Naples is a city on the edge. At any one time it’s impossible to know if that’s the edge of something great, or the abyss of total catastrophe. I suspect it’s always been like this. Maybe it has something to do with being only a few miles from the gates of hell at the Phlegraean Fields (according to ancient Romans anyway), or from being alternately ignored then subjugated by the Italian north. Maybe it’s the criminal underworld’s doing, or perhaps just the ever-present risk of imminent doom.
Vesuvius, mainland Europe’s only active volcano, is worryingly close by. When it blows – and it will – three million people are in the firing line, making the destruction of Pompeii look like a drunken wasp at a late-summer picnic.
It’s predicted to emit a little smoke and colour every ten years or so. The last time it did anything at all was in 1944, when my great uncle was in the area. That he kept a newspaper clipping about the event makes me think he witnessed it first-hand. And that, really, is why I’m writing about Naples, a city with a reputation so terrible the gates of hell were situated nearby.
Roaming its pleasant sun-baked streets, the stones warm to the touch, in search of other clues to my great uncle’s presence: postcard views to recapture, or the odd bit of ‘Bert woz ‘ere’ graffiti, I found Naples rather charming. I wonder if Bert did too, or if he was so bewildered by another foreign country with a tricky tongue – after Francophone Algeria and Tunisia – that he just wanted to be at home with the wireless and BBC English. I don’t think carpenters from Surrey went much in for languages back in the early 1940s.
What is clear to me is that after almost two years in Italy he would rather have been home with the wireless. In helping to rebuild the railways destroyed by retreating German forces, but desperately needed for transportation and logistics, he and his unit of Royal Engineers zigzagged their way the entire length of Italy to the border with Austria, starting with Benevento, where I’m heading next.