Trades Hall twist of fate

Phil Campbell

In June 2001, a retired unionist Stewart McCaffley was hospitalised in Rotorua.

As he lay supine on his hospital bed, he, unable to sleep, reminisced about his union days.

They were good old days for this socialist – “I was not a communist,” he said.

He had friends in high places – David Lange and Helen Clark were among his connections.

Stew McCaffley was not a man to trifle with – a Liverpudlian who emigrated to New Zealand in 1957, having served in the British Army as a sergeant and, for good measure, a Royal Tank Regiment boxing champion had presence. He had also been a champion athlete in his youth.

For six years in the 1980s, he was also the Labour Party’s senior vice president. As such, he became embroiled in the turbulent years of switches in economic direction.

Stew was organiser of the Northern Drivers’ Union. On retirement, he and his wife Louise lived a “life of contemplation” at Ngongotaha.

From his hospital bed, Stew could reflect on the boisterous if not always rewarding union times.

In physique, he looked a bruiser – broad shouldered, barrel chested, eyebrows like privet hedges, a somewhat florid complexion, alert eyes which sparkled on reminiscences. He also bore a striking resemblance to the actor Nigel Davenport.

We were both hospitalised, side by side in an otherwise empty intensive care ward. It seemed odd to me that hospitals, even today, seem vacant early in the week and, like motels, fill towards the end.

So it was at Rotorua Hospital, we were both on bed rest.

With the usual shakedown silence preceding a babble of small world name recognition, we found during our respective lives we had met/interviewed seriously influential types.

All night Stew regaled his new friend with union activity stories. The play was the thing. Rumbles behind the scenes at negotiations. High drama rarely played out in public.

I didn’t get to see Stew on his pins because he did not have, to quote Thomas Love Peacock slightly out of context, the power to drink or rise.

This inconvenience did not impede his thinker.

David Lange, he wistfully recalled, was a funny man. Numerous were his stories of the great recantour and former Prime Minister.

Lange’s party trick was to sit at the back of halls and mimic the speaker at the dais at rallies. His predictive utterances had those immediately around him in stitches. The speaker, who thought he was winning over his audience, prolonged the speeches to the converted.

Then, because of a prescribed drugged haze, I’m unable to recall many stories. More’s the pity. But one stood out. The killing of Ernie Abbott at Trades Hall in 1984.

A documentary last night (TV 1, Sunday June 30) revived memories of that overnight stay Rotorua Hospital.

But for a turn of fate, one of Stew’s sons, Nick, could have become the victim, not Mr Abbott.

Nick, who predeceased his father, was handed the bag, which resembled a 1950’s child’s lunch box or etui, to be carried into Trades Hall. Needing a comfort stop, Nick placed the object on the floor of the building.

In his absence, Ernie Abbot, the caretaker, picked up the bag, in doing so apparently triggering the device which killed him.

Within 24 hours of our night-long chat – a sleepless night can be refreshing – Stew McCaffley died, He was 73.

I saw him next in his casket where, despite our brief association, the family had asked if I could deliver a eulogy at a private ceremony.

In the 10 hours I knew him, I was probably apprised of more of the inner machinations of the Labour Party movement at top level than I could have hoped – if only I’d been in a condition to appreciate it.

His story on Ernie Abbott, though, was unforgettable.


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