The Biography

by Richard Ingrams,
288 pages,
ISBN: 0062513648

Malcolm Muggeridge:
A Biography

462 pages,
ISBN: 0340606746

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Two or More Lives of My Father
by John Muggeridge

Biographers are among our world's most powerful myth-makers. They tell us what to think about their subjects, and the best-armed revisionists have difficulty getting us to change our minds. Sixty-five years ago, Richard Aldington exposed T. E. Lawrence as a self-promoting liar. He even caught him out deliberately confusing miles with kilometres to exaggerate the distance he had once covered on a boyhood cycling tour of France. No matter. To this day, Lawrence of Arabia reruns keep alive reverence for the noble but fictitious Arabist enshrined in Robert Graves's 1927 biography, Lawrence and the Arabs. Or, coming closer to home, what about Peter C. Newman's 1963 biography of John Diefenbaker, Renegade in Power? Every Tory in Canada, according to Robert Fulford, said that it was a tissue of lies. And yet, as Fulford goes on to point out, "Every book on Diefenbaker published since depicts a Dief almost identical to the portrait Newman published while Dief was still in power." Thanks to the mythic potency of biography, Graves's Lawrence has become the Lawrence, and Newman's Diefenbaker, the Diefenbaker.
Dipping into the two most recently published biographies of my father, I cannot help wondering whose Muggeridge will turn out to be the Muggeridge. Perhaps no-one's. There are too many question marks and inconsistencies in his record to make him useful material for myth-making. The task of making up a fairy-story Lawrence or Diefenbaker is child's play by comparison. Lawrence championed subject peoples against Turkish imperialism; hence, his progressivist credentials are beyond question. Diefenbaker voted against abortion, gay rights, and biculturalism; by similar standards, he must have been a renegade. But Muggeridge eludes all such straightforward stereotyping.
He moved so quickly across the ideological spectrum that, during his lifetime, people most often remembered him for what he had stopped believing in. "Your father used to be such a good man," sighed Fenner Brockway, an old-time Labour Party radical, whom I happened to get into conversation with some time around 1955. And I have caught the same note of puzzled reproachfulness in the voice of secular humanists pondering Muggeridge's espousal of Christianity and Evangelical Christians coming to terms with his conversion to Roman Catholicism. Nor could his new friends ever rely on him for doctrinal consistency. At least not in his public pronouncements. Christianity requires of its adherents a sense of their own sinfulness. "We have done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone those things which ought to have done, and there is no health in us," says the Church of England's General Confession, which Muggeridge used to recite almost every evening for the last twenty years of his life. But then in 1981, fourteen years after his commitment to Christianity and twelve months before his reception into the Catholic Church, when asked by a BBC interviewer, "What do you regret most not having done?", he answered, "Absolutely nothing.. There's nothing at all I feel I wish I'd done, there's no places I wish I'd been to or languages I wish I'd learned or women I wish I'd gone to bed with.."
But inconsistency is not the same thing as insincerity. Only God reads souls. The problem facing biographers is that they must at least pretend to be able to do so; otherwise no-one will bother reading them. How, for example, are they to interpret my father's sex life? He was a child of the Far Left, and in true Bloomsbury style insisted on making his marriage to my mother an open one. My parents kept their vows of infidelity to each other during more than thirty years of rancorous adultery, at the same time, managing to provide us children with a secure and happy family circle to grow up in. Lovers and mistresses came and went. We suspected nothing. My mother's war-time paramour, the actor-biographer Hesketh Pearson, became our honorary uncle. Each year Hesky Pesky, as he like us to call him, would dress up as Father Christmas and leave presents at the end of our beds. Never once did we think to wonder why he should want to be alone in the house at night with my mother. As for my father, I still remember how moved I was when, during a walk home with him from Fleet Street one Sunday evening around 1950, he confided in me that we were on our way back to the woman he loved most in the world. About that time he must already have contemplated propositioning his boss's daughter-in-law, Lady Pamela Berry, whose affair with him lasted throughout the 1950s.
