Interview: Roger Scruton. Philosopher, musician, author, scourge of the left. So where does he keep his copy of `Hollywood Wives'?

The Deborah Ross Interview

Deborah Ross
Sunday 23 October 2011 02:01

I AM, I must say, much looking forward to meeting Roger Scruton, Britain's most famous philosopher and, by all accounts, a most serious thinker. Obviously, it is going to be a great meeting of minds. I am, yes, quite a serious thinker myself, and often have thoughts along the lines of: "I drink therefore I am. Until I fall over. In which case, I become a terrible nuisance that people have to step over to get their coats." He says, later, that he is fond enough of drink, especially good wine, "but I never do fall over. I am just not the type."

I don't think Roger Scruton is entirely without a sense of humour. It's just that it's such a dry, squeezed-out thing, you have to work ferociously hard for even the smallest droplet. It's totally exhausting, and may or may not be worth it. It's one of those things you're just never too sure about.

Roger - who is also barrister, novelist, opera composer, journalist, former professor of aesthetics at Birkbeck, church organist, regular on Radio 4's The Moral Maze, and author of more than 20 academic books - lives, these days, in Wiltshire, in a rather lovely 250-year-old farmhouse surrounded by 35 acres of land. Here he keeps an orchard, ducks, and his five, magnificent hunting horses. He took up fox-hunting in a big way 10 years ago, and is absolutely passionate about it and what it has brought him. He even met his wife of two years, Sophie Jeffreys, on a hunt. Sophie is a pretty blonde in her early twenties (he's 54) who, two weeks ago, gave birth to their son, Sam. He is enjoying marriage very much, yes. "To live with someone who likes you, and whose judgement you respect, because you love them, does make quite a difference, I find."

Pre-hunting and Sophie, Roger was possibly quite a lonely old stick. He is fiercely right-wing. He doesn't believe in human equality. He is pro-hanging. He is pro-House of Lords. ("What is wrong with hereditary privilege anyway? We all inherit some things. I inherited my brain from my mother and father...") He is anti-gay. He is perplexed by feminism "Although I can see there is no going back to the old division of labour... It was noble, actually.") Such views never made him especially popular in liberal, academic circles. "I have been tremendously attacked and sneered at over the years..." So, yes, it's nice to have Sophie by his side. Sophie, by the way, is half-sister to the Conservative peer, Peter Jeffreys, and a descendant of Judge Jeffreys, who was very keen on capital punishment. I mention this not in a gossipy way, but because she is just the sort you would expect Roger to marry. He may be a serious thinker but he is also, I think, seriously stuck on toffs. And this, perhaps, explains as much as anything.

When I arrive, he's out in the paddock in his green wellingtons, tending his horses. He has quite red hair, and a gingery, boyish face. He looks rather like a spare, rural version of Jim Davidson, without any of his silly facial expressions. Although, that said, he doesn't have any replacement expressions of his own. It's as if the muscles of his face just do not work. It's quite spooky. Does anything make him laugh, I wonder? "I would like to say politicians do, but I find them too depressing. Fashion makes me laugh. And the inanity of it." I say I've never got into fashion myself. He says, "I can see that!" with what may be a droplet of irony, but then again may not be. It is quite hard to tell.

We go into the house, into his study. A copy of The Cambridge History of English Literature: (1) To the Cycles of Romance lies half-open by his chair. His bookshelves are heaving with heavy-going titles like Symbolic Architecture, and a volume of Plotinus, and Jackie Collins's Hollywood Wives (only teasing). There are lots of dark paintings depicting hunting scenes. It seems, overall, a heavy, melancholic place.

Certainly, Roger is wonderfully unfrivolous. He doesn't have a telly ("So boring"). He disdains pop music ("What passes for life in this music is not life at all, but a repetitious discharge, a monotonous spasm like the jerk of a frog's leg wired to the mains"). He abhors shopping. If he must have new clothes, then "Sophie takes me a place and just bundles me though the door." How do you ever escape from your own thoughts, Roger, if you do? "Hunting is very good for that. And cooking. I do most of the cooking, although Sophie is good at kedgeree. I'm planning to write a philosophical cookbook, which will take in the nature of food and our relationship to it. On the whole, I rather disapprove of cookbooks, except for the literary ones, like Elizabeth David's." You are not a Delia fan, then? "Delia Smith is, actually, my bete noire. I consider her a most pernicious influence. She gives the impression cooking is all about measuring, whereas it isn't. It's about smell, texture, improvisation..." She's very popular, though, Roger. How do you account for that? "Well, obviously, people are becoming increasingly moronic." I don't think Roger Scruton has ever queued all night to see Cats.

Anyway, why am I here? Today, I mean, rather than in the metaphysical sense, which would take us into a terrible hall of mirrors and keep us going for ever. I have come, ostensibly, to discuss his latest two publications - On Hunting (Yellow Jersey Press, pounds 10) and The Intelligent Person's Guide to Modern Culture (Duckworth, pounds 14.95). The first, I must say, is mostly a joy. Although utterly provoking at times (for example, he rues the day Thatcher quit Downing Street, and considers ours a society of "wimps and scroungers"), and rather embarrassingly rhapsodic on occasion (the skin on a horse's neck is "like a silken tunic on the thigh of Juno") it is, on the whole, a beautifully written little memoir about why he became a fox-hunting man. The other is harder going, with a preface that lays down strict criteria for readers: "You don't have to be familiar with the entire canon of Western literature and the full range of artistic masterpieces," he writes, "but I shall assume some familiarity with Baudelaire, TS Eliot, Mozart, Wagner, Manet, Poussin, Tennyson, Schoenberg, George Herbert, Goethe, Marx, Nietzsche, Derrida, Richard & Judy, Bobby Davro, Postman Pat and Boyzone (only teasing, with the last four). Still, both books seem to carry the same message. That is, that the past is a noble and glorious thing, but the present is total trash.

