In Memoriam

Ralph Blacklock

- by Murray Horton

Ralph Blacklock died, aged 84, in Christchurch, in February 2000. His death marked the end of an era in the Christchurch Left. For many decades, he and the late Jack Locke (to whom I always irreverently referred as "Jacklocke and Blacklock, the singing, dancing Marxist Leninist team") were the leading figures in the Christchurch branch of the former Communist Party of New Zealand. Jack died in 1996, aged 88 (see Watchdog 84 for my obituary of him). Ironically, none of the Locke family could attend Ralph’s funeral, as they were all at Parliament that day for the maiden speech of Jack’s son, Green MP Keith Locke. Keith asked me to present his message to the gathering.

Ralph was born on the West Coast, and worked in many jobs during his life in Canterbury. He finished up at the (since closed and demolished) Addington Railway Workshops, and painted Railway Welfare Society holiday homes after his retirement. He served in a medical corps for several years in WW11, seeing action in North Africa, the Middle East and Italy. He was married for decades to Ida, and had several children and grandchildren.

When I first got involved in politics, in 1969, Ralph was a leading figure in the local CPNZ. He and Jack were, literally, cloth cap communists. In the 30 years I knew him, he was involved in every campaign and struggle, on all manner of issues, always representing the Party and always ensuring that the Party’s line was put. He travelled in the Second World (remember that?). He survived all the tortuous ins and outs, splits and changes of allegiance – the CPNZ went from being pro-Soviet to pro-Chinese to pro-Albanian to pro-nobody, then ceased to exist as a Communist Party and re-emerged in its present form as the Socialist Workers Organisation (SWO). Unlike Jack, Ralph was never a member of CAFCA. That didn’t stop us working together in all manner of battles eg Ralph was actively involved in our 1996 campaign against the sale of TrustBank to Westpac.

It’s only fair to report that CAFCA and the SWO (nee CPNZ) have political differences. This is not the place to detail or debate them, but, summarised, the SWO holds that the problem is capitalism per se, not simply foreign capitalism. Indeed, at our 25th birthday celebration, held just days after Ralph’s funeral, Don Archer, CPNZ/SWO veteran and CAFCA founder, took advantage of the open mike to reiterate the party line. We beg to differ but only from a tactical perspective. These differences have never seriously affected our working relationship with Jack, Don or other SWO activists.

Ralph’s funeral was a fascinating mixture of the various strands in his life. Much was said about his role in the CPNZ/SWO and his political activism in general. Some of it was very funny. The eulogy by Roy Foley, a fellow CPNZ/SWO veteran, described Ralph as a dreadful snorer and "the world’s worst driver", who once put a car load of startled political activists over a bank in Lewis Pass. He was so short that he could only see through the steering wheel as he drove, not over it. He was a Communist, but the reactionary old warhorses of the Returned Services Association (RSA) played a leading role at the funeral, because he was a member and a WW11 veteran. There was a flag on his coffin, The Last Post, the Lord’s Prayer (for an atheist), salutes, medals, and fellow veterans placing red poppies on his coffin. He had become a devotee of 18th century Scottish poet and national hero, Robbie Burns, in his later years. So the funeral featured a reading of a typically incomprehensible piece of Burns poetry, in archaic dialect, by a fellow with a heavy Scottish accent. The mourners were politely mystified.

I didn’t know Ralph anywhere near as well as I knew Jack and his family (CAFCA and the Anti-Bases Campaign are currently working closely with two of Jack’s children, Maire and Keith). But the Left in Christchurch, and further afield, owes a great deal to the little old bloke with the cloth cap and walking stick. He was a fixture in it for decades. Ralph, you’ll be missed.

Christine Clarke

- by Murray Horton

Christine Clarke was a total stranger to us, as she was to the vast majority of New Zealanders. She did not seek attention – but posthumously gained it, in perpetuity, because of the nature of her tragic death. Deaths in New Zealand industrial disputes are mercifully rare – Frederick Evans was killed during the 1912 Waihi goldminers’ struggle; Ernie Abbott was killed by the anonymous coward who bombed the Wellington Trades Hall in the mid 1980s. Christine Clarke joined them, literally at the very end of the 20th Century – she died on December 31, 1999, from injuries sustained when she was run over on the Lyttelton waterfront workers’ picketline two days earlier. She was only 45. At the time of writing, the court case against the driver has not been heard. He was charged with dangerous driving causing death.

The irony is, of course, that Christine was not a member of the picketing unions, nor a unionist at all. She was there as a concerned member of the Lyttelton community, helping her neighbours fight to keep their jobs (the Lyttelton Port Company had announced that it was giving away the jobs of workers involved with the port’s coal export trade, to outside workers). She was a committed Alliance worker and founder member of the New Labour Party – she had previously worked in the Christchurch office of Green co-leader, Rod Donald, when he had been an Alliance MP; a personal message from Alliance leader and Deputy PM, Jim Anderton, was read to her funeral (she had recently worked in his Christchurch electorate office). She had worked for a number of community and social work organisations; she was a committed Catholic with a strong social conscience, an active member of Father Jim Consedine’s Lyttelton parish. She was a wife and mother of two kids. The greatest irony of all was that she was lucky to be alive at all – a stroke a couple of years earlier had nearly killed her, leaving her in a coma. Against all odds she had fought her way back to a normal life. Only to be run down and killed on that fateful picketline.

I don’t buy into the overblown rhetoric about her being a martyr of the union movement – her death is quantitavely different from that of Evans (bashed by cops and scabs) and Abbott (blown up by a murderous bomber). But she was killed because she put herself (indeed, her very life) quite literally on the line. She was killed because she joined unionists, her friends and neighbours, who were fighting for their jobs and who, just weeks after the election of the Labour/Alliance government, were demanding some relief for workers who have suffered under the 1991 Employment Contracts Act and a host of other anti-union, anti-worker measures. The Government is in the process of replacing that iniquitous Act and going some way towards swinging the pendulum back in the direction of the workers.

Her death shocked the parties to the dispute into temporarily settling it; it shocked the country profoundly. After all, not even in the pitched battles of the 1981 Springbok Tour protests had anyone been killed. A huge crowd, including CAFCA representatives, attended her January 2000 funeral at Christchurch’s Catholic Cathedral. Messages came from all over New Zealand and from around the world. We were all there to show solidarity with an ordinary woman, an ordinary, decent New Zealander, who had been killed doing nothing more than standing up for a fair go for workers, a fair go for those at the bottom of the heap. Her death marked a fitting end to the long dark tunnel of the 1990s; things can only get better from here on.

Foreign Control Watchdog, P O Box 2258, Christchurch, New Zealand/Aotearoa. December 1999.


greenball Return to Watchdog 93 Index