One has to be awed by the range of cultural references in this book of autobiographical essays. Coming from a home which was not interested in books, the young Scruton was captivated by Bunyan at the age of 13. At 15 he was into Rilke and Dante. At 16, he and a group of sixth form friends `declared war on kitsch'. By the time he was a Cambridge undergraduate, inspired by T.S.Eliot, he was into Culture in a big way: he and his friends there were `consciously aiming to better themselves', and were establishing hierarchies among works which were not kitsch: the superiority of Mozart over Vivaldi, Milton over Carew, Titian over Veronese, and - Paul McCartney over Mick Jagger. They were elitists, and as such rebels against left wing rebels who were then fashionable. And an individualistic conservative he remained for the rest of his life.
As a 24 year old he was in Paris, and witnessed the events of 1968. He was an admirer of De Gaulle because the General defined the French nation in terms of its high culture, and he detested Foucault, one the gurus of the students, for his shallow relativism and for teaching that `truth' requires inverted commas.
So he was a defiant fish out of water as a lecturer at Birkbeck College at a time when academia in Britain (unlike in the United States) considered conservatism as an aberration, and when, to find an English conservative philosopher, he had to go back to Edmund Burke. In 1978 Scruton sought a parliamentary seat; but his Burkean philosophy was so unfashionable that he was not selected, and `I ceased to be an intellectual Conservative, and became a conservative intellectual instead'. The chapter called `How I Became a Conservative' is a splendidly vigorous presentation and illustration of his beliefs.
For me the finest chapter in the book is the Burkean one on architecture, in which Scruton lambasts modern architecture for its contempt of tradition and for the people on whom it inflicts its soulless and anti-communal monstrosities. Scruton was once Professor of Aesthetics; aestheticism lies at the heart of his conservatism and nowhere does it find more eloquent expression than in this chapter. His hatred of what modern architects have perpetrated was shared by his father, an activist in this respect and whom elsewhere in the book he frequently describes as a foul-tempered tyrant, but who here is given generous filial praise.
Conservatives are sceptical of schemes to make the world a better place; and in religion, too, Scruton is attracted by people who believe that `the duty of a Christian is not to leave this world a better place. His duty is to leave this world a better man.' In one chapter he describes two such Christians - both Roman Catholics - who have been very important to him: here we have an aim of self-improvement which is the spiritual equivalent of the aim he has pursued in the cultural realm. The last chapter (which I found went way over the top in its sweeping claims of the damage done by the lack of religious faith) goes beyond that: it is a sermon on the need for our society and for individuals to recover faith: to bring us together again as a community, to understand suffering as sacrifice, to teach us that we have obligations to the generations who have preceded and who will follow us, to preserve us from the impiety of scientists being allowed to tamper with God's creation, both human and environmental.
There is a chapter on what music in general and opera in particular has mean to the author, in which he conveys his hatred for modern productions that interpose the producer's `message' between the music and the audience.
There is a remarkable chapter called `Living with Sam', the name first of a pet dog, then of a hunter (Scruton is devoted to hunting) and then of Scruton's son. In that chapter he mingles beautiful descriptions with philosophical thoughts about the relationship between humans and animals, about the soul, about personhood and the nature of parenthood, about marriage (which should be a vow and not a contract), and about television (than which `in the armoury of nothingness there is no weapon more lethal').
The rest of the book strikes me as bits and pieces to pad out the volume, without obvious connections to its main theme. There is a chapter on the resonance of names (Scruton's own included); an evocative one on the contrast between Prague and Warsaw in communist and in post communist times (during the former period Scruton did some underground lecturing there). Another chapter reproduces his diary of a six day visit to Finland as a lecturer, fairly relentless and quite funny in its mockery of the lugubrious Finns and their soulless modern buildings. There are diary entries about his friend Iris Murdoch, and about a visit to Soweto in 1983.
The book evoked varying reactions from me. Sometimes I found its tone smug and precious; I enjoyed him when he argues, less so when he asserts. His style varies from the limpid, poetic and beautiful to passages which are too dense to be any of these. He does not suffer fools gladly - robustly and joyously including among them many whom others regard as sages. I think that, like many combative conservatives, he relishes his unpopularity. I was always struck by his fundamental seriousness: it seems to me that almost every aspect of daily life evokes from him philosophical ruminations and associations. Not an easy companion, I would guess; but surely a stimulating one.