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


page 353


In another street in Greymouth, not far from the courthouse, another meeting was taking place. The Westland Branch of the Licensed Victuallers’ Association was meeting in the reception room of the town’s one tourist hotel that advertised itself as ‘under vice-regal patronage’. They normally met in one or other of the publicans’ sitting-rooms since their meetings were not usually big, but today they expected a big attendance.

There were about sixty publicans there from as far north as Reefton and as far south as Okarito. They stood around talking for a while without their usual hearty cordiality. There was a tone of deprecation in their sullen murmuring. The branch president called, ‘Well, gentlemen, let’s get down to business!’ and they sat at the tables, where glasses and bottles of local beer were set.

The meeting didn’t take long. The topic was the success or failure of the raising of the price of beer. The secretary spoke briefly; he said that there had been varying reports, and he personally thought that if the publicans of the Coast stuck together they could win. He was sorry to have to mention again that efforts to persuade their own defecting member in Greymouth to sell at sevenpence had been unsuccessful. There were angry cries of, ‘Shame!’ Well, that member would soon learn the meaning of the old Coast motto, ‘United we stand, divided we fall’. He needn’t expect much favour from his fellow publicans or from the association in the future. But he was sorry to have to say that a group of Grey Valley members had asked for this meeting. No doubt they would argue persuasively. However, what he proposed to do was to invite opinions first from other members so that those present could see the complaints of the Grey Valley group in perspective. Because there was a bigger thing at stake than just the advantage of the moment. If the publicans held out they could win. Anyway they were lucky enough to have a guest speaker who could argue this better than he could, Mr Tribe from headquarters in Wellington. Mr Tribe considered the matter so important that he’d flown down from Wellington in order to address this meeting.

page 354

Mr Tribe was a tallish broad-shouldered rather stout man in a double-breasted tweed suit which, though it would have looked sloppy to tailors in foreign cities, was flashy by West Coast standards, and made him look stouter and more uncouth than he was. He wore an R.S.A. badge and he had horn-rimmed spectacles and his fair hair was trimmed short. On the surface he looked much like any New Zealand publican or businessman, solemn, uncultured, moderate; the sort of man who grinned, a little sheepishly, from thousands of photographs in illustrated weeklies, on hotel walls, of presentations of racing trophies; a man who would slap your back and call you Charlie on first acquaintance, yet a man habitually with his defences up; a man whose face told you his life was an open record, yet he didn’t want any questions asked. He had been an All Black in the ’23 team and he had mixed with sportsmen all his life. In Wellington he had mixed with an odd assortment of the up-and- upper crust, with businessmen, with M.P.s’ secretaries, higher trade union officials, members of the racing club, the bigger publicans, owners of racehorses. He belonged to a newer group in the sup porters of the National Party, a group whose motto might well be, ‘Mum’s the word’, whose fraternal greeting might well be a sly finger alongside the nose; on the sly they did their deals, on the sly they pursued their one ambition, to get rich quick by any means that didn’t carry a risk of imprisonment; on the sly they got their fun: sober, moderate and respectable on the record; out of the photographer’s focus they went grimly to parties where they soaked themselves in spirits, told sexy stories and made clumsy passes at other men’s wives who responded with as little subtlety. On the sly, in fact, Mr Tribe had been getting off for the past two years with the wife of an ‘old friend’ of three years’ standing.

But none of the Westland publicans knew much about Mr Tribe, only that he held shares in a brewery that controlled a number of tied houses in the North Island, and that was why he had been sent to speak to them, since he wasn’t a publican himself.

Mr Tribe introduced himself. He suggested that before he started, it might be a good idea to have this meeting in committee. The chairman asked if someone might move in that direction, and though there were objections (‘We don’t need to go behind closed doors; we’ve got an honest case.’), when it was evident that the Grey Valley publicans would prefer not to be reported, the motion was carried and the two reporters went out.

