Passport to Hell

Robin Hyde, edited & introduced by D.I.B. Smith

‘This man is the biggest, laziest, rottenest, most troublesome—

And in the trenches he’s one of the best soldiers I ever had.’


Passport to Hell is the story of James Douglas Stark—Starkie—and his war. Journalist and novelist Robin Hyde came across Starkie while reporting in Mt Eden Gaol in the 1930s and immediately knew she had to write his ‘queer true terrible story’. The result was greeted by John A. Lee, war veteran, author and politician, as ‘the most important New Zealand war book yet published’.


Born in Southland and finding himself in early trouble with the law, the young Starkie tricked his way into a draft in 1914 by means of a subterfuge involving whisky and tea. In his subsequent chequered career in Egypt, Gallipoli, Armentières, the Somme, Ypres, he showed himself ‘a soldier and not a soldier’, with a ‘contempt of danger and discipline alike’. Hyde took the raw horrors, respites and reversals of Starkie’s experiences and composed a work of literature much greater than a mere documentary of war. She portrays a man carousing in the brothels of Cairo and the estaminets of Flanders; looting a dead man’s money-belt and filching beer from the Tommies; attempting to shoot a sergeant through a lavatory door in a haze of absinthe, yet carrying his wounded captain back across No Man’s Land; a man recommended for the V.C. and honoured for his bravery – but also subject to nine court martials.


It is a portrait of a singular individual – ‘something of a visionary’, in Hyde’s words – who has also been described as the quintessential New Zealand soldier. And against the contradictory elements of Starkie’s character, Hyde shows a war machine that preaches ‘Thalt shall do no murder’ one moment and sends men over the top the following day to kill.


Robin Hyde was one of New Zealand’s true literary trailblazers, and in this book she redefined the parameters of novel and memoir. In its psychological acuity and emotional depth, Passport to Hell is one of the finest war books we have.


Published to mark the centenary of this quintessential New Zealand war story, this newly reset edition includes Hyde’s final authorized text from 1937 and an introduction and notes by D. I. B. Smith.



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Author and editor

Robin Hyde (1906–39) was a New Zealand journalist, novelist and poet. Born in Cape Town, South Africa, she was brought to New Zealand before she was six months old and grew up in Wellington. She began her journalistic career at the Dominion, aged sixteen years old, and in succeeding years worked for the Christchurch Sun, the Wanganui Chronicle, and the New Zealand Observer. Over ten years of great turbulence in her personal and professional life Robin Hyde wrote ten books of poetry and prose, among them the autobiographical novel The Godwits Fly, the two documentary novels featuring Starkie, Passport to Hell and Nor the Years Condemn, and the travel book Dragon Rampant, as well as many articles and letters. Further volumes of poetry, autobiography and journalism were published after her death in 1939, as her posthumous reputation grew. In her range, originality, distinctively New Zealand voice and attention to political, feminist and Māori subjects, she is now regarded as one of our most important writers. A biography of Hyde, The Book of Iris, written by her friend Gloria Rawlinson and son Derek Challis, was published by Auckland University Press in 2002.


D. I. B. Smith, who prepared this edition, taught in the English Department at the University of Auckland.


June 2015, 198 x 130 mm, 344 pages
Paperback, ISBN 978 1 86940 839 8, $39.99