Meetings with one of the greatest essayists of the last century.
In my youth, I turned on the television to find Michael Parkinson interviewing some gnarled old chap I’d never seen before. Another guest shortly appeared, singing the praises of America and how generous the people were to him, a ‘poor Englishman’.
With an uncanny likeness to my mental picture of Dickens’ Harold Skimpole, the new arrival to Parky’s show stated (words to the affect) that every time he went to the States, all he had to do was admit to being poor and the locals would come to his rescue and make up the deficit.
He of the gnarled countenance was unmoved and clearly wanted to debate.
‘Have you been to the Bronx recently?’, enquired the old man.
In the absence of a reply, he added that ‘the American Dream is all washed up.’
The old man was Malcolm Muggeridge.
Although I cannot recall what else was said, his words swam against the prevailing tide of materialism and the culture of ‘I’ve got mine’, and his eloquence planted seeds.
Malcolm Muggeridge’s writing is far more popular in the United States than in Britain, so there’s a good chance these words will furrow the brows of Americans who’ve read the quotes but not the full body of Muggeridge’s writing.
I think we should disregard the line about the said district of New York, because Malcolm was prone to the occasional sweeping statement and I doubt whether he ever went to The Bronx (certainly not unattended), but the point he was making was nevertheless clear: his distaste for ‘the American Dream’ was oft repeated, and rests on four seemingly harmless words: the pursuit of happiness.
We shall return to these later.
Like many a gifted word vendor, Muggeridge shoots predominantly from the heart and his writing rises in relevance with each year: it is a minor tragedy that such perception, sparkling wit and diamond sentences should be kept off the bookshelves by television tie-ins, ticked boxes and a mountain of ephemeral crap. Readers may not agree with all that Muggeridge writes (and not all of his arguments are impregnable), but if you are going to lock horns, you’ll need to rise above parrot-philosophy and echo-chamber platitudes.
Malcolm Muggeridge has been hijacked more than once by right-wing politicals, who buttress their prejudices from a suitable portion of Malcolm’s writing, which they have used to bludgeon ‘liberalism’ for decades.
In times of mass apostasy, in which ‘moderate men of all political persuasions’ prostrate themselves before anything and anyone to raise up their careers, I’m no longer sure what liberalism is, other than a snake’s ladder of ticked box de jour and focus group slogans, with which the tyrannist de jour will wrestle a hand onto the poisoned chalice, and foist terminal smallness on an ever-changing cast of powerless ‘others’.
In an interview with William Buckley Junior (above), Muggeridge challenges the stereotypical understanding of Left and Right, by claiming a natural affinity with the Left whilst washing his hands of what he called The Great Liberal Death Wish.
Similar to Simone Weil, Muggeridge saw this not as party affiliation – which is generally a collective template forced upon the individual, as seen most gratingly in Citizen Corbyn’s Labour party – but as coming down on the side of the oppressed, and an obligation to always add weight to the lightest side of the human scales.
Thus Malcolm Muggeridge’s writings are relevant to anyone prepared to think beyond the intellectual and spiritual straight-jacket of Stepford County, as well as those who instinctively feel the stuff of life is immeasurably greater than that which Grand Inquisitor Dawkins can squeeze into his unfeasibly large head.
For the benefit of those who do not know the work of Muggeridge, it might be a good idea to highlight a few excerpts from his writings, which pack more of a punch now that the progression backwards into cultural bankruptcy and barbarity gather momentum.
Take, for example, a piece on the camera (from 1968), made all the more pertinent by current publishing, broadcasting and social media trends:
– Well was the camera originally named Obscura. It is the ego’s very focus, with all the narcissism of the human race concentrated into its tiny aperture. It advances upon one in a television studio like some ferocious monster, ravening and bloodshot eyed. Of all the inventions of our time it is likely to prove the most destructive. Whereas nuclear power can only reduce us and our world to a cinder, the camera grinds us down to spiritual dust so fine that a puff of wind scatters it, leaving nothing behind. –
Take that thought with you next time you click-bait through a sea of pointlessness.
Or on ‘spin’ before it got the name and ‘news’ as PR manipulation.
This piece, entitled Farewell to Freedom, was written in 1954:
– The Press, too, in my opinion, is increasingly becoming a purveyor of orthodoxy than an expression of individual views. The State which in a variety of ways, ranging between subtle pressure and persuasion and unabashed handouts, feeds it with ‘news’, is able more and more to call its tune. The Press is in process of succumbing to the collectivist zeitgeist.
At its obsequies the mutes are public relations officers, and the service is read by an ordained Minister of Information, with massed choirs provided by the British Broadcasting Corporation. It is in the passion for thinking in terms of categories that I detect the clearest and most ominous symptom of subordination of the individual to the collectivity.
