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October 11, 2004

Top Tips for Good Parenting: News from Somewhere - Roger Scruton

Posted by Harry Phibbs

News from Somewhere
by Roger Scruton
Pp. 177. London: Continuum, 2004
Hardback, 16.99

Roger Scruton was once dubbed the "unthinking man's thinking man". A Tory philosopher whose provocative right-wing views means he is never far from controversy, for many years he edited The Salisbury Review, a quarterly journal described as embodying "reactionary chic". But he has won grudging respect from many on the Left for the beauty of his prose and the intellectual rigour of his arguments. The New Statesman have even made him their wine columnist.

Scruton may enjoy shocking people and he certainly has a sort of lugubrious sense of humour but he also means what he says. He does not just voice reactionary opinions but struggles to live a reactionary lifestyle. Not only does he fulminate about how television viewing is bad for children's mental development - he banishes the television from his home. Not only does he defend the right to go hunting as a traditional country pursuit - he starts hunting himself. Not only does he lament the noise and ugliness of modern architecture in London - he moves to launch a new life as a farmer even though so many other farmers are abandoning the land. This remarkable book is his account of life in the countryside but it darts off at all sorts of tangents. There is his poignant wish to be accepted as a new arrival, but it hasn't always been easy. It helps that he plays the organ:

Our nearest church was without a regular organist until I volunteered for the position and no sooner had I done so than requests came from other places of worship in the neighbourhood, many of which had been without music for a decade of more. I was relieved to discover that the little organ in All Saints, Garsdon, has one keyboard, no pedal and only three stops. An electric bellows fills it with air, and the mellow old pipes sing with almost human music. Sometimes there is a power cut, and George, the most robust member of the congregation, goes behind the instrument to pump away at the hand-bellows that are attached to it. And this tumultuous exercise, which I channel with my fingers into thin sweet pipes of sound, emerges from the organ dissolved in music, as the soul of the believer is dissolved in God.

Then the book becomes a love story. Where is Scruton to find his wife?

Ten years ago when I first subscribed to Farmers' Weekly, I would peruse the lonely hearts column with wonder and amusement, since the only thing afforded there as marriage and the only vital statistics mentioned as an inducement concerned the number of acres, the nature and size of the herd, the qualities of the soil, the yield of the crops and - just occasionally - catalogue of the available machinery. Farmers' Weekly's lonely hearts column has since shrunk to a tiny corner, offering post modern relationships and eager ladies from Thailand.
But luckily out hunting he meets his future wife Sophie:
presented by the hunting uniform like a painted angel in a frame.
Children follow and Scruton's tome turns into Top Tips for Good Parenting. Banning the TV is not enough it seems. He offers an urgent plea for people to stop sending toys to his children:
Decked out in malign primary colours, with humanoid faces and moronic jingles, the plastic monsters slip past our vigilance by whatever route they can, in the bags of visitors, in the post, or down the chimney at Christmas. Battery-driven buses which sing out the alphabet in mocking tones; diggers, dumper trucks and tractors, all designed to cause maximum damage to the foot that steps on them; maddening plastic balls that play Auld Lang Syne or Eine kleine Nachtmusik until you throw them across the room, only to hear them break in Waltzing Matilda as they hit the wall. Like a hydra-headed monster for every toy that is culled, a hundred new ones spring up in place of it. By my calculations every western child must have received by the age of reason (supposing he ever reaches it), 50 times his own weight of non-biodegradable, aesthetically poisonous and morally corrupting rubbish - all delivered with the best of intentions.
Other parents just send a thank you letter.

Often his skirmishes into side issues are bizarre but are also so erudite and fascinating that surely most readers will happily forgive them. Here is Scruton calling on Turkey to legalise fez wearing as part of his campaign to promote hats:

From the sombrero to the city bowler, from the stovepipe to the tarboosh, the hat was a form of good manners. That is why people doffed their hats. The proud sweep of the three-cornered hat, the humble clasping of the cap against the chest, the polite raising of the topper; all these were attempts to establish a relationship while confirming the social order that gave sense to it. And if the social order was disapproved of, so was the hat. Ataturk's law on hats, made immovable by the Turkish constitution, forbids the wearing of the fez, symbol and enforcer of a repudiated past. The bowler hat, once ubiquitous in London, is now unwearable in the city. Judges and lawyers are trying to escape their wigs, and mortar-boards have all but gone from our universities.
In News from Nowhere, William Morris offered his Socialist utopia of the English countryside. News from Somewhere is Scruton's Tory response but is so much more than that. Yet for all its breadth it is a slim volume - 177 pages. Quite convenient enough for us Londoners to slip into a coat pocket and read on an overcrowded tube train and so discover that there is an alternative life.

Harry Phibbs is a journalist.

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