’s very muddled,’ the doctor said. ‘But it’s no good attacking anyone like that except when you’re sure they’re deliberately trying to split the movement. The thing is to unite on things we agree on. He needs to be reasoned with.’

‘He’s never done a day’s hard work in his life, that’s the trouble,’ Jock said.

Bernie O’Malley asked Archie who was the young fullah who had spoken so well; Archie said wryly that he was a new schoolteacher, Rogers by name, came from the town. ‘Oh yes, Harry Rogers’s boy,’ he said. ‘What’s his first name?’ So on his way out Bernie clapped Rogers on the shoulder and said, ‘Well, I didn’t know I was going to get such fine support from Harry Rogers’s boy,’ he said. ‘How are you, Paul?’ He shook Rogers’s hand vigorously. ‘I’d have recognized you anywhere—old Harry to a T, God rest his soul. You’re in the good old tradition anyway, son. Harry was one of my staunchest supporters. A true son of the Coast.’

He laughed. ‘I remember the time I was running late for a meeting in Hokitika. “Late, Bernie?’ says Harry. “Too bloody right I am,” I says. “Don’t worry,” he says, “we’ll get there on time. I’ll get the train in ahead of schedule for once.” And sure enough, we were there in time. The way he drove that engine, we must have hit fifty.’

Throughout this, Rogers grinned uncertainly, flattered at his attention, glad to have people so loudly reminded that his father was a working man. He didn’t attempt to say much himself, he expected Bernie to be whisked into conversation by so many others; but no one approached him, and Bernie talked on.

‘What are you doing now, Paul,’ he said. ‘At the school? … Well, more power to you. The old Coast won’t go far wrong if there’s enough left like yourself now….’ Then Bernie paused, as if something had just struck him. ‘Didn’t you have a bit of trouble in the war?’ he asked.

Rogers flushed. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I was a C.O. for a while—till I saw different.’

Bernie pursed his lips and said, abstractedly, ‘Ah, yes, I seem to remember….’ He looked about him, suddenly the preoccupied man again, and vaguely patting Rogers on the shoulder, drifted into the crowd at the door. Flora heard him say sideways to Archie: ‘Unstable type,’ but she kept it to herself.

But when Bernie was away in his car, Archie stopped Rogers at the doorstep. ‘Don’t take any notice of his electioneering manner,’ he said. ‘He had to ask me who you were before he talked to you.’

Flora looked angrily at Archie, and Rogers felt deflated and page 117 mocked at, though there was no mockery in Archie’s voice, only a touch of sneer at the ways of professional politicians. Rogers suddenly felt cynical about the whole business of politics; it seemed to him that you couldn’t touch it without dirtying your hands. ‘Power corrupts,’ he thought. ‘Every party is the same. Once in power they want to keep themselves in power. It’s better to keep your ideals than get mixed up in all this sham.’

Flora said, ‘Well, Bernie O’Malley isn’t much of a socialist.’ Rogers was disappointed. He had hoped she would congratulate him on the stand, challenging the public figures of the town.

‘What makes you say that?’ he asked.

‘Well, from what you’ve told me about socialism … nationalizing the land, the freezing-works and the shipping companies and all that.’

‘Oh, that,’ he said. ‘Well, the time’s not really ripe for that.’ He wasn’t sure if he was right; he wasn’t even sure if it mattered. Politics was a dirty game.

Flora didn’t comment. ‘What did you think of my speech?’ he asked. Flora smiled: in her smile was a touch of indulgence that irritated him. ‘You at least got a bit of opposition,’ she said. He was annoyed that she was so cryptic.

The doctor came up to him. ‘Oh, Rogers,’ he said. ‘You ought to come round and see us again. There’s one or two books at my place that would answer the questions on your mind. We’re having another meeting of our group next week. Why don’t you put any questions you like to us and we’ll do our best to answer them?’

But the prospect of being got at, persuaded, confuted, convinced against his will, ‘helped to overcome his weaknesses’, was humiliating. He recalled the night they nearly persuaded him to believe in the need for propaganda classes in economics. He might be convinced not only against his will but against his reason. Anyway, he had taken a stand and he must preserve his independence. What would people think of him if he changed his tune? It was a matter of integrity. He had been inconsistent for too long already.

‘I don’t think I’ll come,’ he said.

‘Well, remember,’ the doctor said. ‘If you ever have any questions or difficulties I’ll do my best to answer them. Even if we do disagree on some things, there’s still plenty of issues we can unite on.’

Rogers was suspicious and promised nothing.

‘Can I borrow that comic? I’d like to have a look at it,’ the doctor said.

‘Yes. Gladly. I did all I could about them.’ He gave it to him.

page 118

When Flora left him she went to the kitchen, and her mother asked: ‘Flor, what was that Labour meeting like? Dad was worried about you going.’

‘It was pretty rowdy,’ Flora said.

Mrs Palmer looked as if to say that was what you could expect at a meeting run by that crowd. ‘Flor,’ she said. ‘It’s only for a time. Don’t let Paul talk you into too much of that nonsense.’

Flora looked serious. She spoke firmly. ‘I’ve got a mind of my own, Mum. I’m not going to pretend one thing to Paul and act another to you. Mum, you ought to know me. I couldn’t do it.’

‘Dad’s worried about all those bolshy ideas of Paul’s.’

‘Oh, Mum,’ Flora said. ‘You’re exaggerating. Paul’s all right. You should have heard him tonight running down the communists. And Ben Nicholson and Jock McEwan getting annoyed with him.’

Mum looked surprised but willing to believe this, as if she had always known about Paul.

‘I know not to take too much notice now when Paul talks socialism,’ Flora said. ‘It’s just talk. His bark’s worse than his bite.’

‘You’re a sensible girl, Flor,’ was all Mrs Palmer said.