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Writing Wellington: Twenty Years of Victoria University Writing Fellows

1997 Elizabeth Knox

page 86

1997 Elizabeth Knox

page 87

Assemble in Bunny Street

While I was Writer in Residence in 1997 there was one blustery, sunny day, coming into spring, when we stood at the north-facing windows of Von Zedlitz and watched a large group of marchers set off down Kelburn Parade towards town. They were protesting a rise in fees, of course. We were a Writer in Residence, two of the job-sharing English Department receptionists, and the department secretary, Helen—and maybe one of Bill Manhire's MA students, lured out of the writing room by the irresistible sound of more than two voices in conversation.

We stood watching the protest because it was not just a spectacle but a novelty. People just didn't do that any more.

I told the others some stories about protests.

Eighty-three and eighty-four there were sometimes two marches a day—at lunchtime and early evening. Often they were for the same cause, and you could take your choice—'Is there a matinee?' Most were anti-nuclear, but there was also Homosexual Law Reform, and the H-Block and Latin American Committees, and marches for Women Reclaim the Night. My friends stopped meeting in pubs—instead we went out walking together, ambled along in our op-shop overcoats or Swandris, or our thick men's jerseys under XOS black woollen shearers' singlets. I'd lend some burlier person my fingerless gloves so that they could carry one end of a banner, or one pole of a litter bearing a huge Debra Bustin Uncle Sam—indecently exposing his tumescent warhead.

We heard 'Assemble in Bunny Street', or 'Assemble in Pigeon Park'. And there were chants: 'What do we want?' 'No Nukes!' 'When do we want it?' 'Now!' (less grammatical than a Marines marching song). My sister, Sara, would produce her own versions. On one marathon march for Women Reclaim the Night, we wandered around the smaller streets of Mount Victoria, till Sara began chanting, 'Two four six eight; where are we going, it's getting late?' And there were times she'd offer helpful advice, 'Two four six eight; don't sit on a spiked gate!'

Because I was nosy I worked those marches. There were so many people I knew—my friend from design school at the polytechnic, a 'mature student' friend with her daughter in a pushchair; all of Sara's tribal Rugby Street flat; or Women Against Pornography, with one woman's white husky trotting among them; and the good-looking English guy from Greenpeace, possibly without his latest girlfriend; the bow-legged Chilean from the Latin American Committee; and members of PAN—our writer's club, an offshoot of the English Club—two male poets and a protean novelist raising a sweat by carrying some giant papier-mache puppet from the Nuclear Horror Show. My dashing about was noticed, I was sent back against the current to find people—people would ask, 'So, who is here, Elizabeth?' Once I was sent off with money to buy a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken (this is back page 88 before it became today's sourceless, global 'K', health-conscious 'F', and hedging-their-bets 'C').

Sometimes there was violence, almost always offered by passers-by. Well—it isn't advisable to suggest to a homophobe that he's a repressed homosexual, especially if he's amongst friends, and they've all just reeled out of the Abel T. My sister took up a new sport—eyeballing the police—and once she slugged a distracted blue giant outside the Michael Fowler Centre (at either Miss New Zealand or the National Party Conference). I hauled her away, backwards and flailing, by grabbing her jacket hood, and drawing her through the crowd, out of the giant's sight and reach. She plunged like a furious but collared dog, then spun around and nearly landed one before recognising me. Once, during a protest on Budget Night, I saw my sister on TV being marched off with an arm twisted up her back. She arrived home hours late, tearful and shaken, and said she'd been put in a van and photographed—but had 'talked her way out of it . . .'

On Bastille Day we gathered outside the Saint George, where the French Embassy was holding a banquet. It was a silent protest. We stood peacefully, our candles reflected in the wet asphalt. But the police decided to keep us moving, so that we wouldn't be blocking the traffic. We were directed to go single-file (an order that, whenever it was given by the police, usually elicited memories of Molesworth Street in '81). I wasn't one for single-file. I was talking to a friend, trailing her at her ear. A policeman caught me by the arms to slow me and we spun around several times till I chimed at him sweetly, 'Thank you for this dance.' And he gave a winded laugh, and lost his grip.

Unlike Sara, I had no unshared moments of fear. The worst thing that happened to me—other than swollen feet and fingers after the Wellington test day march in '81—was eczema from the face paint, a patch of red blisters in the shape of a skull.

Some acquaintances who didn't go on the marches would say, 'Aren't you afraid of being hurt?' Or even, 'You can't change anything that way.' (Male homosexuality was illegal; there was no rape in marriage; nuclear-powered and -armed ships sailed into our harbours; and Nelson Mandela was in prison.) These acquaintances claimed to 'express their political opinions differently'. Probably they wrote submissions to commissions, or letters to MPs, probably they voted every three years—though I know some didn't do that either, were so suspicious of political opinions they were also suspicious of the democratic process. 'But how can you be so sure of yourselves?' they'd say, disapproving. Well—we were doing ourselves that favour—giving ourselves a certain look. 'What are you complaining about?' they wanted to know. 'Don't we live in a comfortable society?' Relatively, yes, but our rights weren't conferred by nature, didn't drop like the gentle dew. Someone, at some time, fought for our rights. Perhaps these people thought that being counted-in was the same as being co-opted? They did express fears for their identity. We were the conformists, they said. We were 'sheep' or 'ideologues'. (At this point in the argument my friend jumped up on our couch and yelled, 'I'm going to sweep myself out with an iron broom!')

On the other hand, J, from Socialist Unity, thought we hadn't sacrificed enough for our political beliefs. We were at University, while there were people working 'forty hours a week in the biscuit factory'—which didn't quite have the ring of 't'mill' or 'at the coalface'. I quarrelled with another friend eye-to-eye across the catalogue in the library. She said that my wanting to be a writer was 'bourgeois dilettantism'. (She is now a homebirth midwife.) Some of us thought we were revolutionaries; and some of us joked about our 'black balaclava knitting circle'. I decided not to buy suede walking boots because of all the occasions on which protests required me to stand in the rain.

In July of '84 the ranks—our ranks—parted to let through the real revolutionaries, with their rarefied language, their market forces, their jet-stream high-and-dry clouds of capital, their promises of wealth.

Elizabeth Knox (b. 1959), fiction writer, is a Victoria University graduate in English and Creative Writing. She came to early prominence with After Z-Hour (1987) and has since published Treasure (1992), Glamour and the Sea (1996), a trilogy of Wellington novellas, and the internationally successful The Vintner's Luck (1998). She is the 1999 Katherine Mansfield Fellow at Menton.