Interview: Phil Walsh talks about Conquering Cascade
Phil Walsh talks to NZ Booklovers.
Please tell our readers a little about your book.
It’s a history and detailed examination of the Cascade Westport Coal Compnay and its workforce: the Cascade Westport Co-operative Coal Party.
The Coy was established in 1925 to mine coal in Cascade Creek. Situated beyond the elevated plateau which is home to the infamous mining town of Denniston, Cascade Creek is even more remote. Access to it was appalling and the Coy was compelled to transport its coal 12.5 km down the rugged and flood-prone creek bed to the Kawatiri (Buller) River. A coal flume was built: the longest in New Zealand. It operated for 28 action-packed years.
Ever vulnerable to tempestuous weather and destructive floods, the flume was the vital heart of the business. Barely established, the Coy walked into the economic mire of the Great Depression. Financially unable to abide by union conditions and pay-rates, it brazenly broke ties with it and set about introducing co-operative contract mining to ‘’the hill’’. Unions termed it ‘’tribute mining’’ and did everything in their power to stamp it out. Two major disputes erupted as a consequence and these involved the highest powers of unionism and government in NZ. The relationship between the Coy and Party was dynamically charged but beneath the friction, mutually co-operative. A calamity of nature destroyed the mining operation in 1955 whereupon the Coy and Party wound up in court: each defending its innocence in a high-stakes trial of justice. The book at 328 pages is illustrated with many rare photographs and fully referenced.
What inspired you to write this book?
I spent a lot of time hunting in Cascade Creek in my mid to late teen and early 20s. The mystery of the flume got under my skin. Later in life, and more confident in my writing, I committed to researching and writing the story.
What research was involved?
Many years. I commenced research in 2012 and the book was published in July 2022. I spent many long hours in the Christchurch Archives, McMillan Brown library. Also visited the Wellington Archives and had material sent from many museums and libraries such as the Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library, Hocken, NZ Navy Musuem, Court Records, and Judicial Libraries; liased with Media and Arts Lawyers, Heritage Team, DOC, Mine Plannerss/Resource Geologists, Westport District Court Registry, Ministry of Culture and Heritage, Nelson Provincial Museum; University of Otago; Hokitika Museum; New Zealand Petroleum and Minerals, as well as considerable oral history (around 15 key people with direct links to Cascade Creek and all aged in their 80s and 90s).
What was your routine or process when writing?
Get up at 5am, every day, exercise, then write. I work a physical 42 hour week outdoors but sneak in an hour or so of writing in the evenings. My dear wife Michaela lost her warm bedmate on cool winter weekend mornings. She has been very supportive and understanding which means so much to me. I also take my laptop to work and jump into it during lunch breaks.
Where do you write?
At the dining table at home (laptop). On my lap during work lunches, summer or winter. I sneak into the Kaiapoi library more often during the winter for lunch. The staff are very supportive.
What did you enjoy the most about writing this book?
Meeting and talking with the older folk who had such fond memories of Cascade Creek. Sadly seven of them have passed since I interviewed them. Consequently, there would be too many gaps in my research and chasm’s of understanding to be able to write this story today. Understanding the terminology and the layout of the infrastructure, the mine, the politics etc was key with this story.
What was most challenging aspect.
Understanding! I’m not a miner. It’s quite the esoteric profession. You can learn so much from books but every mine and operation is different. Working out what was really going on was critical to joining the dots correctly. That takes time. I found myself constantly going back to earlier learnings and comparing that with new information. You don’t always come to a satisfactory conclusion either. Rather than guess or assume I generally left out anything I was not confident was factual.
What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
I love fishing!!!. Mostly offshore these days, especially on the West Coast. Still do a bit of hunting just because I love the outdoors and we are so spoilt for mountains and diversity in NZ. Love walks with Michaela and the kids (all young adults now) when they are keen😊. We all love music. My son Cam is a professional musician.
What’s next for you?
When I finally extricate myself from this project, I hope to help Michaela with a few plans she has for the garden. Be nice to sleep in too and maybe get away as a couple more often. I promised Michaela I’d give writing a break for a while. There is a price with committing yourself to such a big project. The burden is shared by your spouse too. Its been great and challenging but I’m not sure I’d take on something this big again. At lunchtimes I hope to work on editing my Grandfather’s memoirs. Maybe I’ll write another light-hearted story like my first two books one day. I do have an idea or two.