‘Well, chaps,’ Mr Tribe said, ‘I’ve come down here specially to tell you what your chairman’s just said—and a bloody sight more. This is an important issue. There’s far more at stake than a tem- page 355 porary loss in trade. ‘Course there’d be a loss in trade for a while, even without the bloody boycott. But what a lot o’ people didn’t realize was that things were coming to a pass in this country where something had to be done. The workers in this country had had their own bloody way too long. He wasn’t trying to cut any airs, he was a working man himself and proud of it too. His old man was a wharfie, yes, and he was proud of it, and he was proud to say that his old man had too much pride to join a union. But when you looked at what the wharfies were doing now, what the bloody trade unions were doing, you had to bloody well wonder. Only two years ago we had been at war, the country fighting for its bloody existence and these miners and wharfies were arguing the toss about conditions when there were ships to be loaded and coal to be got out. And now when the country had a chance to get on its feet again, the workers were shirking. Well, they knew all this, there was no need to tell them that. What he had come to tell them was something else. There were all sorts of things you picked up in Wellington that didn’t get into the papers. Well, he could tell them that this beer boycott was only part of a general picture, only a small part, believe him. If they would just look at the ringleaders of this boycott they would soon find out that they were commos. And they knew where they got their orders from. No, it would be a bloody sight different if this was a case of genuine protest against the cost of living—and who was to blame anyway for the rising cost of living? Only the workers, always putting in wage-claims and forcing prices up, like a dog chasing its tail. But this was something different—it was a case of the ringleaders misleading the others on the orders of someone a bloody long way away, they knew who, someone who had probably never paid sixpence for a beer in his life, let alone sevenpence, because they probably weren’t allowed to drink beer in Russia, or perhaps old Joe did but the ordinary people didn’t; he didn’t really know about that.

‘Well, this Gover’ment—they could take it from him this Gover’ment wouldn’t do anything. They wanted the bloody miners to win; it was a pity this strike hadn’t gone on, they might have been able to have made the Gover’ment do something then. But the strike was over now, and the Gover’ment wouldn’t carry out a job for the publicans, as they called it—as if the association was asking them to do anything unfair! Well, it would only be two years till the next election, and he could tell them that the party reckoned their chances of getting in were never better. And then, they’d see action. Sid Holland would put those bloody wharfies and miners in their place, make no mistake about that.

page 356

‘Well, what he’d come down to tell them was to hang on. Not to despair, but hold out. He knew some of them were going through tough times, but they’d be doing good for themselves as well as the whole country like true patriots if they held out. Look, here was a cat he could let out of the bag—only mum was the word—they knew there was a Royal Commission sitting on the liquor trade right now. Well, no names mentioned or anything else, but there was a move afoot by some people to get the price of beer brought down to sixpence all over the country. And these people could point to the West Coast and say, ‘They’re selling it for sixpence and they aren’t bankrupt. Why can’t you?’ Well, they may as well know now that was one of the many good reasons why the rise in price was proposed in the first place, three months ago. They could see for themselves, it stood to reason, if the West Coast publicans gave in on this price issue, the whole trade all over the country would have to lower the price of beer.

‘Now, they might well ask, what had he to get out of this. Fair question needing a fair answer. He wasn’t a publican himself, he was a shareholder in a brewery. This boycott didn’t affect the brewers one iota. But the brewers had the common sense to see that if the miners won on this issue, they would win on others. The brewers were heart and soul behind their best customers the publicans on this issue, because the brewers too were sick of the trade unions and the Gover’ment and everything else in this country. The brewers’ advice was, “Hold out, don’t worry about a short-term loss of trade.”

‘The secretary of the association in Wellington had asked him to come down to talk to them, and he had authorized him to promise them that the association was prepared to carry on with its “strike fund” to assist publicans whose trade had suffered, if necessary for months. They could count on that.

‘Look, how could these miners hold out? Weren’t they already slipping away for their beer to other towns where they weren’t known? The brewers and the publicans had created a taste in them for beer; created a demand, that demand had to be satisfied, that was economics. The miners’ bloody dry throats would get the better of them yet.’

He implored them once more to hold out for the good days when their own Government would be in power.

Mr Tribe’s speech impressed the publicans. After the clapping, during which Mr Tribe gulped a glass of beer with an expression on his face as if he was saying to himself, ‘I told you they’d be impressed. Yes, that’s me, I don’t pull my punches,’ the chairman page 357 asked various members to speak. A publican from South Westland said the boycott hadn’t affected his trade—no, whatever they might say about anyone else, the saw millers and cockies were good chaps and they paid up like men. Members from Hokitika and Greymouth reported a slight loss of trade, but said they received continual encouragement from working men who said it was time these miners didn’t get their own way for once. But the meeting was getting restless.

Don Palmer from Coal Flat got up. He spoke deferentially. ‘Mr Chairman,’ he said, ‘I’m not one to make a fuss. I take the bad with the good, at the best of times. But I’ve been asked to speak in the name of the publicans in the mining towns of the Grey Valley— Dobson, Taylorville, Wallsend, Stillwater, Ngahere, Coal Flat, Blackball, Roa, and all the pubs as far as Reefton—I don’t know if Dunollie and Rapahoe are in on this too—there are more than a dozen pubs affected, a dozen and a half nearly. We’re in a position where we’re running at a serious loss. We’ve had to put off staff; we can’t serve draught beer anyway because the rest of the keg will go bad; we don’t take in more than three or four bob in a day. I’ve taken in exactly nothing in the last two and a half weeks; the other two publicans in Coal Flat will tell you the same; not a cent in nearly three weeks, and not likely to be for the next three weeks, and the next three, and the next three. We can’t go on. The place has got to be kept going as you know, there are overheads, lighting, heating, a wife and family to keep. We can’t go on dipping into the bank. Mr Tribe tells us the association will pay up. I can tell you the association’s money won’t even pay my regular expenses, let alone make up for the trade I’m losing.’

‘If you like I’ll recommend to the secretary that he should raise the amount,’ Mr Tribe said.

‘I don’t care if he doubles it,’ Dad said. ‘It’s not good enough. Since we’re in committee I’m going to tell you something that I wouldn’t have mentioned otherwise. These are just some of the things that have happened to me since the boycott started. The miners and dredgies ganged up on my son because he took a job on the dredge during the strike. The one loyal customer from the dredge has been suspended. That’s how much sympathy the dredge company’s got for the publican. Mr Tribe says we’ve all got to stick together, businessmen and publicans and all the rest; well, the directors of the dredge company were more interested in the immediate advantage than in holding out till Sid Holland gets into power. They gave in to the union over the dredge manager’s head, too, I know. Well, that’s only a start. My son daren’t leave the house now, page 358 he’s out of work. My wife’s in a bad way, she’s in bed half the time and crying her eyes out the rest, my daughter’s got upset with it all and cleared out of home. All this happened because of the boycott. Well, I’m only speaking for myself now, but I’ve got to put my family’s health before the decisions of the association. The other publicans of the Grey Valley asked me to put their case; they want it agreed to by this meeting that we lower the price again to sixpence. But I’m speaking for myself when I serve notice that I’m going to bring my price down anyway, starting immediately. I’m sorry to have to do it, but I can’t carry on the way I have been.’

‘You’re scabbing!’ Tribe shouted.

‘That’s union talk,’ Dad said.

‘Well, it’s one union against another, you might say. The scab on the dredge got squeezed out, and the scabs on our side’ll get squeezed out. Don’t think that that beggar selling for sixpence in this town’ll get away with it. He’ll find yet that the brewers won’t supply him; they’ll be out of this, and they’ll be late delivering that, and then when he applies for his licence to be renewed, there’ll be opposition behind the scenes. You don’t want to join him. You might find it even harder to carry on than you do now.’

But a publican from Dunollie jumped up. ‘I’m like Mr Palmer. I’m not from the Grey Valley, but I’m from a miners’ town. I haven’t done any business for weeks. And neither has my friend here from Rapahoe. The co-op. miners would come in, I reckon, because they are working for themselves and ought to see our point of view, only there’s pickets outside my pub. What I want to know is who is this bloke that’s doing all the lecturing? I thought he was a guest speaker; he’s not even a member of the association, what right’s he got to take part in this argument?’

The chairman began to explain but Tribe cut him short. ‘I’ve been authorized by the headquarters in Wellington to put their case,’ he said flatly.

‘Well, let me tell you, I don’t like this little-Hitler way of talking to us. We’re small men, us publicans, not brewers; we don’t like tied houses and big combines and all this talk about Sid Holland either, I’m a Labour man myself, so let’s keep politics out of it. We aren’t big business. We’re small men trying to earn an honest living. This is our local branch and we run it ourselves. Headquarters can’t start giving us orders. They shouldn’t have a case against our own case. They’re supposed to carry out our orders. We don’t need any jumped-up whipper-snapper from Wellington to tell us our business. And let me tell you, I might disagree with the miners on a good many things, but my hackles stand up when I hear any city page 359 bloke running the miners down, and by Christ, I’ve got a bloody sight more respect for them then I have for any loafing bugger from Wellington that’s got nothing better to do than fly around the country telling other people their own business.’

The chairman murmured to Tribe who sat glowering. He didn’t reply. Other mining-town publicans spoke. Three of them threatened to follow Don Palmer’s lead. Tribe shouted, ‘You’re holding the pistol at the meeting’s head. You’re taking the law into your own hands.’

‘Well, it’s our meeting,’ the Dunollie man called. ‘I’ll abide by the meeting decision myself, but if the others go their own way, I say good luck to them.’

A ballot was taken, and by a majority of ten, Don Palmer’s motion was carried: the price of beer on the West Coast was lowered to sixpence. The Dunollie man called for three cheers, and several publicans in spite of themselves, cheered the first time, but there were no more. The doors were opened and the surprised reporters were let in on the news.