Christopher Howse says that Malcolm Muggeridge,
born 100 years ago, was very much a man of the 20th-century world – but rebelled against it
Twenty years ago Malcolm Muggeridge, with a grimace of welcome, met me at Robertsbridge station, like many another. To reach the Sussex cottage that he shared with Kitty, his wife of 50 years, he had to drive across a fast main road, down which articulated lorries careered. Without slowing down he continued straight across, looking neither to right nor to left. This Russian roulette driving, like his tolerance of curious visitors to Park Cottage, betrayed an underlying trust in an unknown providence that he had spent a lifetime tempting.
Muggeridge, born 100 years ago, embodied Western man in the 20th century. And he became its contradiction. As soon as he discerned the dominant themes of his times he attacked them one by one: Soviet communism, sexual freedom, television, agnosticism, progress itself.
He described himself as a piano-player in a brothel. On the surface he was a satirist and an entertainer, with that strange drawling voice and a jaw that contorted as he delivered caustic apophthegms. He had a way of turning other people into absurd effigies, and then pelting them. He told a story about George Orwell failing, as a writer’s exercise, to get into jail for Christmas despite throwing a brick through a window. Yet they were friends. At their weekly lunches he would provoke Orwell to make some extreme generalisation. A favourite was, ‘All tobacconists are fascists.’
Muggeridge himself came from a suburban, bourgeois if socialist family in Croydon. It was his great friend Hugh Kingsmill who introduced him to the inimical concept of the ‘Dawnist’, someone who believes that given enough good will, or ruthlessness, a new dawn can be induced, to universal benefit. On the Manchester Guardian, Muggeridge came to see C.P. Scott, its editor from 1872 to 1929, as the model Dawnist, whose refusal to see reality allowed men like Stalin to thrive.
Other b’tes noires were Sidney and Beatrice Webb, humourless progressive socialists. Muggeridge would tell how his wife Kitty, the niece of Sidney Webb, one day asked him, ‘What are you reading, Uncle Sidney?’ ‘The novels of Walter Scott.’ ‘Are you enjoying them?’ ‘No.’
‘Sidney and I,’ Beatrice Webb proudly announced, ‘have become icons in the Soviet Union.’ The Webbs visited Stalin’s Russia and found it paradise. Muggeridge, bored with the Guardian, went out to Russia with Kitty in 1932 to make a brave new life. ‘I must see the Ideal even if I am unworthy of it,’ he said. Instead he discovered Stalin using famine to wipe out an independent peasantry. Millions died. With the greatest difficulty, Muggeridge visited the starvation areas and sent dispatches to the Guardian, only to find them cut by Soviet sympathisers.
All his life Muggeridge was cynical, but not in the new sense of being self-interested. A brilliant journalist, he declared that knitting together leading articles was unutterably tedious. A stable of phrases could be rearranged to match any subject from Indian nationalism to corporal punishment: ‘No thinking man will underestimate the …The immeasurable strides that Science has …Moderate people of every political complexion …It is greatly to be hoped…’. The Guardian threatened a libel suit to suppress a novel, Picture Palace, that he wrote about his time there. When he joined the Daily Telegraph in 1945 he found he could still tap out a leader to order almost automatically. It was, he judged, ‘complete rot’.
He became deputy editor in 1950 but left two years later to edit Punch. He could only laugh at the dullness of a magazine where someone suggested he should carry a series ‘How to build a boat’. Instead he made his biggest splash by running a caricature of Churchill in his dotage. Then he lost interest, leaving after five years.
In the meantime he had become a star of television, noted for putting awkward questions. In an interview with the editor of Tailor and Cutter he offered to take off his trousers. Such things made a stir in the 1950s. But Muggeridge grew to hate television because, he said, in a favourite Blakean quotation, it ‘leads you to believe a lie/ When you see with, not through, the eye’. Eventually he exhorted everyone to undergo the ‘painless operation’ of having their aerials removed.
In the war Muggeridge joined another mendacious speciality of the century, spying. With MI6 in Mozambique he somehow captured a U-boat, but his real job was disinformation. The life overwhelmed him with depression. He resolved to die by swimming out to sea. When almost out of range of land, he felt a sudden compulsion to return, to seek life. Forty years later, I mentioned to him how similar his suicide attempt was to Evelyn Waugh’s. ‘Extraordinary,’ he replied, but he couldn’t remember if it had really happened, or if it was a ruse to confuse the Germans.
Sex proved another false god. Kitty and he agreed theirs was to be an open marriage. It turned into sexual warfare. Following D.H. Lawrence they sought sex ‘without the burden of procreation, or even, ultimately, of love’. This experience was behind another of Mugg’s saws, ‘Sex is the mysticism of materialism.’ The more they expected from sex, the unhappier it made them. But once, after a month of rows (during which she told him she was pregnant by another man), she turned to him and said quietly, ‘You’d better stick by me. No one will love you as I do.’ It was true, even if it did not end their discord.
Some who liked his scepticism were shocked by Muggeridge’s late conversion to Roman Catholicism. Like much else it was a return to early sympathies. At Cambridge, conversion to Christianity had sent him out in 1925 as a missionary teacher to India. He was deeply influenced by the people there, and at that time read Chesterton’s biography of Francis of Assisi. It captured his imagination. ‘Wordy or “creedy” religion,’ he wrote to his liberal Anglican friend Alec Vidler, ‘kills the living beauty of God.’
He had no interest in theology, but the attractions of India and Franciscan simplicity coincided in Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He detected a miracle while making a television documentary on her in 1968. But he was even more impressed by her embracing the poorest poor as ‘Christ in his distressing disguise’.
The lesson was reinforced by a man called Fr Paul Bidone who worked with ‘retarded’ children in London. When in 1982 Muggeridge and his wife were received into the Church, Fr Bidone brought some of the youngsters with him. Muggeridge feared their ‘fidgeting, moving about, emitting strange sounds’. In the event what ‘might otherwise have been a respectable, quiet ceremony was transformed into an unforgettable spiritual experience’. Subversion had introduced the transcendent.
Life went on simply: Kitty got up at dawn to bake the day’s bread; no telly, no meat, no booze. They said Matins and Evensong together. She read to him. He refused an operation for cataracts, preferring to accept age. At the last his brain became confused. He died in 1990; Kitty lived another four years. They are buried together in Sussex.
Christopher Howse is assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph.