Still green and still pleasant

<i>England: an elegy</i> by Roger Scruton (Chatto &amp; Windus, &pound;16.99, 270pp)
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The Independent Culture

This is an elegant and moving book. It will be read by those whose affection for Roger Scruton's England has survived the disparaging assaults of the last few decades. It deserves to be read by those who have often led the half-baked attack on this particular view of England. Scruton's England, apart from its final over-compressed, over-simplified chapter, is a classic elegy: biased, selective and resonant, done with that passionate regret which can seed re-emergence.

This is an elegant and moving book. It will be read by those whose affection for Roger Scruton's England has survived the disparaging assaults of the last few decades. It deserves to be read by those who have often led the half-baked attack on this particular view of England. Scruton's England, apart from its final over-compressed, over-simplified chapter, is a classic elegy: biased, selective and resonant, done with that passionate regret which can seed re-emergence.

It has to be said at the outset that it is not the whole of England, not everybody's England, and not the only England. It leaves out an enormous amount of the brutality, the savagery, the inequality, the injustice, the darkness of the place - but that has been well-emphasised recently, often in a needlessly self-flagellating manner. Scruton's England did exist and does exist, partial though his view of it is.

Scruton draws on its history; he knows his law, his church, his countryside and culture and society. While making it clear that his knowledge is that of the essayist, the amateur in the finest English tradition of that word, his range gives authority to his mourning. The England he loves and in his youth saw plain has now, he argues, all but vanished.

Yet the vanishing or, as he writes, "the forbidding" of England is the slightest, least part of this book. I wish he had left it out or written it as a companion volume. The book's great virtue, until that sting in the tale, is its coherent and tender view of an indisputable and admirable strain of Englishness now undoubtedly at bay.

England: an elegy is primarily a celebration of what Scruton sees as finest in our past. In that sense, it is a refreshing read. His ability to understand and express the English "enchantment" (his word) with place, with clubs, with the common law, his unashamed pride in that force within the English which even domesticated God, provides a view easy to oppose but impossible, I think, to deny. If he has a text - and he is happy to embrace the text of a multitude of other writers - it can be found in the words of Santayana: "Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master."

Scruton pulls in evidence for this from many sources, not least his own experience. There is a memorable vignette of Mr Chapman, physics teacher at Scruton's High Wycombe Grammar School. Chapman - Charterhouse his place of enchantment - had gone to Africa in the colonial service. Harsh selfless toil; reticence; the habits of a bachelor, almost a monk (though later we learn of a marriage sacrificed, probably, on the altar of service); a Christian, and a fine teacher, he took years to admit his first name to the boy Scruton, whom he taught so widely and well. It is The Browning Version, crossed with Goodbye Mr Chips, and a schoolmaster that many of my generation clearly recognise.

Then there is Kathy Wilkes, fearless for intellectual freedom in Czechoslovakia, where Scruton himself helped the cause of intellectual liberty, and equally fearless in Croatia. As upper-class as Chapman was middle-class, she joins him in a deep idea of service, unboastful charity, and reserve. But, in a sense, Scruton's sadness about the fall of the England he loves is questioned by the examples he brings to bear; not least his own upward journey.

He is excellent at bringing common sense to bear on the distressing frenzy which has overtaken those whose views of England can only be doom-struck and void of all praise. And he is not altogether blind to the walks on the dark side that this country has taken: its Satanic Mills; its imperial overkill.

But, surely, he is right to challenge Corelli Barnett and other critics of the English past on the comparative nature of their arguments. "Set beside which elite did the English elite fail so badly?" Scruton writes; "In which country of the modern world do we find the educational system which compares so favourably with the English College? Which European nations, unhampered by the code of the gentleman, have shown us the way to successful empire-building and retreated with credit from their colonies?" Later, he writes: "Just which European country entered the modern world with less bloodshed, less turmoil, less cruelty, less injustice than England?" These questions deserved to be asked, and need to be answered.

Part of the attraction of this book for me was the pageant of recognitions. Yes, here are the phrases which have lined my mind from Cranmer, from the King James bible, from Hymns Ancient and Modern. Yes, that is the countryside I saw and read about and in which I found the enchantment that he did. Yes, that is the common law I was taught to be so proud of, the eccentricity of coinage I regretted losing, the traditions I was educated to respect, even revere, in my grammar school, modelled like Scruton's (though less grandly) on the public schools. The churches I knew were the centre of English religious, cultural and social life. His story must have echoes for many of the first generation of Butler Boys.

Yet one must reiterate that it is a biased and partial story. Scruton knows this. There are flashes of too-easy despair in that thoughtful but inadequate last chapter. All football supporters are not hooligans. Cricket is still played on village greens. Brass bands have survived the latest laying-waste in the North. Clubs proliferate. The whipped-up mouthy frenzy of some young self-publicists can still be seen as ripples on a continuing calm reservoir of reserve.

The English are certainly taking their time to stand up and be counted. Perhaps that is no bad thing. While the Scots and Welsh, and even the Irish, abuse the English in ways that if returned would be called racist; while there are those who understandably point out the damage, internal and external, done by the English (not least to their own, and not least when in the imperial years they teamed up with equally enthusiastic imperial Scots, Welsh, Irish, Indians etc, etc); and while we do have a real identity attack on our hands, there is no sign that it is making us buckle or surrender.

Scruton is wrong to despair (to use one example) as he does of the BBC. Radio 3 has soared in the last three or four years. Radio 4 is what a less relentlessly gloomy commentator would call a bastion of old English values. The House of Lords is less corrupt than it was 100 years ago and arguably more independent.

All is not lost. And change - which is abhorred here - has often been for the better, especially over the last century. It has brought a much, much better life for the majority of the English, who now also have a voice to speak for England. They will and do colour, alter and enrich that older Scruton voice, but cannot drown it out. Nor, I would speculate, would they want to.

Melvyn Bragg's novel 'The Soldier's Return' won this year's W H Smith Literary Award

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