Elizabeth Knox

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Don’t say ‘sacrifice’

For Armistice Day here is my foreword to the Second Edition of my 1987 novel, After Z-Hour. More photos will follow. They are are being scanned by my scanning-elf.


John James 'Jack' Knox with son Jack and wife Rose
John James ‘Jack’ Knox with son Jack and wife Rose

After Z-Hour is a ghost story in which one character declares, ‘We we all ghosts’, and in which time and space, period and place, are interpenetrating. It’s a book about memory and trauma set in a haunted house during a storm. And a book where everyone longs for home, and no one gets to go there.

I have a letter from my grandmother to my great uncle Jack (John James Knox) dated 8 July 1918. She is writing to give him the news of the birth of his second child, a daughter, Kathleen. She reports how his wife Rose—grandma’s sister— is getting along, and the baby, and Jack’s son, also Jack. ‘He would have you in fits of laughter, if you say where’s daddy gone, he says to the war to fight the Germans, he speaks so plainly for his age, God bless him. He says God bless daddy!’

Grandma’s letter came back with Jack’s belongings, so his family knew he had got it and its happy news. Jack’s belongings had been packed up and sent after him when he was wounded, and in time found their way back to the household at 12 Hospital Road, Newtown. But Jack did not. John James Knox was one of a handful of New Zealanders among 123 who died when the hospital ship Warilda, carrying wounded from Le Havre, was torpedoed and sank on the 3rd of August 1918.

I’ve been on Vimeo and looked at the schools of fish herded this way and that through the halls and companionways and across the decks of ‘one of the best diving wrecks in the channel’. The schools of fish are more expressive of the family’s thoughts about Jack than the marble of the Wellington Provincial War Memorial—the way they drift away, change shape, and return.

My grandmother married Jack’s brother Joe after the war—so that Jack’s son and daughter were my father’s cousins twice over. That double-strength blood bond kept drowned Jack Knox very present in the family; present as a blank loss, not a ‘sacrifice’.

I have written in my essay ‘On Being Picked Up’ about the moment when it first occurred to me what all this might mean. I was eleven and waiting with my father in Wellington Hospital’s Casualty ward after having fallen out of a tree.

It was a very busy day: a public holiday, ANZAC Day. Just down the hall a little girl who had swallowed some household poison was having her stomach pumped—a noise I’ve never heard on a hospital drama soundtrack. We knew what her problem was because an old man came along and leaned on the doorframe and said, ‘That poor wee girl.’ He had a bloodstained bandage wrapped around his head—my first blood in Casualty. He wore a suit that was shiny with wear. He was thin, with wrist bones like ping-pong balls. He told us that he’d been drinking and had fallen over in the street, hitting his head on the curb. Just below the bandage, by one ear, he had a scar, a long depression filled with smooth, snowy skin. It was an old shrapnel scar.

The old man started to talk to Dad about Passchendaele and life on the Salient in 1917. And I listened. Then Dad said a few things about his father, who had been there too. A nurse came by and tried to move the old guy and Dad said, ‘He’s all right, don’t bother him’, and she went away again.

And I was picked up. Because I had been in pain and wasn’t any more. Because I was hearing a story about horror and loss, the storyteller’s horror and loss, with a backing of these awful stomach-pump noises, and the sight of blood, a recent injury standing in for an old one—and because my father was talking about his father, whom he never talked about—I was picked up. Inspired. A subject had got hold of me until I had it out with it, in my first published book, After Z-Hour.

When my son, Jack, was in Year 11 at Wellington College he came in from a very long Anzac Day assembly, crawled up the last flight of stairs, and flopped at my feet. He didn’t complain of being bored, or even outraged. Instead he was filled with gloom and disgust, and this was how he explained himself (I wrote it down): ‘I just feel the whole thing is meant to prepare us to go be killed in some war, if there’s another big one. It’s all about how those soldiers were heroes who made a sacrifice. I was complaining to ——— afterwards about how the speakers don’t seem to be able to tell the difference between the reason soldiers died in World War 1, and why they died in World War 2. And ——— said I was dishonouring the dead. So, if I say their deaths were pointless I’m dishonouring them. But aren’t I honouring them if it’s true? That war didn’t do anyone any good, and now its just being used as an exercise in building school spirit.’

Jack was right. Even more so now, when Anzac Day is, year by year, becoming less a focus for national mourning than national pride—and, too often, a nation-building exercise. But Lest We Forget: for all the good and meaningful stories we’ve inherited, and the friendships formed and horizons expanded for that generation of combatants, it would have been a better, wiser, kinder fate for all those young men to have stayed at home.

Rereading After Z-Hour for the first time in over 25 years, I noticed how it is now set in two historical periods: 1916 to 1920, and the mid-1980s. So, along with the World War 1 story, there are also apparitions from that second bygone age. There’s the National Weather Bureau, tobacco-drying kilns in Riwaka, the Ministry of Works, street preachers railing against the evils of cash machines, and people as likely to drink sherry at home as wine. Plus student flatmates called Andrea, Sue and Mike, rather than Jacob, Dylan and Lily, and the idea of young people able to study things not vocationally, but for the sake of of learning.

This is a young writer’s novel, filled with intensity and evidence. And I’m particularly proud of the prescience of its youngest character, the Machiavellian Kelfie, who imagined pretty clearly the world we find ourselves in now.

For this new edition, I took the opportunity to make a few changes, mostly the vaunting dyslexic madness of the opening page and a half. Those paragraphs are now neatly combed and set in order. (Bill Manhire and Fergus Barrowman, faithful people, thought I was stretching out into my experimental style!) Also, throughout the novel, many semicolons have gone the way of all semicolons, and become a full stop and a new sentence. What I retained that still make me nervous are the pronoun-less opening passages of the first Mark chapter. My plan at the time was to have a ghost coming back to life by coalescing in the cloud of his life’s great and small moments, and his memories of the material. So—straw mattresses in a tent at the Trentham camp, the wet decks of a troopship, fallen snow feathering barbed wire. For a few paragraphs there is no distinct point of view at the centre of the memories. And then a ‘we’ appears. Mark is ‘we’ even as he comes back without his friends.

My grandmother Kathleen King and her sister Rose at war fund dance in 1914
My grandmother Kathleen King and her sister Rose at war fund dance in 1914




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