The Disappeared, Roger Scruton, Bloomsbury, 2015, 292pp, £11.99 (paperback)
Roger Scruton is employing ever more subtle means in his continued as- sault on the conservative disposition. As a utopian, he gives a pre-eminent place to the unknown, the perfect, the possible, and disdains the familiar, the convenient, the actual. He describes what he offers as a ‘scrupulous optimism’ with ‘the occasional dose of pessimism’. This is characteristic: the conservative’s care for the present sacrificed to the utopian’s devotion to the future.
No doubt hoping to win a wider audience for his radicalism, Scruton has now written a Condition of England novel. C of E novels use melodrama to dramatise social ills, sliding fast on stereotype and sensation towards horror and hyperbole. The bath they offer is neither tonic nor cure but a cloying soak in the apocalyptic. There is no genre more hostile to the calm and caution of the conservative temperament.
Scruton offers no preface to make his intentions plain. But this is no cause for annoyance; there is no need for one. Elizabeth Gaskell, in her Mary Barton, has effectively provided it. Both have a ‘deep relish and fond ad- miration for the country’, but feel pressed to frame their story ‘in the busy secrets of the town’ out of ‘deep sympathy with the care-worn’, those who ‘looked as if doomed to struggle through their lives in strange alternations between work and want’. Such sympathy and attention ‘laid open to me the hearts of one or two of the more thoughtful among them; I saw that they were sore and irritable’. ‘The more I reflected on this unhappy state of things’, ‘the more anxious I became to give some utterance to the agony which, from time to time, convulses this dumb people’. At present, they ‘seem to me to be left in a state, wherein lamentations and tears are thrown aside as useless, but in which the lips are compressed for curses, and the hands clenched and ready to smite’. It may be an ‘error’ that these woes ‘pass unregarded by all the sufferers’, but ‘it is at any rate an error so bitter in its consequences to all parties, that whatever public effort can do in the way of legislation, or private effort in the way of merciful deeds’ should be done ‘and that speedily.’
The town whose busy secrets Scruton lays bare is ‘Whinmoore’, in York- shire. All self-respecting C of E novels are set in the grim North. The in- vented city floats free of the real suburb of Leeds and is meant to invoke, I suspect, that nightmare ‘Whinny-muir’ of the Lyke-Wake dirge (set by Britten and others) whose demons are like to ‘prick thee to the bare bane’. Certainly there is much to horrify here: kidnapping, violence, rape, institu- tional blindness, and what Scruton calls ‘the pitiless dominion of morons.’
The secrets that make all of the characters sore and irritable, and some con- vulse with agony, are those at the heart of recent sensational cases, in particu- lar the Rotherham child abuse scandal. Each of the central female characters is at risk here. One is still at school, a ‘frail neglected-looking girl, who spoke very little, and sat in the lecture theatre a space apart’, she lives in one of the ‘two stark concrete towers of the Angel estate’, a ghastly hell-hole around which the action of the novel revolves. Another is a little older: ‘she was from a migrant Afghan family, which had come to Britain eight years before from Yemen, to which country they had fled from the conflict in Afghanistan. Unlike her parents she had adopted the British way of life.’ A third is more surprisingly at risk: ‘first in history from Cambridge, ACCA qualifications in three years, and the Law Society a year later’ (Scruton is given to introduc- ing his characters as news programmes announce members of their focus- groups), she is nevertheless kidnapped early on.
There is much compressing of lips and clenching of hands ready to smite: at the timidity of the police and other bodies fearful at being branded racist, at the failures of social workers, at the checks placed on schoolteachers in caring for their pupils’ well-being. But what to do about all this is left vague. All C of E novels peter out at the end, with a forced resolution for their central characters and a besetting hopelessness about the general situation. ‘He had glimpsed in that dark interior the antidote to all his dreams. What was the purpose of cleaning the world, when the reality was Angel Towers?’
Scruton’s thumb is often on the scales. This is how he sets a vital scene in the law courts: ‘The assembled morons are leaning forward with intent and greedy faces, and there is a hush in the courtroom’. This is how he describes his main policeman: ‘There was a brisk application of manner, a way of making prepared statements and impeccable summaries, that re- vealed a perfectly digitised mind, an advanced piece of office software that was able to replace the fallible human in every conceivable bureaucratic task.’ This is how his policeman speaks: ‘Whether or not you agree with the report of Sir William MacPherson, which accused us of being “insti- tutionally racist”, you will understand that we must now take special care that no well-meaning member of the public can use this charge to make our job impossible.’
Scruton gives heretical thoughts to a minor character, a schoolteacher close to retirement. ‘Notice’, he says in a loud whisper at a ‘racism awareness’ address, ‘the use of the term “white” as a term of racial abuse’. He gives another minor character indicative virtues: a Shi’ite rescued from Basra and brought to England by a Lieutenant-Colonel in the British Army, he ‘never ceased to remind his sons of the debt of gratitude that they owed, and emphasized that they must look for the things to admire, and not for the things to disparage, in the country that had adopted them.’
Each of the two central male characters eventually throws aside their lam- entations and tears as useless. One, who ‘joined the firm of Copley Solu- tions PLC immediately after completing a Masters course in environmental management at a Northern university’, is in love with a Muslim woman. The other, who had ‘joined Teach First, with every intention of at least becoming a useful member of society’, is confused about what he feels for the pupil who has sought his protection. It is their stories which are always closest to the points being made. ‘He knew that a sinking heart is a sign of maturity’. ‘The sight made him anxious. As a mere Englishman he was, in this environment, one of the dispossessed.’ ‘He was a child of his time: he believed in the value of immigration and half accepted the official doctrine that such conflicts as arose were caused not by the suspicion and insularity of the incomers but by the racism and xenophobia of their hosts. Confronted with the intransigent bigotry of the Afghan fathers, however, he had begun to doubt this.’
Both these characters act out of desire, though at least one of them takes himself—until his adventures bring him some clarity—to be acting out of charity. And it is here that the novel becomes interesting. Not in Scruton’s flawed attempt to revitalise a flawed genre, but in his working out in novel- istic terms of a theme he has shaped in his philosophical writing: the great divide that separates erotic love from love as charity. He thinks erotic love is as likely to deny as to affirm the existence of its object. It is more like an affliction than a choice. It is not the expression of a rational nature but rather a force that invades. Its aim is to possess, to hold, to exclude. Most troublingly, it does not really accept the otherness of the beloved, does not accept the other’s life as a life apart. It may have nonexistence as its secret goal. This theme of the great divide in forms of love comes steadily to the fore as the story develops and is handled with far more conviction than any other aspect of the novel. One of the best scenes turns on it: when we see a man, confronted by the woman he has helped to kidnap, transfixed and writhing between the forces of erotic love and charity. It is a theme that is deeply disruptive of a C of E novel of course – how could anything at the politico-economic level be a cause, or a remedy, for this? – but that may be all for the better.