The Worker’s Memorial Banner, 2008 centennial ceremony.
It was a wet and wild day traveling over to the Coast last Saturday for a very special hello and goodbye: fifty years ago, the historic closure of the famous Blackball mine took place and all but succeeded in killing off the community where I grew up. But in the long run, so far, it has failed to extinguish the memories of those who were there and were now coming together to celebrate the coal mining culture that formed us.
I was never a miner, but a miner’s son – Dad worked at Roa, nearby – but as a school kid I went down the mine and with my father later, in my high school years, went with him up into the Paparoa Ranges and down into his daily place of toil. It was hard working getting to the mine mouth up there let alone the walk into the face to start hewing. They were brave and hardy men and we owed them a debt of respect.
Blackball Workingmen’s Club.
It is that debt I have been dealing with for many years in my writing and one of the reasons I was going – apart from seeing old hands and old friends – was to respond to a request from the organising committee to read some of the Blackball poetry I’ve written over the years. I was also taking along some work related to the Pike River disaster of 19 November 2010 when twenty nine men died in a completely avoidable tragedy, had they been properly protected by legislation, officialdom, strong unions and sound management.
All this of course has been a source of strife and struggle since mines were first mined: when Les Neilson, a grandson of Blackball miners, a miner’s son and the father of a miner got up to open proceedings, he began by listing the twenty eight men who had died in the Blackball and Roa mines since coal was first won from those brooding ranges with their deep twisted layers of coal and stone.
Les Neilson reading the roll of the miners’ dead.
This was a very sobering way to begin the evening, a reminder of what it cost to extract that black gold from the mountains to fuel the nation’s appetite in war and peace. The mood lightened as some of the old hands – still on the surface with the rest of us – sat in a circle and told their tales. Hank Hines, Digger Howden and their wives as well as Walter Shaw all held our attention with tales of derring do, close shaves and practical jokes. It was a rich sharing of memories that with their passing away will fade from sight.
The elders speak.
After they’d all had their say, there was a gathering for a group photograph with other miners and elders from the community, a reminder of some great times and memorable characters no longer with us. The last time I can recall anything like this was the 1995 Blackball School Centennial, when hundreds came to join together to remember what community and shared hardship meant: the bonds formed through work, play, sport and recreation, politics and trade unionism, education and creativity. Now, there was only a handful of those of those us present in 1995 but here, on this night we had returned and rejoiced all over again.
The elders pose for posterity.
The next act was the cutting of the 50 Cake and then it was almost time to eat – except they still had not asked me to step up. I was quietly hoping they might have forgotten, as I could see that people were getting a bit weary and restless. Performance anxiety looking for a way out.
Mrs Howden and Mrs Hines cut the cake.
No such luck: the call came so I stepped up to read having cut the programme down to three, maybe four pieces. The first was a feisty ballad called The First Church of the Socialist Millennium (RIP) where I remember the great Blackball Miners Hall and what it meant to us as a place of community life: union meetings, films, dances, socials, boxing matches, a hub of activity and pleasure.
Reading Check Inspector 29 for the Pike River men.
That got a thumbs up from Les, my fiercest literary critic – “that’s the best bloody poem you’ve written”, he observed – so I knew I was surfing the zeitgeist. Anyone who tries to read literary arty-farty clever dick verse in this kind of environment deserves a kicking anyway. I read one of the Blackball sonnets then launched into Check Inspector 29, an angry rant that lets the powers that be have it right where it hurts. That connected, so to bring things down I finished with a a more tender lament written for the families: “Mine”.
i.m. The Pike River 29, November 19th 2010.
Son, there was a time when you were mine.
Brother, when the shining day was ours.
Friend, there was an hour when all went well.
Darling, for a moment we were love.
Father, you were always close at hand.
Human, we were people of the light.
And now, the mountain says ‘he’s mine’‚
And now, the rivers say ‘he’s ours’‚
And now, the darkness says ‘my friend’‚
And now, the silence says ‘my love’‚
And now, the coal says ‘father time’‚
And now, we wait for the day to dawn.
Jeffrey Paparoa Holman
I’m glad I’ve been able to give something back: as I said to everyone there as I began, I’d never been a miner and those trips underground I’d found scary. I could never have done what my father did for all those years. I told those few remaining how grateful I was for the way they had put bread on the family table, clothes on our backs, educated us, paid for health care and pensions for the older ones past working, risking their lives daily to build a world which even now, dark forces were attempting to undermine, to dismantle and roll back the world of shared resources and shared power men like the miners had tried to build for present and future generations.
That is why I stand with these men, because they deserve our respect and our wholehearted gratitude. I may not be wearing the helmet of underground experience, but in their honour, the wives and the mothers too, I will wear the cloth cap of my poetry until finally, I too go under the ground.