Friday, 25 April 2014

Passport to Hell

The story of James Douglas Stark offers a fascinating insight into the murky and complex contradictions within the New Zealand version of Anzac mythology. I'll start at the end of the story with his obituary in the Auckland Star, 23 February 1942:




James Douglas Stark, bomber in the Fifth Regiment, New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the Great War, brave enough to have been recommended for the Victoria Cross, reckless enough to have served imprisonment, tough enough to have escaped from Le Havre prison, wounded in 37 places, died last night in the Auckland Hospital, aged 42, after a week's illness. He leaves a wife and two children.

The obituary continues into several paragraphs, detailing his legendary acts of bravery during his service in the First World War. The most notable of these is his rescue of several New Zealand soldiers from No Mans Land, including the future prime minister of New Zealand, Gordon Coates.

Robin Hyde's book Passport to Hell (1936) is based upon her own interviews with him in his Greys Avenue flat in Auckland. The book could be described as a ghost written memoir, or a biography, or a “novelised biography”. The AUP version of the book begins with an introduction by D.I. B. Smith, which includes a very insightful discussion on the issues of fact versus fiction. To cut along story short, 'Starkie' is not a particularly reliable narrator, and Hyde was taken in by some of his tall stories. The two important issues of ambiguity I will consider here concern his age and ethnicity.

According to the obituary, Stark would have been aged 14 when the war broke out and 16 when he carried out his legendary feats of courage in the battlefields of France in 1916. Starkie claimed to be only 16 when he left New Zealand for Egypt, the Smith introduction says he was 19. I find the Smith version of this fact a lot more believable, but either way he was very young.

The ethnicity issue is what really interests me. According to Starkie his father was “a giant full-blooded Delaware Indian from Great Bear Lake with a beautiful Spanish wife”. Starkie himself has 'dark' skin, and Robin Hyde originally intended to title her book The Bronze Outlaw. The only evidence for the claim that his father was a Delaware Indian comes from the 1910 obituary of Stark's father, who is described as having 'dark skin'. We can't know for sure what the truth is here, but what is clear is the fact that Stark considers himself to be different from the other New Zealanders he is fighting alongside. Although he can accurately be described by the term “larrikin” - with all the drinking, fighting and gambling that word evokes – he is subjectively a kind of double: both a larrikin mate to the other NZ soldiers (drinking, gambling and so on) and also an outsider: not white but not Maori either, something 'dark'.

Hyde's book itself is a kind of double: it indulges all of our favourite World War One Hero fantasies, while at the same time providing a subtle yet powerful critique of the foundations of those same fantasies. The reader is given both the thrill of witnessing the rebellious Starkie punch out numerous domineering officers and the disturbing image of him killing a German prisoner. His violence is a palpable force throughout the whole book: it pushes the comfortable larrikin stereotype to its limit, and undermines it from within.

We can see this double identity at work most clearly in the Le Havre prison break section of Passport to Hell. All the way through this section the fact of his 'dark skin' intrudes in significant ways. Firstly it marks him out as the guilty party:

You wouldn't think a corporal would remember that nearly twelve months before he'd been hit on the nose. He couldn't have been inside a dug-out like that last one … Starkie was spotted before he had gone twenty miles on the route march. There wasn't any alibi, for all the other coloured soldiers among the New Zealanders were in the Maori Pioneer Corps, and Starkie couldn't pretend that the corporal's nose had been hit by a horse of another colour. The Villians picked him up and he spent a night in the lock-up with George Moran and George Cummings, also in line for trouble. (Hyde 1986; p. 152)

(Note that Starkie always refers to military police as 'Villians')

Le Havre prison is split into two halves separated by barbed wire. On one side are the German prisoners of war, on the other side “Tommies, Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, men from every corner of the Empire”. Starkie's rage against the military police who run the prison is so intense that he wants to do anything he can to piss them off. He surreptitiously chucks a pair of wire clippers over to the Germans. Later the same day seventeen Germans manage to escape. The remaining Germans show solidarity when Starkie himself escapes:

The blood trickling down his wrist put Sergeant Jackson off his guard for just one necessary moment. It was enough. Sergeant Jackson fell like a sack among the duckboards, and Starkie, expecting the crack of a bullet behind his ear, dived for the gate. As he ran the prisoners in the German compound watched him and raised a wild, strange cheer. (Ibid. p.160)

The escape is not just physical: Starkie is a Red Indian on the loose in the trenches. The following sequence of the story deserves close attention. What is fundamentally at stake here is the essence of Starkies fragile and insecure 'New Zealandness'. Cast out from the mateship of his regiment by the authorities, Starkie abandons his uniform and uses his dark skin to merge through a succession of alternative identities. The final reclamation of his both his uniform and identity as a part of the Otago regiment brings the sequence of psychological stages to a close.

