Gentle Regrets: Thoughts from a life, by Roger Scruton

Confessions of a crusty critic
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Scruton's precocious "discovery of culture" sustained him through an arid philosophical education at Cambridge, and in Paris in May 1968 it provided him with a vocation. Disgusted with the mindless student leftism that surrounded him, he decided to create the role of a new kind of dissident: the young conservative intellectual.

The decision launched him on a varied and productive career. For many years he worked as a university philosopher, filling his CV with academic publications while studying for the Bar in his spare time. He also made a name as a journalist and broadcaster, a crusty critic of anything fashionable in architecture, music or philosophy, and a frequent guest of dissident groups in what was then Communist middle Europe. He then retired from academic life, found new fields for his talents in fiction and opera, and transformed himself into a writer and a fox-hunting gentleman farmer.

In his mid-fifties, something unprecedented happened: Scruton became a father. Sharing a life with his little boy, as he says in these loosely organised but often beguiling memoirs, has put an end to "decades of arrested development" and forced him do some belated "growing up". Intellectually, he may remain an atheist, but he finds himself deeply moved by the phenomenon of reverence - by the idea that a child's body is not just a fountain of charm, chaos, vandalism and noisome fluids, but a vessel for transcendence, vulnerable not just to physical and mental wounds but to spiritual desecration. Those who consider themselves liberated from religious yearning, he suggests, may simply have lost the concepts that would enable them to understand it, gaining in return only mental shallowness and hardness of heart.

Fatherhood also sent Scruton back to his own father. Jack Scruton was a solid Labour man, committed to the steady march of socialist reason. Towards the end of his life, he found himself locked in combat with the town-planners who were tearing the heart out of High Wycombe. When his son supported the campaign, he drew a conclusion his father could never stomach: that the very idea of progress was a scam, and socialist idealism just the mask behind which a tyrannical state conspired to deprive the English of their heritage.

The primrose path that led from optimistic Labourism to nostalgic Conservatism has seldom been so well described. But even the most sympathetic reader may find it hard to accept Scruton's suggestion that liberal socialism is "founded on anger and resentment", whereas "conservatism is founded on love: love of what has been good to you". Indeed, Scruton's own writing bears witness against his argument. His moments of benignity and self-deprecation (such as describing his inability to make the grade as a potential Conservative MP) are all but eclipsed by his aggression against those whose view of the political landscape differs from his.

Absurdly, he imagines that the "entire intellectual establishment" has made a priority of sabotaging his career, and instead of engaging with the best of those he disagrees with, he resorts to cheap and inaccurate polemics against their "satanic mendacity". He does not seem to realise that, if he finds stridency wherever he turns, its source may lie in him. For better and for worse, Scruton may still have some growing-up to do.

Jonathan Rée's 'I Hear a Voice' is published by HarperCollins

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