Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
Coal: The rise and fall of King Coal in New Zealand by Matthew Wright (David Bateman, 2014), 200 pp., $39.99; Tragedy at Pike River: How and why 29 men died by Rebeccca McFie (Awa Press, 2013), 275 pp., $40.00
Poor old King Coal: nobody loves him. The SOE Solid Energy, formerly State Coal Mines, another unloved brainchild of Rogernomics, is in deep trouble. There will be no more government bailouts as the company crashes from the effects of ill-advised investments and the April Fool’s Day resignation of its chairwoman Pip Dunphy less than a year after being appointed.1
Coal world-wide is in the dock over carbon emissions, hit by plummeting prices and a climate change disinvestment drive championed by the Guardian newspaper and others, to slow the march of mega-companies of miners and drillers across the globe.4 US President Barrack Obama now declares ‘we can’t burn it all’; his envoy Todd Stern agrees that fossil fuels ‘will have to stay in the ground’ to stall the inevitable rise of catastrophic global warming.2 Financial Times investigative reporter Tom Burgis has called his recent book – a study of long-term multinational theft of Africa’s mineral wealth – The Looting Machine.3 Against this background, the current National government is feverishly opening up New Zealand’s marine environment and national parks to more of the same prospecting and drilling, with an eye to a new gold rush of mining and extraction.
At such an historical moment, a new history of coal mining in this country by Matthew Wright and a forensic study by Rebecca McFie of the most recent tragic disaster in that industry are both topical and necessary. Wright’s history of ‘the moral rise and fall of coal in New Zealand’ aims to explore ‘the collision of ideas and meaning that have gone with it’. McFie’s book is also a moral tale, conducted as a rigorous court of enquiry into the Pike River Mine explosions of November 2010 and the crucial role of both neoliberal restructuring of mining regulations since the early 1990s and the arrival of those Australian agents of the multinational wealth extraction culture that Burgis writes about on the African continent. Pike River’s part in this global extractive network was to provide millions of tonnes of coking coal for export, at first to India for iron ore smelting in steel production. Coal may appear to many a dirty reminder of the first Industrial Revolution, but in its present role as the ongoing fiery foundation of the contemporary steel age, the King is far from dethroned and continues to spew CO2 into the biosphere in the service of every item we use that depends on metallurgical coke production.
Matthew Wright’s book lays a foundation: it is a well-researched and at times racy social history. In his typical high-energy production style, he is almost a kind of open-cast operation as opposed to McFie’s underground tunnelling in the moral darkness of Pike River. He characterises his account of King Coal’s rise and fall and rise again as both a morality tale and the collision of ideas: development versus environment, Left against Right, the collective and the state confronting the corporate and the global. In telling coal’s tale he mostly succeeds, both in providing the background – detailing the history, illuminating the technological changes coal and the Industrial Revolution brought to the developing colony – while making clear the personal and political currents that have brought us to where we are today. We stand both in the moral shadow of Pike River and in the rising tides of a global warming fuelled with emissions caused by developed and developing nations.
The book opens with a geological history of coal in the world and here in former Gondwanaland (perhaps a little more than we needed to know); it continues with the early histories of exploration and the almost accidental discovery of the ‘hero fuel’ of future development; the arrival of cowboy capitalism in the colony along with Methodist unionists, two sides of capital and labour who were to drive the industrial and labour market changes that led to the eventual creation of the Welfare State pre-World War Two; nationalisation of coal mines thereafter and the gradual slide in domestic use and consumption which signalled the demise of underground mining in the 1960s; and the decimation of the social accord and mine safety that followed on the heels of Rogernomics in the 1980s and Ruthenasia in the 1990s. Wright is very good at capturing the incoming and outgoing tides of change, while still able to focus in macro on life in the tidal pools. Who knew that the telephone was first introduced in this country on the West Coast at Denniston to enable signalling from the top of the technically marvellous – but notoriously dangerous – incline: one that carried full tubs of coal down from the plateau and drew empties back up again, risking life and limb of passengers and bystanders when a runaway tub took off and disappeared at high velocity into the enveloping bush?
Rail and coal together powered the growth of the Pākehā economy before and after the turn of the twentieth century, until the rise of the motor vehicle fuelled by oil, and of diesel-powered locomotives, and the electrification and diminishment of the rail system from the 1970s onwards. Wright shows his ability to cover a wide range of topics and bring them together as a coherent narrative; he’s neither too much of the expert nor too little. He’s interesting too on the perceived life of the miners: their dark, fearful and often despised difference from urban communities who needed their dirty product to light their homes and drive the wheels of industry. Coal miners were a breed apart: socially active as communities of the endangered, they were highly politicised in ways that changed the nation, through trade union power and the rise of the Labour Party. However, his discussion of their cultural and sporting life was for me a little thin; we could have done with less geology to begin with and more of the miners’ unique lifestyles.
And the claim that they played ‘club rugby’ needs correcting; most miners were from the north of England and Scotland, so it was rugby league that ruled in the mines, a piece of class warfare imported from ‘home’ and carried on right into the glory days of the code. A team of miners from a place like Blackball could routinely travel to Auckland and run them close; touring teams from England were beaten up on Wingham Park; Ces Mountford, ‘The Blackball Bullet’, was off to Wigan and Wembley glory at the war’s end, on the way to becoming a local legend and one of the code’s all time greats.
Wright is better on details of urban living (how coal-fired gas enabled domestic and industrial lighting to change society, with all-night reading and all-night working made a reality as shift work was invented). Chapters on Labour politics as ‘applied Christianity’ and on National’s reversals as ‘applied dismantling of the workers’ gains’ play out in the rise and fall of organised labour, hand in hand with the fortunes of coal.