He begins his journey hiding in a hut inside the American base camp, where he steals a uniform:

He wasn't so much afraid now … Starkie decided to become a Yankee.(ibid. p.163)

He then heads to the wharf where he sees a group of 'Negro Labor Corps' loading a ship. He changes out of the uniform and joins them effortlessly, his dark skin camoflaging his true identity:

With the bag on his shoulder, bending almost double, he dropped into line and went up the gangway, brown face, brown shoulders and arms inconspicuous among others that ranged from the sickly mulatto yellows to the glossy black of the full-blooded, thick-lipped African negro. (ibid p.164)

After finding out that the ship won't leave for another two days, he jumps overboard, nearly drowns, and then swims to another ship which he climbs aboard. He meets another man on this ship who decides to help him out after Starkie describes how he has come from Le Havre prison. Hiding in the stokehold in the “slack coal”, he is even more black than he was before:

Starkie smiled in his coal bin smiled as best the slack and coal-dust would let him. 'Black man, Major – too bloody right, I'm a black man. If you could only see me at the moment, you'd notice I'm a lot blacker than you thought. But you and I aren't seeing each other from now on. The black man's gone and broke your gaol.'

His eyes, the lashes clogged with a mixture of salt and coal dust, screwed up for a moment, trying to picture the expression of rage and disgust on the composite face that he hated.

(ibid p.166)

This experience of intense rage against his military superiors is again reflected by mentioning the Germans in a positive light. After making friends with the 'negroes' in the stokehold, he decides what he wants to do when he gets ashore:

I'd already decided to strike out for No Man's Land, yell 'Kamerad!' when I saw a Hun with the right sort of a face come along, and try what the German prisons were like. There was no place for me in France but Le Havre – and maybe Dartmoor or Broadmoor if I got to England – so I figured Germany where they'd treat me as a regular soldier, couldn't be any worse. (ibid p.167)

The following part is worth quoting in full:

When we reached Boulogne the military police guarded every gangway, but the boys in the stokehold had a way of getting me out. Every man of them, stokers, firemen, and trimmers blackened their faces and arms with coal dust, until they were so filthy there was no telling any difference between us. I was blackened up to the eyeballs as well, and we went down the gangway, chipping the Villians as we passed them. 'How'd you like to be a military policeman, Doug?' 'Better be a stinking, rat-eaten corpse out on No Man's Land' I told him, and the Villian looked sore …

In a Boulogne estaminet I struck some Aussies who hadn't too much of the discipline look about them. Aussies, same as the New Zealanders, were apt to kick up their heels sometimes, and by this stage of the War you could have found a good many of them in gaols and lunatic asylums here and there in France and England. The bunch in the estaminet didn't make any secret of the fact that they were all A.W.O.L. Some had been missing from their lines for two years, some just for two months, living by their wits. Wherever they went they hung together, and when you asked them the name of their battalion they'd round on you. I was in good company, so I told them where I came from myself, and within ten minutes I was an Australian Light Horse Trooper, down to my shiny new spurs, and liked it a lot better than being a Yankee, because this time I hadn't got to wear any dinky little white spats.

Starkie hangs out with the Aussies in an estaminet, drinking and carousing with French prostitutes. By now the rage has given way to reckless hedonism – thoroughly understandable given his harsh experiences of both war and military discipline, but still fragile because of his precarious identity. Things turn sour when the Aussies start fighting with a group of American soldiers over an alleged theft. Starkie worries that the fight will attract attention, and begins to question the integrity of the Aussies:

No, it wasn't that I got the Yankee's three thousand francs and his wrist-watch. I didn't even know he had it on him. The Aussies were good sorts on the whole, but they didn't divvy up with the spoils like our crowd would have done. (ibid p.169)

Starkie takes off, fearing conflict will attract the attention of military police. He hides out in a train, and starts trying to find his New Zealand mates:

Early in the morning I jumped a munition train for the line, and got as far as the supports, where I was told the New Zealanders were all hundreds of miles away at Ypres. That nearly finished me. I knew that at any time I was liable to be picked up and sent back to Le Havre, but I thought that if I could get back to my own mates again they'd take me in if they could. I was lost and worried. (ibid p.169)

When he finally does find his mates, the fear and despair give way to intense elation:

When I got there Otago Fourth, my old lot, were quatered there. I could hardly believe it was true, and could have howled like a kid when I saw a face here and there that I knew.(ibid p170)

The reference to crying like a child is surely significant here. It is often easy to forget the fact that Starkie is a very young man, and I think that Hyde was to some extent captured by the spell of this extremely tough and charismatic raconteur. The tiny little admissions are the most telling: “I was lost and worried”, “could have howled like a kid”.

[This needs a lot more work, but this post is already way too long, so I will cut this here for now]

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