Just today I felt the lap of time.
I was attending a wreath laying at the grave of Sir Donald McLean. His erection is the largest in the Napier Hill cemetery, perhaps not mistakenly: as in many ways he is the greatest grandee there. His is a towering celtic cross. Only closer inspection reveals the ravages of change and time. There are two neat incisions where the cross cracked and collapsed during the 1931 earthquake.
Otherwise the cross is an impeccable piece of funerary ornament - a granite monument covered in the same Celtic tracery, ironically, as Colenso’s much smaller Cornish version.
There were ironies everywhere today: most of all, for me, in the absense of a crowd. I don’t know what I had been expecting.
The laird of the McLean clan was visiting Napier and he was going to be laying a wreath at the grave of Sir Donald McLean.
There was an elderly man in a kilt playing the bagpipes when I arrived - but I was unsure whether the tune was a lament or something confirmatory.
A few days before I had spent a couple of hours tidying up the gravesite in preparation for the visit.
I was unsure why I did this - to a friend I jokingly compared myself to an old Indian retainer who years later is found sweeping leaves lanquidly off a tomb that everyone else has forgotten.
Perhaps it could be encapsulated as ‘respect for the past’.
Yet I was aware of a glaring anomoly. When I and Gail Pope put together the information board for the Napier Hill cemetery, we left Sir Donald McLean off. This was omission by silence if anything. I cannot remember if we talked about it - or maybe the susurration of a few comments, gentle as the afterwash of some more monumental boat passing by, addressed the situation - consigned him to some eternal silence.
We would not celebrate his life: this man so notorious now for ‘stealing’ Maori land. He had to stand in for all the ignomy of our pakeha ancestors - much as the Queen had to do. So we chose to leave him off (and even in our tours of the cemetery, we directed attention away from him. It was amazing how few people turned, gazd and asked about this enormous cross: people do not notice what they choose ‘not to see’.)
Walking towards us through a strangely Scottish mist of early summer rain were three elderly men in kilts. There appeared to be no crowd. I wondered about this - the absence of whanau, of younger people especially to whom this visit could have been full of significance and connection. Instead small disconnected groups of Scots-identified people - everyone over fifty - wandered through the graveyard: the visit of this historic laird was judged so unimportant that the gates of the cemetery were kept locked.
I introduced myself to the laird: he was elderly, seemed to be finding it cold and had the distinctive husky voice of Prince Charles. His clothing, I noticed, was impeccable.
I was unsure how he felt about the commemoration, or even how aware he was of Sir Donald’s expired historical visa. He did comment to me, looking into my eyes, about the perplexing absence of Sir Donald on the board of noteables by the entrance.
I prevaricated: the board was about incidents of local history, I lied - ‘people falling under trains’ I said laughing awkwardly.
I am unsure why I didn’t explain to him, quickly, that McLean was now seen, rightly or wrongly, as an evil man - a man we all wanted to forget - a joint ancestor we - and Maori too - wanted to elide from historical memory.
Yet there, in the gentle antipodean mist, with the wail of bagpipes filling the air- there remained his vast historical sepulchre.
He asked me about my mother. (I had told a counciller she could recall Sir RD McLean’s funeral (the son of Sir Donald): she recalled the drone of bagpipes as the cortege came up Milton Road in 1929, then the fresher sharper sound as the cortege walked along Napier Terrace into the cemetery.
There would have been crowds.
My mother was aged 13 and she said, it was probably a Saturday (because she was at home and could vividly recall the sound entering the windows of the house:that frisson of history brushing by.)
I wanted her to be there - for a sense of history’s recall: for the presence of an eyewitness. And she was missed.
We were all aware of something missing: some essential piece of the jigsaw we could not put our fingers on (historical memory).
When we got closer to the grave I was interested in what form the wrerath laying would have. There was no minister present, no layering of the christianity our culture had brought to these islands. So there was, in effect, no discernible ceremony.
A lot of elderly people stood round, identifying the names of the people on the tombstones but this had a kind of deracinated effect: they were reduced to the meaningless of names and they had the sad clatter of cutlery being tipped out of a drawer.
The laird took off his Scottish hat, and stood back. The wreath was laid: but nothing was said or addressed and so the vast central mystery of our history, McLean’s role in it, controversial or wicked or instrumental, was left silent.
We all drifted away at the end inconclusively. It seemed something had happened, we were not sure what it was. Perhaps something had. A wreath of flowers had been laid.
Sir Donald Mclean died on the 5 January 1877. Ten days later, 800 Maori presented themselves at Sir Donald’s Napier house (which was situated just across the road from where I sit writing these words.)
They came to mourn, to celebrate and to pay their respects.
A 170 strong party fired off five volleys in honour of the departed man.
Ten days previously between 2000 and 3000 people crowded into the Napier cemetery, including rangitira like Te Hapuku, Tareha and Renata Kawepo - Hawke's Bay chiefs who had eagerly signed the land purchase agreements - and now joined in greiving for a man who had, as Renata Kawepo said, ‘guided the canoe safely through the sea of strife.’
‘Shall we hereafter move into a world of darkness?’ he asked.
Among the mourners was William Colenso.
He was not asked to speak.
In 1877 he was still consigned to the shame of silence.
As - it seems - are we.