A voluntary uniformity, no less than an imposed one, prepares the way for servitude. –
-Substitite the ‘press’ with something of your choice, to bring it up to date.
India under the British Raj, from the first volume of Muggeridge’s autobiography, is the subject of this selection, which could easily be adapted to challenge the consequences of (any number of) culturally vacuous corporate empires:
– As I dimly realised, a people can be laid waste culturally as well as physically; not their lands but their inner life, as it were, sewn with salt. This is what happened to India. An alien culture, itself exhausted, become trivial and shallow, was imposed upon them; when we went, we left behind railways, schools and universities, statues of Queen Victoria and other of our worthies, industries, an administration, a legal system; all that and much more, but set in a spiritual wasteland. We had drained the country of its true life and creativity, making of it a place of echoes and mimicry. –
It is worth noting that scintillating prose, pertinent comment (some believe prophetic – if you want prophecy fulfilled, go back a couple of passages and re-read the line which begins A voluntary uniformity…) and punctuation-as-art shine from virtually every passage of Muggeridge’s writing. His words almost always soar high above the issues that pin others firmly to the moment, and Muggeridge’s sentences are imbued with a deeper understanding of the human condition and the seeds of its own undoing. There is also fair-and-frequent scrutiny of Muggeridge’s own flaws, chiefly egotism and vanity.
As a youngster, working in the Liverpool branch of Jonathan Silver Clothes in 1981, I walked past a town centre bookshop and noticed a poster in the window, which read ‘Malcolm Muggeridge will be signing copies of his Diaries at this store on…¦’. With that Parkinson interview still in mind, I decided to buy a copy of Muggeridge’s diaries. On the stated day I didn’t have enough money, but I went along to the bookshop anyway and just peered at him with my nose stuck to the window (I later told Muggeridge this and he said if I had come inside, he would’ve given me a copy).
When pay day came, I went back and bought the Diaries, and both volumes of his memoirs, titled Chronicles of Wasted Time (all signed, which is how I know the date).
I also read his book about Mother Teresa, Something Beautiful for God. The book was accompanied a BBC TV series and it was the main reason I got on a flight to India a couple of years later, where – like thousands of others – I spent time in Mother’s homes in Calcutta.
Not long after my return from Calcutta, I wrote to Muggeridge to ask if he had any advice for an aspiring writer: he replied that the state of publishing made it all but impossible for anything of value to be published (more prophecy fulfilled!) but he nevertheless wished me well.
I wrote again in the mid 1980s to ask if I could meet him and he replied with his telephone number, stating he would be happy for me to visit Park Cottage and that I should telephone to arrange a time.
If I was nervous when making the initial telephone call, by the time I got off the train at Robertsbridge station, on my first visit to Park Cottage, I was somewhat overwhelmed at the prospect of meeting a giant of the written word. Amidst a lifetime of detached involvement, he had met Gandhi, reported what was really going on in Stalin’s Russia (when his newspaper, The Guardian, preferred the ‘Liberal’ Utopian’s view of the dead-hearted old fucker), dined with Arthur Koestler, Graham Greene and George Orwell (at the same time and table), and mixed it up in interviews with the likes of Bertrand Russell, Mother Teresa and Alexander Solzhenytsin, in days when the interview amounted to more than celebrity self-promotion and PR handouts, which have all but killed good feature work, and turned much of ‘the media’ into a self-perpetuating void long before the internet.
At the railway station, this council estate lad, whose visit to Robertsbridge had been initiated by an innate love of words and actualised by the gaucheness to request an audience with someone who wrote ‘like an angel’, walked nervously out of Robertsbridge station and in through the doors of the pub across the road for some Dutch courage.
I sank a Northern number of pints – in a Southern amount of time – and when I arrived at Park Cottage I was half cut. As Malcolm invited me in, I managed to get my legs in a tangle and sort of fell in through the door.
‘Would you like some tea?’ he asked by way of sober greeting, when I’d recovered my balance. ‘I find tea very refreshing these days: far more refreshing than alcohol, wouldn’t you agree?’ he probed knowingly.
My visits to Park Cottage became a regular day out and, although I didn’t give it much thought at the time (I was at an age when I took things for granted), in retrospect it was high privilege to sit with Muggeridge, in the same chair that had seated Stalin’s daughter, Svetlana (amongst others), as I listened to tales from a past no longer present and quizzed him further on things I’d read in his books…to such a degree that his wife Kitty commented ‘you know more about Malcolm’s life than he does’.
Of course Malcolm made better use of his anecdotes, in his writing, than any interviewer could. However, laughter was never far away, like when I asked Muggeridge how he rated Graham Greene: – did he consider him to be a great writer?
