Coal and the Coast by Paul Maunder

Coal and the Coast: A Reflection on the Pike River Disaster by Paul Maunder was launched this weekend in Greymouth. Canterbury University Press published it, Tony Kokshoorn spoke at it and when Paul spoke, he also performed a waiata to go with the speech which I would love to see the words of. The food was great.

This morning I read Coal and the Coast from cover to cover and I think it is a special book.

Maunder begins with a preface on Alain Badiou's theory, explaining that Badiou, a French philosopher and postmarxist, bases his thought on set theory. I loved set theory as a primary school child, pondering subsets and supersets and intersections as I ate my breakfast. I am disappointed to report from a learned source that, at least at high school level, set theory has been abandoned.

So Badiou is interested in the are(s) where different groups overlap, as they are areas of multiplicity. So is Maunder. As I write this review, it strikes me that I could fruitfully come back to this idea in terms of exploring and representing motherhood, but that can wait for another day. If I have interpreted the preface accurately, then Maunder's project follows that of Badiou's: that we no longer live with the notion of a "singular working class leading a singular revolution" towards a better future, but are instead mostly caught up in separate projects, separate lives and concerns. Until a momentuous event brings our relatively disparate lives and concerns together and a window is opened to the possibility of a new future.

I can see, through the lens of reading Coal and the Coast, how the Pike River disaster changed the way our local community interacted. The media descended like so very many jackals to package a product from our grief and loss. John Key and his cronies prepared speeches linking the tragedy to an Act of God, carefully implying no human culpability. I remember standing in the fish and chip shop when the news came through on the tv of the second explosion. I remember standing stunned. I remember the shop filled with the news like a thick vapour and I remember the tears running down the face of staunch strong brave Wendy as she wrapped the fried potatoes. I thought I understood that the men were dead before, but my grief at that moment suggested some deep harbouring of hope.

On the day of the memorial service I waited for the bus with 60 or 70 others on the main road near our house, conversing with those I knew and marvelling at all the faces I didn't know because they always travel by car. I wished this could be the beginning of a public transport service for our town. Like many locals, I chose against attending the memorial service twelve months later. I had no interest in listening to the solemn platitudes of National and Labour party politicians who preferred dark suits of mourning and kissing babies over funding proper safety checks and inspections in our coal mines.

In his introduction Maunder comments that "[he] will avoid the 'homely' portrayal of the Coast as a pubful of Barry Crump 'characters' and instead portray the people in their true variety." Hallelujah! It's certainly about time that national media moved on from their monolithic portrayal of The West Coaster.

Chapter One chronicles the fortnight immediately after the 19 November 2010 explosion. As he weaves the narrative of his ordinary life activity in with the unfolding events at Pike, Maunder highlights the hypocrisy of local swimming pools and takeaway bars requiring endless and expensive health and safety hurdle jumping while the same government(s) allows dangerous underground mining situations to go on unchecked until 29 men die, and possibly beyond.

Chapter Two tells the story of organised labour and its relationship with national politics from the beginning of coalmining on the West Coast to the late twentieth century. Maunder draws heavily on Len Richardson's book Coal, Class and Community. I had a little to do with Len when I was a student and then a tutor at the University of Canterbury history department. His genial personality and keen intellect were first fostered in the mining town of Denniston and reading this part of Coal and the Coast reminded me of the whakapapa of coast historians. Richardson, as a young history lecturer at Canterbury had the support of another coaster, Phil Ross May, who wrote The West Coast Gold Rushes. May's book mentions a claim less than kilometres from my house which my grandad suspects belonged to my great great great uncle. It is a trite West Coast practice, pulling out ones whakapapa in relation to this piece of land, but people (like me) only do it because they want to belong here, which is surely no bad thing.

The story itself of organised labour on the West Coast is very accessible in Coal and the Coast. This book, like Maunder's 2008 play on the same topic, should bring the story to a wider audience. I suspect academic historians may wish to quibble with aspects of the narrative and I look forward to their comments. I hope this book gets widely reviewed in its entirety, not merely for salacious interpretations of the section specifically on the Pike River tragedy.

The chapter on health and safety makes for grim reading, but it also exposes the power struggles which workers find themselves in as governments frequently do a poor job of looking after worker safety and a much better one of pandering to business interests.

Chapter Four explores the experiences of West Coasters in the wake of the government-led destruction of most of our timber industry, the tensions surrounding Maori leasehold land in Greymouth and the poliices of Labour governments under both Lange and Clark which impacted negatively on our region.

Chapter Five, which deals with climate change, includes interview material with long time miner and unionist Les Neilson and Green MP Kevin Hague. Maunder attempts to bring together the issues of miners, with a history of left wing agitation, and greenies, who also have some history of left wing agitation. It's a bold and brave task, which is another way of saying that it has mostly felt impossible to me, even though I see that it is essential in order to move forward as a diverse but functionally coherent society.

I loved Chapter Six on The Modern Miner. I know several of the men interviewed and I've met or heard of the all the others. It was at this part of reading the book that I really started to feel that Maunder has given us a taonga in this a book, a connecting of previously disparate or conflicting narratives, an exploration of what it means to belong in a world not primarily organised by consumerism. When I arrived on the West Coast in 2006 with my husband and young son, I had some very clear goals: I wanted another baby, a house of our own and to be part of the community where we worked, not commuters between two cultures. Paul Maunder's partner, a midwife, delivered our daughter twelve months later. It was Paul, who we met through our jobs, who invited us to join his many political and cultural projects and made our lives the richer for it. This year, in 2012, we are honoured that Paul's daughter is our nine year old son's teacher.

Late last year I pulled out of the Blackball Museum of Working Class History project. It's a great project, inspired and lead by Paul Maunder and I only withdrew because I lacked the time to contribute effectively. As I read this book, I knew what I would be suggesting next: I would love to see an oral history project on the miners' wives, starting with Angela Bolderson, who was a miner's wife throughout the 1984-5 miners' strike in England and whose husband leads the union at the Spring Creek mine now.

We have this book because Paul Maunder has devoted his life to writing and to political activism. Thank you Paul, for everything that you give to our local community, and for this book which gives us a lens to consider ourselves through. It also gives the wider non-local community of readers not just a story of the West Coast through the prism of a terrible and famous tragedy, but a map to consider how some of these complex strands of multiple identities might bind in a new way in their own local communities. Go buy it, or request that your local library buys it.


Fergus Murray said…
Hi Sandra - I've linked to this interesting post from my website at

Best wishes from the East Kent coalfield (no more) in the UK

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