Hay-making was easy this year, and over in good time for a holiday. I am opposed to holidays, having worked all my life to build a sovereign territory from which departure will be a guaranteed disappointment. However, the children have yet to be convinced of the futility of human hopes, and therefore must be taken for a week or so to places that renew their trust in Scrutopia, as the only reliable refuge from an alien world. As always we choose the Czech Republic; and as always it disproves my point. I don’t know what it is about Brno, but I am as home there as I can be anywhere. And Sophie and the children feel the same.
We borrow the old cottage in the Moravian Sudetenland from which to explore a landscape wiped away by war. Since the expulsion of the Sudeten Germans, their fields have gradually reforested themselves. The lanes between the crops, in which every intersection was marked by a stone Calvary or a shrine to a patron saint, are now overgrown, the lovely statuary stolen for some bourgeois garden. And the churches, though still functioning thanks to an influx of Polish priests, have a neglected air, their colourful festivals no longer honoured, their old congregations remembered only in the German-language gravestones. Yet here as elsewhere the death of one way of life is the birth of another, and the depopulated landscape offers to the new generation of Czechs a perfect place for camping, fishing, swimming in lakes, cycling in family groups, and in general reattaching themselves to their many-times stolen country.
The contest over territory is a major stimulus to art, literature and music. To it we owe the great flowering of a national culture in the music of Janáček, in the writings of Hašek and Čapek, and in the little theatres that united the Czechs between the wars in a spirit of self-satire. This spirit still exists in Brno, thanks to the Theatre of the Goose on a String, run by the indefatigable Petr Oslzlý, who kept the thing going throughout the years of communist ‘normalisation’, and who still sees it as the means of showing that nothing can ever be normalised if Czechs are involved. We spend a happy evening recalling our underground days, and wondering whether the Goose should mount a satire of the drunken President Zeman, or whether he is already satire enough.
Back home to discover that the chickens have not been eaten, the horses have not been kicked, and the house is still standing. There is also a dog — another concession to the children and their incorrigible belief that there is always room for improvement. It is a border collie, a puppy, with an innate need to run after other animals and try to herd them into a corner. The horses ignore her, the cows turn on her menacingly, and the chickens fly squawking around the yard. Only with the fish are her efforts rewarded, since she runs around the edge of the pond as I feed them, and seems convinced that the fish are retained within its banks by her heroic efforts.
The best thing about summer is the Proms, and this year especially on account of Daniel Barenboim’s wonderful performance of Wagner’s Ring cycle. I have studied this stupendous work for most of my adult life, ever more convinced of its greatness and of the truth of its underlying vision. And in the passionate and deferential account given by Barenboim and his star-studded cast there could be no doubt about this. It was all the more persuasive for the absence of a producer, so that conductor and singers could devote themselves to the story, unimpeded by ludicrous sets. Why is it that we are now condemned to experience this work produced by one of the greatest imaginations that has ever existed, through the shrivelled imaginations of producers who know how to sneer at our ideals but have never understood why we need them?
One downside of the family holiday is that we miss the Proms performance of David Matthews’s A Vision of the Sea. David celebrated his 70th birthday this year, and has established himself through constant hard work and ever-renewed inspiration as a leading exponent of symphonic form. He has continued to write beautiful music inspired by beautiful things in the teeth of the orthodox view that to be modern is to be challenging, disturbing, defiant, transgressive etc., etc. The modernist advocacy of the defiant gesture has been far more productive of clichés and banalities than the attempt to go on writing as Beethoven wrote, ‘from the heart, to the heart’. That attempt is till honoured in Britain, and the Proms bore witness to it with a brilliant performance by Vadim Repin of James MacMillan’s melodious Violin Concerto. Would that the art establishment could learn from our composers that originality is not everything, and in any case not to be achieved by producing your own version of Duchamp’s urinal.
Roger Scruton is a writer and philosopher. His most recent book is Our Church: A History of the Church of England.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.