The past week has been a tough one, since the theft of my suitcase on the train from Genoa; the feelings of violation (being burgled in a public place), the anger and depression at the loss of precious photos of my family only just restored after fifty years’ residence with my late aunt in London, have knocked me about. Sleep has been an issue: waking two or three times a night and finding it hard to go back to there. We are more vulnerable to PTS in our semi-conscious state, I find.
Still, I could not afford to let some anonymous criminal steal my holiday as well, and recalled also that Christ was not crucified between two disciples (they had all fled on his arrest), but between two thieves – one of whom had a crisis of conscience in extremis. So I set out to enjoy what I could of the fabulous Cinque Terre – who could not relish these sensual towns, unless already dead?
Leaving the delights of Monterosso al Mare, Corniglia, Vernazza and Riomaggiore was done with a sense of fullness and respect for the way the people, living on the cusp of ocean and mountain, make full use of life in community. Of course they have the same ills my flesh is heir to – but their street life, the absence of cars, the walking and cycling and the talking on the corners and in the markets, the washing hanging out of windows, the cafes and the fishing boats – no wonder the stressed outer world comes here for healing.
But we had to press on, and try to deal with a newfound distrust of fellow travellers on railway stations: we needed to get to La Spezia (to buy another suitcase) and travel on after a full day in Florence to Bologna, to pick up the rental car that would carry us towards a meeting with over 160 New Zealanders at Forli’ cemetery, the dead of the Italian campaign of 1943-45 and their 600 other British and Commonwealth comrades, at rest.
The fast train travelled mostly through tunnels, so it wasn’t until we had our car – “your Fiat Panda Ferrari” as the funny, hassled guy at Sixt rentals quipped – that we would see open country again. I had some meltdowns in the navigator’s seat – never a great passenger, usual control issues – but Jeanette steered us in fine fashion along SS9, after I got us by mistake onto and then off the Autostrada, in quick time.
Travelling to our goal – the resting place of my high school English teacher’s soldier brother – it was as if we were driving in reverse order the way the 2nd NZEF Divisions had fought their way north. We came to Faenza then over the Senio River, and soon, there was the distinctive graveyard cross with its sword, at the immaculately maintained Commonwealth War Graves cemetery.
Tony Hooper and friend, Italy, 1945.
We left the faithful little Panda and entered the gates of the dead with our tokens: love, respect and a pounamu taonga to bury with Private Antony Hooper. He had died on 23 April 1945, succumbing to wounds received in a mortar attack near the Senio River – his spleen was ruptured and there was no hope of recovery.
His original grave, before removal to Forli’.
His tombstone – that same white lozenge with its curled fern and the name of our country rampant that graces all New Zealand war graves overseas – was dappled in shadow in the gentle Ravenna light. Someone had been before and laid poppies with flax crosses on every New Zealand grave, including Tony’s. How my teacher, his brother Peter would have smiled at this, he who had come 12,000 miles in the early 1960s to stand in the same place as I was now standing – and weep.
Jeanette took a photograph or two of me presenting Tony with the taonga and then left me alone – whereupon I gave a mihi to him, to all the Maori war dead lying near his side, and began to weep myself, in bucketloads, keening. I buried the greenstone with him and walked the lines of 28 Maori Battalion Company ‘C’ – Te Hana, Hau, Paniora, Biddle, Potae, on and on they lay, the Cowboys of Te Tai Rawhiti and nearby regions, stranded so far from home, their bones lying where they never could have imagined.
Today, in Ravenna, having visited Dante’s Tomb and Museum, and discovering the story of his exile from a beloved Florence, his loss of family and prestige, the way his mortal remains, his bones, his koiwi were buried and hidden and disputed and longed for by many who loved him and those who did not – I cannot help thinking that those boys, those young men of the New Zealand Division, Maori and Pakeha, were similarly exiled and estranged from loved ones who shed many a distant and unrequited tear in the night back home.
You only have to see Ralph Hotere’s Sangro painting to know that, you only have to go to Mitimiti and see the Hotere names in the urupa to know what exile means. Dante knew that; so do Tony Hooper’s bones, bones we went to greet, bones that will rise again with the great Italian poet’s bones –
bones Peter Hooper voyaged home brooding over, and wrote for his lost brother the poem, Journey Towards an Elegy. It is all here: Inferno. Purgatorio. Paradisio.