Christopher Howse

Piano-player in a brothel

Christopher Howse says that Malcolm Muggeridge, born 100 years ago, was very much a man of the 20th-century world – but rebelled against it

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.

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