Chapter Nine includes a summary version of the Pike River story more fully told by McFie, and chronicles the fatal demise of the Labour Inspectorate in the 1980s. Corporate thinking and US-inspired philosophies of ‘small government’ ate away at the safety culture that decades of hard experience had built up from the Liberal era of the 1890s, to its antithesis a century later.
There is much to learn from this lively and well-balanced general survey. ‘Coal: From Steam Age Hero to Green Age Zero’ is perhaps a glib encapsulation of the book’s narrative, but the story is ongoing and there are no easy answers. The demand for Pike River Coal was driven by the insatiable appetites of world steel production (India, in this case, and China); for every person who wants to see the end of coal extraction, there will be another unwilling to immediately forgo steel’s place in their lives. There is still no economic way to make the steel we need without the smelting of iron ore using metallurgical coking coal: 70 per cent of today’s production depends on it. Even those with strong political convictions like Jeanette Fitzsimmons, former co-leader of the Green Party, cannot come up with a viable alternative.5 Wright’s book ends with a question: can self-styled ‘clean and green New Zealand’ – with coal still in part enthroned due to massive open-cast mining for export – rise to the challenge of climate change in the twenty-first century?
A few quirks and qualms are worth noting: the removable dust jacket (when did we last see one of those?) opens to a powerful image of a pair of miners working at the face. Nice touch and great for framing or pinning up in man caves, pubs and clubs. The heavy typeface though is not so welcome and I’m not sure why Bateman’s designer chose it. Some of Wright’s racier pronouncements can sound over-generalised and off the cuff: ‘… coal miners stomped across the values of middle class wanna-bes in other ways too’ (99). There were times when a more ruthless copy editor seemed required. I was not sure what he was claiming when – in discussing the bodies entombed in Pike River – he writes ‘Two of those killed in the Strongman disaster in 1967 had never been found and that mine remained too dangerous to enter … [and] … an effort had been made to bring out some of the dead’ (168). There were 17 recovered in all over a period of three weeks, the first 15 on the day of the explosion. The mine was then sealed to suffocate the fire and three weeks later, two more bodies were brought up. The mine was always dangerous from the moment of the blast; the last two miners still in Greens Dip were only left behind because they could not be found. Wright’s account only tells part of the story, and that not well.
This may seem a detail, but social history is here also a local history, known only too clearly by one potential audience of this book: miners, and on this matter, West Coast miners in particular. The book has been on prominent display in Greymouth and other Coast bookshops; any subsequent edition should clear this up. Having been down Strongman in 1978 ten years after the disaster, right up to the edge of Greens Dip where the search for the two lost men ended, it is important for me to emphasise that for some readers, this is living history and the subject of communal memory alert to the known facts. That said, this is an otherwise excellent and necessary history of coal and the miners, men like my father and his peers, who went underground and brought up the buried energy that built our comfortable surface world. The book will certainly be welcome from Huntly to Kaitangata, Stockton to Reefton – wherever hewers of coal have toiled and still do.
Rebecca McFie’s book Tragedy at Pike River: How and why 29 men died provides a case study alongside Matthew Wright’s broad-brush, global-historical narrative of coal in New Zealand culture. The social historian’s narration is counterpointed by an accomplished investigative journalist’s close forensic examination. Here is a writer with expertise in the often-ruthless culture of big business, digging deeply into a contemporary disaster fresh in our minds. Finishing this book brought to mind Judge Mahon’s famous comment: his summation of Air New Zealand’s part in the Erebus disaster of 1979 as ‘an orchestrated litany of lies’. Substitute ‘hubris’ or arrogance for lies, and we have before us a sorry trail of human error and culpable neglect that led to the completely avoidable deaths of 29 men in a mine that should never have been operating as it was on that day in November 2010. McFie nails every responsible party one by one in clear, dispassionate and clinical prose of the highest order.
The mountain of background material she has read and digested – especially the report of the Royal Commission on the Pike River Tragedy published in 2012 – and delivering the book into the public arena a year later, is a tribute both to her dedication and that of the publishers at Awa Press. There are heroes and villains aplenty here, ranging on the one hand from the integrity of Harry Bell, the former chief inspector of mines who lost that vital post in the deregulatory environment post-1992; to the National Party caucus members who signed off on changes that year which destroyed a hard-won culture of mine safety paid for in blood. This particular misguided dose of hubris led inevitably to the cowboy-style, defanged workplace safety regime that put those 29 lives at risk and finally, failed and killed them. Rebecca McFie is unsparing of all those who had a part in creating the conditions that allowed this to happen; this book should be required reading for any politician, bureaucrat, company executive, union official, worker or citizen who bears any responsibility for workplace safety in this country today and in the future.
The only complaint I have about the sorry record laid before us here is that after trial in this literary court, there is no jury to convict those responsible, right back to 1992, save the court of public opinion and the judgment of history. We should be grateful for writers like McFie in our midst and at the same time live in hope that she never has to write this kind of book again. In the end it all comes down to morality tales. How much are we prepared to pay – and let others pay, dead miners and drowned islanders – to satisfy our hunger for steel, oil and the diminishing supply of rare minerals that make possible our addiction to smart phones and social media? As the Nigerian singer Nneka (quoted by Tom Burgis) charges us all: ‘Don’t think you’re not involved.’
- Press, 2 March 2015.
- Burgis, Tom, The Looting Machine: Warlords, Tycoons, smugglers and the systematic theft of Africa’s wealth, William Collins (2015).
JEFFREY PAPAROA HOLMAN is an historian and writer who has published both poetry and non-fiction. Shaken Down 6.3, a sequence of earthquake poems, was published by Canterbury University Press in 2012; his memoir The Lost Pilot was published by Penguin Books in 2013. He is a Senior Adjunct Fellow at the University of Canterbury’s School of Humanities and Creative Arts.