The unspeakable in pursuit of the sentimental

On Hunting by Roger Scruton Yellow Jersey Press pounds 10
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As everyone knows, confessions of sports fanatics have become one of the publishing phenomena of the '90s. After Fever Pitch came everyone else. Roger Scruton's new book is the latest addition to the bunch.

To any one who knows anything about Scruton, this will, I realise, seem unlikely. The philosopher-pundit is generally known for his tweed jackets, red hair and stern, right-wing views; you'll have read him in the papers or heard him on the radio speaking out against pop music, modernity, equality and the phoney compassion of the liberal ruling class. Yet like Nick Hornby, he has written a book about his relation to a sport that is at once self- mocking and ardent, knowing and sincere - and one which uses the subject as metaphor for something larger.

The only difference is that where Hornby's story is about his troubled, unwilling, frustrating infatuation for his chosen game, Scruton is an unapologetic fan: "My life divides into three parts. In the first I was wretched; in the second ill at ease; in the third hunting."

Well, not quite the only difference. Scruton's book is full of views that Hornby's right-thinking admirers are likely to find ridiculous at best, offensive at worst. However, despite its moments of high absurdity, I quite liked this casual little study on "the mysteries of the hunting life". Scruton is a fluent, lively writer and flits confidently from the picaresque to elegy, from polemic to satire. The anti-hunting movement, our sentimentality towards pets, the suburbanisation of the English countryside, come in for some easy but finely struck blows.

Scruton's discovery of hunting came relatively late in life. The son of a contrary left-wing school teacher - contrariness is evidently a family trait - he studied philosophy at Cambridge and taught it at London. Despite the success that the 1980s brought him, he claims here to have been unhappy - an ordinary urban intellectual, alone with his books and neuroses. Then, a decade or so ago, he began to discover the healing powers of the Vale of White Horse and the Beaufort Hunts.

The journey, intellectual and moral, that this involved, began with long weekends at the Cotswolds home of an aristocratic friend - weekends which elicit a characteristically purple apostrophe to old country houses, their attics full of inherited things - where Scruton sought to assuage his "modernist solitude" by plodding down rural lanes on Dumbo, a Neolithic mongrel pony. Swept up in a hunt one day, he is converted to the sport, buys a cottage and a horse of his own and, suitably attired in Enoch Powell's old hunting jacket, sets out on the chase. His enthusiasm is such that when he takes up a professorship in Boston, he flies back to Wiltshire to hunt every weekend. The "wimpish amateur on a pony" becomes a fully paid-up huntsman - the metamorphosis from Sancho Panza to Don Quixote is complete.

As Scruton admits, riding to hounds is a relatively recent invention, dating back to the 17th century. Nevertheless, the pleasures it offers are, he contends, essentially "pre-modern". At the heart of the book is an attempt to evoke them. We get rhapsodic descriptions of the country - a tapestry of copse, hedgerow, field and farmhouse, woven over many centuries of human endeavour - of the hunting fraternity - "a melting-pot of country society" - and of the chase - "an ancient synthesis of house, hound and human". In hunting, or so Scruton contends, one experiences the countryside not as a piece of heritage, but as a living, breathing thing. In this way, the chase takes the hunter into English history itself, but also beyond, to something even Higher - "the community which is nowhere and everywhere, the eternally recurring glimpse of our transcen- dental home".

This is all, to put it mildly, pretty fanciful, yet despite the snobbery, the nostalgia and the large doses of make-believe, there is a lot to admire in Scruton's book. He argues persuasively against those who claim that hunters derive pleasure from the suffering of the fox - anyway, compared to the suffering caused by factory farming and the abuse of pets, the fox's ordeal pales into insignificance. More than this, he succeeds at the difficult task of conveying why hunting means so much to those who do it - he writes imaginatively of the bonds between hunters and their animals, the role hunts play in sustaining rural communities and preserving some diversity in national life. At 150 small pages the book is short, too - you can slip it into a Barbour with room to spare.

It's just a pity that instead of ending the book with another attack on Brussels, whose values and practices he claims represent the antithesis to those of the Beaufort hunt, Scruton did not ask himself some awkward questions about the role that his own market ideology has played in undermining his beloved English country life. It was not Brussels that encouraged the spread of out-of-town shopping centres, eased planning restrictions on green-belt sites and subsidised "the great car economy" in the 1980s, but another power, a little closer to home.