In hunting, for example, a person may relearn the ancient dignity of old England before it was "scattered to dust". Contemporary art is all rubbish because our culture, once such a fine thing inspired by religious belief, no longer exists. And once religion goes, genuine art goes. From this, all else follows - the glory of Bach, the vapidity of the Spice Girls, the brilliance of Michelangelo, the fatuity of sheep in formaldehyde... But hang on, I cry. These are grossly unfair comparisons. You can't compare what has endured with stuff time hasn't had a chance to sift yet! OK, Damien Hirst's works may not endure, but what about Pinter? David Hockney? Harrison Birtwistle? Seamus Heaney? "Hmm, I can see what you mean. Perhaps I did neglect that point rather." Sometimes, I think, he has to loop his own arguments around his snobbery, to make them fit. Do you like anything in the modern world, Roger? "Well, I suppose the ballets are rather better. There does seem to be less of that soppy Swan Lake stuff." I wonder, how did this lower-middle-class boy get so stuck on the aristocracy? Although, that said, I don't think you have to look that far. Roger's extremism, possibly, is a reaction to that of his father.

His father, Jack Scruton, came from the Manchester slums where his mother worked in the mills and his father, being a drunkard, proved to be both unemployed and unemployable. Jack was bright, and yearned to stay on at school, but his father made him leave at the earliest age (14) for a job collecting horse manure in the streets. He was saved by the outbreak of war, and the RAF, after which he went to teacher-training college and became both schoolmaster and passionate socialist. For Jack Scruton, the class war was the dominant face of English life, and his hatred of the upper classes was deep. He would not, even, allow his children to read Beatrix Potter or Enid Blighter (as he called her) because, he claimed, "they polluted the image of the countryside with cosy bourgeois sentiment and turned our wild Saxon inheritance into a suburban fairy tale". He permitted only the Penguin translation of the Odyssey. Roger felt rather deprived, yes, and still does. "I still can't pick up references to, say, the Famous Five." But he's trying to catch up. "I am currently reading Peter Rabbit. Although in Latin."

I ask him what he'll do if, in a couple of years' time, Sam demands a Tinky Winky. "Well, I shall deny it to him." By doing that, won't you be simply doing as your own father did? "Yes. Of course. But I do think parents should deny things to their children. Children who always get what they want are always so obnoxious." A pause. Then: "Perhaps Sam will just become a cruel experiment in parenting."

His mother, Beryl, who had met Jack during the war, had upwardly mobile pretensions, yet made compromises for Jack's sake. Lunch was "dinner", supper was "tea". She abstained in his presence from coffee and served tea "which was strong, dark and forbidding". Yet, the moment Jack was out, she drank coffee from china cups, read romantic fiction, listened to cheap music on the radio and "entertained blue-rinsed ladies with whom she gossiped about the glamorous people they read about in wicked magazines". I think, generally, the household found socialism a rather oppressive thing.

The division between Roger and his father became absolute when he passed the 11-plus and entered High Wycombe Royal Grammar School, a place that had public-school pretensions - housemasters, boarders, cadets, rugby, fives, a posh uniform. As Roger writes in On Hunting: "Jack watched with impotent rage. I did my best to please him. I skived off sport, discovered convenient pacifist convictions which enabled me to opt out of the cadets, and was generally as unhappy as he could reasonably have hoped, but he observed the spiritual transformation that comes about when a young person is put into proximity with the aristocratic ideal."

What, I ask, is that spiritual transformation? "The knowledge that you can aspire to be something better,"' Roger replies. Possibly, he has always considered himself rather better than others. Perhaps all he needed now was an ideology to go with it.

He went on to Cambridge, where he got a double first in natural sciences, then found himself in France during the student revolution. This, in terms of coming out as a Tory, clinched it for him. "I found myself on the opposite side to the students. I thought, why don't they try to find what is lovable and conserve it, rather than what is hateful and destroy it?" He became violently anti-communist and, in 1979, was invited to address an underground seminar in Prague. He subsequently learnt Czech and helped set up a resistance movement, before eventually being arrested and expelled. On his return to England, he set up The Salisbury Review, a right-wing magazine which, most notably, published "Education and Race", an article by a Bradford schoolteacher, Ray Honeyford, which advocated that immigrants should be taught without respect for cultural difference.

Honeyford is quite a hero to him, as is Enoch Powell who, as it happens, sold Roger his first lot of hunting-gear. "I happened to be sitting next to him at a dinner when he said he was giving it up. I was a bit poor at the time so I offered to buy his second-hand clothes. I've still got his jacket, but it never was quite big enough for me. It split down the seams." Powell's "Rivers of Blood" speech was, he insists, widely misinterpreted because "he assumed everyone would get the references to Virgil". Funny you should mention Virgil, I say. I mean, he didn't amount to much after Thunderbirds, did he? Roger would look perplexed, if he could, but as he can't, he just goes all stony. Only teasing, I cry hastily. He continues with: "What he was referring to was the end of the Roman Empire, the end of the Iliad. He was saying things come to an end if we don't retain our identity..."

Anyway, it's time to go. "Is that your taxi I hear?" asks Roger. "Yes, it definitely is." On my way out, I'm briefly introduced to Sophie, who is worried about a wedding at the weekend. She says nothing fits her. I say, if you want my post-pregnancy advice, you'll do your pelvic floor exercises if, from now on, you don't want to wet yourself every time you sneeze. And I'M NOT TEASING! "Good God!" gasps Roger. "Is that right?"

A great meeting of minds, as I predicted. And I may even have taught him a thing or two.

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