Never mind policemen getting younger. You know that you have reached the afternoon of your days when school contemporaries are not just ambassadors but retired ambassadors. Charles de Chassiron, who was ambassador to Estonia and a former consul-general in Milan, asked me to address the British Italian Society, of which he is chairman, about my new book, Dante in Love. It was a welcome task, for I feel a bit like a missionary where Dante is concerned and will happily stand on street corners trying to preach for a conversion. Dante is definitely my desert island poet.
What other poet combines such cruel satire and such delicacy? Such flights of erotic mysticism and such political obsession? Such photographic skill in snapshotting heroes and villains alike? Such a warm appreciation of the opposite sex, whether as lovers or as old ladies or as lovingly remembered childhood friends – which is what Beatrice was to him (among other things)?
My talk was held in the University Women’s Club in South Audley Street – which Dorothy L Sayers made into the town house of Lord Peter Wimsey. One is always conscious of her blimpish shade in that place. I owe a lot to the admirable notes to her translation of Dante’s The Divine Comedy, published by Penguin. I wish I also admired her translation, which she bravely attempted in terza rima (the verse form invented by Dante), but I can’t. It makes me cringe. But there are many other wonderful translations – buy the new Everyman version by Allen Mandelbaum and you get Botticelli’s illustrations thrown in. JG Nichols has done superb translations of Inferno and Purgatory (Oneworld Classics) with parallel texts. While Nichols is at work on Heaven, if you can’t wait to know how the Comedy ends, then Robin Kirkpatrick’s parallel text edition in Penguin makes a good replacement for poor old Dorothy L. But Sayers is worth owning for the notes.
You might wonder at my recommending translations of Dante. Why not, you might think, read him in Italian? Fine, if that is a language you know. I wonder, though, how many native English speakers (in the UK – the US is different) that includes? When I wrote the first draft of my book I left all the quotations in the original and supplied a translation. It soon became apparent that this would be off-putting for a British audience, and so with some reluctance I have written a book about Dante containing very few phrases in Italian, and that – when he is quoted – makes use of modern translations. Without that, I should have limited my audience to the already-converted. What I want is a Dante revival: a prime minister, like Gladstone who devotes every waking hour (when not rescuing prostitutes or cutting down trees) to studying Dante (come on Ed Miliband, let’s be having you); and a church that has absorbed a fragment of his wisdom.
Dr William Temple (a former Archbishop of Canterbury) once said, “I believe in the holy Catholic Church and sincerely regret that it does not at present exist.” That was Dante’s position, which is one reason (apart from admiration and friendship) I have dedicated my book to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and his wife Jane. I fear our friends who have recently left Williams’s Church of England and have become Roman Catholic priests within its newly-formed “Ordinariate” think that there is a One True Church on earth and that they are joining it. No letters, please, but they are in for such a disappointment.
But, back to the decline of Italian. My daughter is at secondary school and deciding on languages to study next year. She could do Greek, Russian, Mandarin, German – but not the language of Dante Alighieri.
Vanessa Hall-Smith is the statuesque former director of the British Institute in Florence, where I studied Italian. She kindly attended my talk the other day and told me that fewer and fewer students at the British Institute now study the language. Italian history, art and culture remain as appetising as ever but the days when well-brought up young people all read Ariosto are long past. If Italian is not taught in schools, this is hardly surprising. I know that it is important that our pushier offspring should be able, in Mandarin and Spanish, to speak the language of international commerce. But it is equally important for them to be cultivated and how can one be a European and not want to read Dante, Boccaccio, Petrarch, Tasso, or – come to that – Lampedusa and Primo Levi in their original tongue?
Lord Onslow who has lately died, aged 73 (the ideal age to die, I’d say), was a merry unpompous man. Among his enthusiasms was four-in-hand carriage driving, a toffish sport that led to friendship with the Duke of Edinburgh and an invitation to stay at Sandringham. Onslow and his wife packed their cases with care and, out of nervousness, arrived at the celebrated Norfolk house far too early. He staggered inside, put down the baggage and stared about him. Dark panelling was hung with one of the most extraordinary displays of art he had ever seen. Alongside priceless Old Masters were pastel drawings of corgis and horses, of a quality that might not have passed muster if dangled from a railing in the Bayswater Road.
The peer was on the verge of calling out some humorous observation, when an unmistakeable voice emerged from the shadows. “You must be Lord Onslow”. It was our monarch, whom he had not immediately spotted, seated at a table which was covered with an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.
The nail-biting story of the threat to the future of the marvellous Wedgwood Museum in Barlaston (which I last wrote about in February) continues, and, like Miss Flite in Bleak House, we await a judgment shortly.
The case is about whether or not the museum’s collection can be counted as an asset that could be used to compensate pensioners of the former Wedgwood-Waterford conglomerate. The sad tale began when the company went into receivership in 2009 – at that time about 7,000 pensioners were owed more than £130m.
Thanks to the soaring of the stock market since then, this sum has now shrunk to something in the region of £30m. Perhaps if the learned judge spends long enough making up his mind, the Wedgwood pension fund might actually be found to be in surplus and the nightmare would go away.
No one wants a single pensioner to be out of pocket. Equally, no one wants the break-up and sale of this unique collection, which is not just an assemblage of beautiful ceramics but also an archive of the first Josiah – a weird genius, a chemist, an artist, a geologist, a tradesman sans pareil, and one of those rare beings who changed the world for the better.
Before Wedgwood, we British were all eating our dinner off crude salt-glazed plates or off pewter. His combination of populism and uncompromising excellence is what we all yearn for in the British industrialists of the present but I am afraid we shall yearn in vain.
‘Dante in Love’ by AN Wilson is published next month by Atlantic Books, £25