Gentle Regrets: thoughts from a life

Roger Scruton <em>Continuum, 256pp, £16.99</em>

ISBN 08264

Imagine for a moment that you had never heard of Roger Scruton and knew nothing of his reputation. Chancing upon Gentle Regrets, you might wonder why the urbane author of this intellectual autobiography should have become such an object of fear and loathing among members of the British liberal establishment. (You do not need to take his word for this: I vividly recall Isaiah Berlin denouncing Scruton in terms he usually reserved for fascists.)

Why is the book, like the life that it evokes, pervaded by a sense of barely suppressed wrath? Why did this precocious youth, in so many ways typical of the 1960s generation, turn against the spirit of his times with such ferocity? And how, despite swimming against the prevailing tide ever since, did Roger Scruton come to be not merely a cantankerous right-winger but, as W H Auden wrote of Freud, "a whole climate of opinion"?

The glimpses Scruton gives us of his childhood provide a clue. The chapter entitled "Growing Up With Sam" - ostensibly about his dog, his horse and his son, who were all named Sam - describes a family so unhappy that it would have been surprising if he had not rebelled against everything his overbearing, lugubrious father stood for, including the socialism that meant so much to him.

Yet Scruton is too honest a writer to deny his own emotional contradictions. Another chapter, "Going Home", apparently a polemic against architectural modernism, is in reality a memorial of his love for that same tyrannical father. Scruton Senior spent his declining years fighting a campaign against the redevelopment of High Wycombe, earning the admiration of the son by now estranged from him.

Just as Scruton has a love-hate relationship with his father, so it is with the political and cultural forms that his rebellion took. Many of his passions were shared by friends and heroes of the left, and some of the things he has hated most - the impersonal forces that have resulted in the destruction of the England he loves - have less to do with the high-minded Labour Party of his youth than with the mercenary Conservative Party of his maturity.

In a series of brilliant vignettes, Scruton describes how a librarian and a maiden aunt taught him to love books and music, how he learned to distinguish art from kitsch by reading Oswald Spengler, and how he became a Conservative after reading Burke. Yet this is more than the record of a sentimental education: it is a despatch from the front line of a culture war that Scruton has been fighting since the day he stood up to a bully called Herman in the playground. That episode, incidentally, is recounted in order to explain, only partly tongue-in-cheek, how he resolved the schizoid conflict within his own person-ality, between the sensitive "Vernon" (as his mother wanted him to be known) and the rascally but jolly "Roger".

This book is not an apologia, but it is a reminder - lest those who curse his name forget - that Scruton did as much to bring down communism in eastern Europe as any of our politicians, diplomats and spies. In his portrait of dissident Prague and a tribute to a Polish admirer, Basia, the reader senses that Scruton's spiritual home was - still is - the "sleeping cities" of Mitteleuropa, rather than Middle England.

The ideas against which Scruton fought are still potent. "Drinks in Helsinki", the diary he kept of a dreary academic visit in 1987, is both one of the funniest and most sinister pieces in the book. It is a portrait of "Finlandisation", though neither he nor anyone else can define what it was. However, Scruton seems to suggest that the Finns' fate, to be neither truly independent nor yet an occupied country, is the fate that awaits us. But if so, under whose thumb shall we be?

The most moving sections of the book describe "Stealing from Churches" and "Regaining my Religion". Before God, even Roger Scruton must bow the knee. Yet it was not always so. His search for truth takes him from Nonconformist roots, through aestheticism and marriage to a French Catholic, to a reconciliation with the Church of England. His account of this pilgrimage has something of John Bunyan's narrative power (The Pilgrim's Progress was the first book to make a deep impression on him as a boy). And it is only to be expected that his religion is saturated in politics.

However much you might despise the causes he has adopted, Scruton has a magnanimity that rises above the deep anger he feels as a prophet without honour in his own land. I expect, come Judgement Day, to see him wrestling with whichever angel has the misfortune to welcome him into the divine seminar.

This article first appeared in the 22 August 2005 issue of the New Statesman, Have you heard the one about. . .