It is extraordinary how Dante, my close companion since I first started to read him in my late teens, keeps cropping up in my life. Take the last few weeks for instance. I had a random email from Robert Loch, headed ‘Dante Idea’, containing a proposal that a Dante retreat I had once given, and he had heard described, might be pitched as a TV programme and inviting me down to the Paramount, one of his London haunts, to discuss it. The meeting was arranged and I was sketching out ideas, thinking of ways we could use TV to convey the immediacy, the contemporary relevance of Dante’s journey, the way he is mapping and exploring, not so much some imagined afterlife, but all the winding intricacies, the mysteries of the human heart. The way Dante’s journey through the circles of hell, the terraces of the holy mountain and the spheres of paradise could be mapped directly on to the contours of contemporary Britain; the stories that fill our papers and are told in our pubs.
My cogitations were interrupted by the arrival of the post; a plain brown package addressed to me; it contained, unexpected and unsolicited, a copy of a book called Meeting Dante by my friend Ingrid Soren, I was delighted to be given it, but even more so when I opened it and began to read. What an amazing book! I shall write a proper review of it later, (look out for Meeting Dante (2)) but it couldn’t have been more timely and helpful to me at that point. Like Dante’s poem, Ingrid’s book is multi-layered; its a travelogue of her journeys in Dante’s footsteps, it is a beautiful account of the poem itself but it is also (like Dantes poem) a love story; a searing personal account of the making and breaking of a relationship and how Dante helped her at every step to deal with the delights, the demands, and the sorrows of love. Every page sparkles with insight into the links between the Divine Comedy and contemporary life, I couldnt have asked for better inspiration for my London forray! I packed her book in my bag and headed for the paramount.
High above London, with a panoramic view vbiew of its palaces and temples, its dark alleys, its corrupt banks and glorious museums, all its places of delight and desolation spread out below us, Robert and Mike Dicks and I began to plan our series on Dante’s contemporary journey and to map his places of the soul onto the real places we could see from thParamount’s panoramic view, finding connection after connection. Could we sell it? we wondered, could we liberate Dante from the ivory tower and set him walking the streets again, a compassionate guide for twenty-first century life? Would others see these connections too? Even as we wondering about that a woman who had been working away at a laptop in the corner, but also, I had noticed often looking up at us and listening, came over. She said “I’m sorry to interrupt, but I can’t contain myself any longer, I never thought I’d hear Dante’s name up here and I’m thrilled, I love Dante and I think of his work often in the midst of my own life.”
She turned out to be a well known and witty comedienne, star of a channel four series, but also, (on the quiet) a Dante scholar and enthusiast, just in the club by chance that day! I had a wonderful sense of providence, of pieces falling together and of Dante own poem so full of beautiful connections and imagined spaces in which the most unlikely people separated byt time space and language can still meet together and make something new of each others lives. I left London with the distinct feeling that the old Florentine was definitely on our side with this one!