A stillness settled on the crowd. Gusts of wind shook raindrops from trees nearby and tugged at red poppies, loosely tucked into button holes. All eyes turned to the headmaster, standing on the other side of the tall stone cross from her, about to begin……
This week I visited two schools to talk about Ante’s Inferno. I always love doing this – the chance to communicate to young people my enthusiasm for Dante and the classical Underworld he drew on when constructing his idea of Hell is a great privilege. The students I talk to usually know very little, if anything, about Dante, but as soon as they recognise some element of Greek myth – Cerberus, the Minotaur, the Styx – they’re fascinated.
But this week, my author visits took on an extra significance: in the run up to Remembrance Day, and the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War, the plot of Ante’s Inferno is particularly poignant. World War One is a strong theme in the book: it opens with Ante waiting nervously to play the Last Post at her school’s Remembrance Ceremony, and the whole action of the story takes place on Armistice Day. And while the upper circles of Hell lend themselves to some comic moments (allowing me to invent suitable up-to-date punishments for the Seven Deadly Sins, for instance), I didn’t need to look far for inspiration for the utter misery, desolation and bleakness of the lowest part of Hell.
I had great fun visiting, first, Years 8 and 9 at Rye St Antony, then years 7 and 8 at Wychwood School. In both schools the girls listened well, asked questions and enjoyed the selection I showed them of wonderful illustrations of Dante by artists such as Botticelli and Blake. There was some chatter and even the odd giggle at one or two of the wilder suggestions of what Hell might be like.
But all laughter went when we got to the grainy, black and white photographs of seas of mud pock-marked with craters, soldiers carrying comrades along duckboard tracks, black stumps of trees standing out against grey wasteland. Instead, the girls sat utterly still, taking in the awful simplicity of Siegfried Sassoon’s
I died in hell— (They called it Passchendaele).