In Memory of Sir Roger: My Visit to the Scruton Cafè
I walk into the Scruton Café and order black coffee.
“Can I smoke in here?”
I walk to a table, carrying my books under my arm, and sit down. I had heard about this new place online, where progressives poked fun at its glossy bourgeois hipster vibe. The place has red brick walls and wooden furnishings, but instead of having Anaïs Nin quotes on the walls it has “Conservatism: More An Instinct Than An Idea”.
I sit down with my books. They are all by Roger Scruton. The great man died a year ago today, and it seems right to read him. Of course, I don’t have all his books. He wrote more of them than the rest of us write WhatsApp messages. But even from the few I have, I see the breadth of his interests. The books are about music, and architecture, and environmentalism, and Anglicanism, and wine, and hunting, and ideology. Eclecticism is a neutral term. No one would assume that a musician who dabbled in rock, and rap, and black metal, and reggae was necessarily good. But at least nobody could call them monotonous.
A young man in a black turtleneck is sitting to my left.
“Nice coffee isn’t it,” I say.
“It is easier to destroy things than create things,” he says, mechanically. It is true enough, I suppose. I think I’ve said the same myself. But I am not sure what it relates to.
I return to the books. One of them, his last before his death, was about Wagner’s Parsifal. In a time in which our culture is barraged with the intellectual grapeshot of ‘hot takes’ it feels odd to read a sustained engagement with a single work of art. But that is one of the virtues of the man. Learning and art are in some senses at odds with the intensity and ephemerality of political dialogue and activism. But we need the former for the latter to be anything but crude and superficial — and we need the latter for the former to relate to the world.
“Excuse me, is that cake good?” I ask a young woman in a suit jacket sitting to my right.
“I, er — I agree.”
“Beauty matters!” she says again, with an edge in her voice.
I keep reading. One thing to value in Scruton’s work is his appreciation of the dignity of personhood. A common thread is capacious oeuvre is the value of human nature, channeled by historical wisdom. As the technological subsumes the human, we must stand up for that which makes life worthwhile: defending struggle as a precondition for fulfillment, attachment as the groundwork of desire, and beauty as the basis for our sense of home. Sitting in the warm café and eyeing up the chocolate cake I see the nagging irony of my rejection of cheap convenience.
Is there a slight risk of deifying Scruton here? People idealise their intellectual forebears, a danger because nobody is perfect, as Scruton’s less than transparent dealings with the tobacco industry illustrate, and because it can calcify an intellectual culture in an ideal state beyond which there can be no motion.
Perhaps, but there is the opposing danger of having no respect for the people who the house in which you live. The last years of Scruton’s life were marred by an excitable hit job from George Eaton of the New Statesman. It was sadly typical of the modern left, where too often a hint of prejudice is thought to be enough to put one on par with an NF skinhead while judging progressive intellectuals by a history of communist apologetics is philistinism. (If that sounds cheap, consider that the New Statesman was a longtime publisher of Richard Gott, who had spent years taking gifts from the Soviet Union.)
Eaton massaged his supposedly damning quotes, such as claiming that Scruton had called Chinese people “robots” when he had been referring not to their essential nature but to the ambitions of the CCP, but that did not prevent Conservative politicians from demanding his expulsion from public life. They felt awkward about that after conservative commentators stood up for Sir Roger and withdrew their slurs — only to repeat them when journalists made a similarly disingenuous, malicious hit job on Dominic Cummings’ young adviser Andrew Sabisky. With Conservatives like this, one wonders what Sir Roger thought about his legacy — though of course he would not find the boorish sloganeering of the tabloid right especially attractive either. Between glib careerists and intellectual drunks must be a thoughtful yet steadfast third way.
“Did you know,” snaps the young man, “That conservatism is more of an instinct than an idea?”
“The conservative disposition!” gasps the young woman.
“The great tradition!”
They collapse into their chairs, exhausted. I study their features. They look so similar to me they could be my brother and sister.
I finish my coffee. Scruton might have ended his life on his rural “Scrutopia” but he knew discomfort. He was thrown down a flight of stairs after giving a secret lecture in communist Prague and swiftly deported. He snuck around Poland, where transcripts of his lectures “would circulate amongst students in a form of samizdat publications.” In his public as well as intellectual life, you could not call him a man who was unwilling to take risks.
I wonder if I should have had the chocolate cake after all.
It is growing dark outside.
“When do you close?” I ask the barista.
“What do you mean you don’t?”
I look around the smartly dressed men and women, whose conversations are being blended into a sort of low buzz.
“Well, people come here for the coffee and the dialogue and they never want to leave. You can spend your whole life in the Scruton Café.”
I peer through the window. It looks cold outside. Shadows are flitting about the dusk. I turn back into the café. A man with unruly blonde and weathered, benevolent features is sitting at a table drinking wine. “Words never assemble so obediently,” he says, in soft, halting tones, in words I feel like I have heard before, “as at the bottom of a glass of Montagny.”
I smile at the thought of wangling a glass. He lights a cigar and looks at me.
“I’ve earned this,” he says, “What about you?”
I gather up my books and head out into the street.