Books: 20th-century fox-hunter

Richard D North hails a classic from a lonely modern mind
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On Hunting

by Roger Scruton

Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 10, 231pp

THIS IS a lovely book. Roger Scruton, philosopher and one-man awkward squad for the Right, says it is not a defence of hunting. Although actually it is that, it is also the memoir of how someone became a fox- hunting man. Along the way, it is also the story of how a very odd person (that is to say, an interesting one) fell to earth.

Its loveliness was a surprise, since Scruton seemed more likely to produce a rather stiff-necked elegance. The writing on the English countryside is poetic but muscular in rather the way that Richard Mabey's can be at its best. Its descriptions of hunting, and especially the way the chase reanimated the rural scene, in which his "valley no longer slept in the dream of Heritage", seems true both to this most barbarous and civilising sport, and to the tranquil but dramatic scenery in which it takes place. The vigour of the writing reminded me of the photography in Robert Redford's The Horse Whisperer, but then so did the core argument: that being around horses is redemptive.

There is a big idea in this slim book: that the past is more noble than the present and that in hunting, a person may relearn the ancient dignity of immersion in the uninhibited species-life of horse and hound, and even of fox. Initiation rites, hospitality, leadership: this is the tribe before it is weakened into foppish society.

But this is not by any means a conventionally right-wing book. Roger Scruton is moving in his description of his left-wing, romantic socialist father, who seems to have implanted the art of fulmination in the youngster. But it is Scruton's loneliness which we feel as tangibly. The philosopher describes this as a sort of modernist isolation, the curse of a post-tribal age. Whatever its cause, it gave Scruton a longing for community and cause. The dissidents of eastern Europe became his cause, but it was in hunting that he was reconnected to the soil and personality of the real England.

Here was something quintessentially about belonging, and which was worth belonging to. God knows what his new companions made of this newcomer. They would have understood his seriousness of purpose, though: Scruton would commute from the US for a Saturday in the field.

In Scruton's book, England has gone down the pan: bland, suburbanite, politically correct. Hunting is where all this is subverted, and glory reinstated. For a philosopher, he seems delightfully inconsistent. But he is too honest to care, and may be too fired up to notice, like one of his beloved horses flying over horrendous hedges.

A good example: in a fine long passage, he describes how rural values are now best preserved not by the country-house set (he is positively Jacobin about the nobs) but by the scruffy stretches of England where the modern (and especially the motorway) has cast a blight but also created opportunities for a sort of dissidence. Thus, motorway bridges - the rural equivalent of an urban railway with its arches and lock-ups - provide the pastures on which people can get started in horse-culture.

Out of one such place, like a fugitive from a Theodore Dalrymple column in The Spectator, came a feral groom, a girl with a puking boy, and a horse. She brought ne'er-do-well young men and a love of garage and techno music. But hold on - haven't we just been reading pages about how modern rock music is a sign of the death of community in the young?

Hunting is very importantly about extreme danger, and Scruton is both modest and revealing about this. He is also excellent on falling in love; on the ferocity of women; on the validity of the anti-hunting case; on Virginia Woolf, and a dozen other themes. A classic.