Assuming me to be an admirer of Greene’s work (I was not: I sought confirmation that someone else thought he was overrated) Malcolm subtly side-shuffled, saying only that he believed Greene had written some good stories at a certain time in his life. From his lack of a more solid opinion I gauged a truer answer.
‘And compared to Tolstoy?’
Well, this brought a sparkle to Muggers’ baby blues and he started to laugh.
‘There might be a slight gap’, commented Muggeridge caustically and we laughed a whole lot more.
Laughter was an important part of Muggeridge the Man, and it is for good reason that his writing had a prime spot in British comedian Ken Dodd’s collection of humorous books, and Malcolm’s account of the reburial of Sydney and Beatrice Webb, at Westminster Abbey, make up some of the funniest pages I have ever read. I believe Calcutta’s Dr. Jack Preger got it right, when he said to me that ‘Muggeridge took the piss so beautifully’.
Malcolm and Kitty were in their 80’s when I started visiting Park Cottage, and, irrespective of prior telephone calls, Malcolm rarely remembered who was coming on what day (and at what time). Park Cottage seemed to operate on an open house basis and all manner of people would turn up, for any number of reasons, and be invited to sit down for lunch or help Malcolm collect the eggs from the chickens outside.
One day Russian author Leonid Borodin appeared at the door. This was in the days before Glasnost and Borodin had been granted a visa to visit the West. Whilst in the country, Borodin, who served some ten years in Soviet Strict Regime Camps, decided to seek out Muggeridge, whose writing he knew from the early days of Samizdat. The Russian author turned up at Park Cottage with a translator and also an anonymously dressed figure in tow, who/whom Malcolm reckoned to be KGB. At some later point I mentioned this meeting to Borodin’s British publisher, who thanked me for the snippet, as he had known nothing of his author’s apparently clandestine trip to Park Cottage.
As I didn’t know any reporters, when applying to join the National Union of Journalists I asked Malcolm if he would propose me for membership. He duly provided me with a letter (I still have it) and at the meeting, which took place at the Mechanics Institute in Manchester, in a room packed full with aspirants, one of the membership committee looked puzzled by my application form and the letter of proposal. He called out to me at the back of the room:
‘could you confirm the name of your proposer?’
‘Er, Malcolm Muggeridge’ I blushingly answered, which hushed the sizeable assembly and gave me the sweats when all eyes turned my way.
‘Do you know which branch he’s a member of?’ asked the committee member, still nonplussed as to who he was.
‘I think the union has made him a life member’ croaked I.
At this point one of his colleagues whispered in his ear and came to the rescue of both of us.
Prior to a second visit to Calcutta, Muggeridge also wrote me a letter of introduction to Mother Teresa, stating that my reasons for wanting to take photos in her Calcutta homes were non-commercial and out of genuine interest in the work of the Missionaries of Charity. I’d encountered Mother before (she’d sent me to Confession at Mother House, and at next day’s mass administered the host) and she rarely gave permission for photos. As it happened, Mother was out of Calcutta when I presented my letter and I was refused permission by a senior Sister, which is a major regret.
Some on the political right would’ve laid sole claim to Muggeridge, but his willingness to look above and beyond allowed him to see the Emperor in all his nakedness: – you don’t need to dig too deeply to find the man trashing every worldly cul de sac, like the self-blinding lust for power and the aforementioned pursuit of happiness; the limitations of which Muggeridge summed up with this Franciscan sentiment:
‘All I can claim to have learnt from the years I have spent in this world is that the only happiness is love, which is attained by giving, not receiving.’
This is enlarged upon in the next selection, taken from the New Statesman in 1967:
‘In the face of the otherworldliness which I still unfashionably find in the Gospels, as far as I am concerned the whole edifice of 20th century materialism – and the utopian hopes that go therewith – falls flat on its face. The pursuit of happiness is a grotesque fantasy, and the Gross National Product an equally grotesque mirage: ¦the terrible vision of a Scandinavian-American paradise, with longer lives, more and better aphrodisiacs and more leisure and amenities for all, dissolves into nightmare, awaking from which one advances gingerly upon the sublime truth that to live it is necessary to die, that a life can only be kept by being lost; propositions which strike contemporary minds as pessimistic, but which seem to me optimistic to the point of insanity, implying, as they do, that it is possible for a mere man, with his brief life and stunted vision, imprisoned in his tiny ego and enslaved by his squalid appetites, to aspire after a universal understanding and universal love.’
Like all vendors of lasting sentences, the apolitical Muggers saw through the moment, which gave his sentences a timelessness that most of his critics can only hope to achieve by association. Denmark’s Stormy Petrel best distances eternity from the transient with the line ‘religion is eternity’s transfigured rendition of politics most beautiful dream,’ and for Muggeridge, anything less than eternity was Caesar’s currency in counterfeit roubles.
Perhaps the most influential aspect of Muggeridge’s writing is his ability to absorb high-altitude thought and, through the gift of words, make it palatable for a relatively low-altitude readership (which also forms a neat definition of what good writing actually is). Like Michel de Montaigne, in his celebrated Essays (a book, incidentally, which Malcolm always packed in his suitcase on his travels, but never actually read), ‘Muggers’ has woven the deeper thoughts of others into the rich tapestry of his sentences. But unlike Michel de Montaigne, who planted wise words of antiquity like concealed mines for the conceited to step on, Muggeridge actually leaves the threads visible; so – from Tolstoy to Dostoievsky to Solzhenytsin, through Simone Weil and Kierkegaard, Blaise Pascal, Bunyan, Saint Augustine, Miguel Cervantes, Swift, William Blake, Doctor Johnston, Shakespeare and a host of inspired others – the reader can wind-in the golden string of his learning and follow it as far as he or she is either willing or able.
As early as the 1930’s, a clear thread of spirituality can be found running through Muggeridge’s writing and it was the cornerstone of his best work. After a lifetime of proclaiming Christianity from the agnostic’s side of the fence, defending the Christian faith (some would say too shrewdly, because it exempted him from its yardstick) from behind the prefix ‘whilst not being a believer myself¦’, Muggeridge finally became a Catholic at the eleventh hour.
Malcolm Muggeridge was not a Saint (not even close), even though his vanity may occasionally have raised the notion, and in old age his ego would still ‘rear its cobra-like head’ and butt in on the proceedings. For example, when we were talking once about the Missionaries of Charity, he sat upright and made the proud claim that ‘I started the whole thing off, you know’.
I’m sure Mother would’ve seen things a little differently and put him in his place once more.
Muggeridge was most certainly gifted genius and he will be remembered as a great writer, despite Peregrine Worsthorne’s suggestion to the contrary at the time of his death, for his stylised writing few from the past 100 years could measure up to. This alone will merit a full reassessment of his work, but when you add to this the growing relevance of his sentences, which beat heartily against the dumb-down way of the world and herald the final throes of a burnt-out civilisation, the case for reissuing his work has been partially addressed by the Muggeridge Society. However, in his revolutionary and recalcitrant spirit, current and future generations might be best served if Muggeridge’s complete works were committed to the kindle, other ebook readers and the Gutenberg project.
Bearing in mind that an entire media industry has made, to varying degrees, a Faustian pact with PR manipulators, I have chosen a pertinent last selection.
‘In Moscow when the great purges were on, some moon-faced Intourist, trying in good liberal style to be fair to both sides, asked one of the British newspaper correspondents there: A.T. Cholerton of the Daily Telegraph: whether the accusations against the Old Bolsheviks standing trial were true. Yes, Cholerton told him, everything was true except the facts. It fits not just the purges and Moscow, but the whole twentieth century scene. Perhaps some astronaut, watching from afar the final incineration of our earth, may care to write it across the stratosphere: Everything true except facts.’
In an obituary piece for The Spectator, Paul Johnson drew a line between two types of journalist: in one corner were those who chased the big stories and shared the scoops, whilst in the other lived a more thoughtful sub-species, which was home to Muggeridge.
But for me this distinction is false and a truer fault line can be drawn between those who were born to write and those who were not; or those for whom a story burns truly, against those who have nothing to say but profit from saying it anyway.
As Muggeridge’s beloved Kierkegaard knew in his day, word-vending had become mere name-trading and a game of numbers. But as the Great Dane said, those who write with originality have no need to append their names, and if all work were anonymized, the best of Muggeridge could be easily identified, for his was a well-polished gift wrapped around an eternal glow. And had Malcolm been blessed with the gift to characterise and conjure from within, rather than drawing predominantly from without, champions of fictional style like Dickens and George Eliot might have had a serious contender.
Muggeridge rightly earned the epitaph ‘he used words well’. But not only did he write some of the most beautifully crafted sentences I have ever read, he used them to say precisely what he meant, irrespective of prevailing tastes, bully-group prejudices, or who was paying his wage.
And the manner in which he challenged everything whilst condemning no one is his first lesson for any of us.
The Very Best of Malcolm Muggeridge, selections compiled by Ian Hunter, is a great intro to Muggeridge’s work.
Still my favourite, Chronicles of Wasted Time, is Muggeridge’s autobiography, and a peerless marriage of style, perception and storytelling.
Things Past is an excellent collection of journalism/essays, if you can find a copy (you ain’t getting mine).