Muggeridge is neither the first nor the last married man to have led a double life. For years he cruised West-End cocktail parties. On one occasion, Patricia Cockburn, Claud Cockburn's wife, had to fend off his advances by throwing a telephone at him; on another, he made passes at both the wife and the teenage daughter of a journalist friend with whom he was lunching in a London restaurant. The question is not, how did he get away with such obnoxious behaviour, but how could he combine it with the roles of patriarch and guardian of public morals? He was a wise and generous father, whose memory I shall always cherish, a Christian apologist whose sincerity and eloquence gained him the reputation of a latter-day C. S. Lewis, and a sexual predator, whom grim experience taught the habitués of BBC hospitality rooms to nickname "Pouncer". What myth satisfactorily accommodates all three personas?
Gregory Wolfe in Malcolm Muggeridge: A Biography proposes that of Saint Mugg. Muggeridge, Wolfe argues, was a Christian from the beginning, though a secret one. He quotes Conversion (1988), in which Muggeridge talks about "The Boy" reading his Bible surreptitiously, having first wrapped it in brown paper as if it were "some forbidden book like Fanny Hill." One cannot help wondering whether "The Boy" in Conversion really is meant to be Muggeridge. For, in my father's actual, as opposed to his mythological boyhood, the Bible bore no resemblance to a forbidden book. The state school he attended required him to have a copy. Perhaps, following immemorial practice among careful students, he used brown paper to protect its binding. Certainly he had no reason to conceal its contents at home. My paternal grandfather, H. T.. Muggeridge, an ardent Christian socialist and follower of Tolstoy, far from hating the Bible, thumped it. "Even modern Industrialism," he wrote in 1923 to a recently ordained Anglican clergyman, "cannot kill God-the real, the live God! In Choirs and places where we sit let us thank Him for that! `Commodities'-mere things to buy and sell!-says Capitalism of the children of men. `My Jericho' says the Great Spirit who made us all-and it is capitalism that will go under in the stress of such an opposition of views as that."
Wolfe's "hidden Christian" thesis allows him to set Muggeridge above his contemporaries. They were pagans to his Saint Augustine. According to Wolfe, "What friends like [Anthony] Powell did not know was that after spending an evening as the `all-drinking, all-smoking boon companion,' Malcolm would come home and read the works of Christian mystics late into the night." I'm not so sure about this. My memory is of him coming home late, finding his way up stairs, quaffing half a pint of chloral, and snoring the night through. Once he drove the sixty miles from Lime Grove television studios through suburban London to our house in East Sussex, and the next morning had no recollection of having done so. As for what Wolfe calls Muggeridge's "Augustinian civil war between the flesh and the spirit", don't all non-psychopathic reflecting Western intellectuals go in for some such soul-searching? Doesn't Wolfe? In his diaries, Muggeridge describes every moral hangover he ever went through. Powell prefers to write on other subjects. Does that mean that Powell is less sensitive than Muggeridge to the struggle between good and evil?
No, Muggeridge was a great journalist, a brilliant television commentator, and a fearless soldier, who earned the Médaille Militaire and Croix de Guerre avec Palme for his service with the Free French; one thing, however, he does not qualify for is sainthood. I'm wasting my breath. The cult of Saint Mugg already flourishes, its promoter-in-chief being Muggeridge himself. He left his papers, including Pamela Berry's love letters and other assorted erotica, to Wheaton College, Billy Graham's alma mater, and a major North American citadel of Evangelical Protestantism. Here the saintly sinner receives unqualified veneration. Though his sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow. Two busts of him watch over the shelves containing his literary remains. Nearby stands his Olivetti portable, encased in glass now, and doing duty as a second-class relic. Soon, no doubt, pious young authors will be lining up to finger its keyboard. And who knows? On the anniversary of his canonization, it may even miraculously roll out a Manchester Guardian editorial. Nor is it surprising that Wolfe's windy and tendentious portrait of my father should have been published by Hodder and Stoughton, one of Britain's premier Christian Evangelical houses. The Muggeridge shrine at Wheaton now has a fitting hagiographical complement.
What a relief to turn from Wolfe's incense-soaked pages to Richard Ingrams's affectionate down-to-earth tribute to a friend, Muggeridge: The Biography. Ingrams writes without cosmic overtones. His Muggeridge is not a twentieth-century Saint Augustine; he's not a twentieth-century anyone. He is a journalist, in the "respected tradition" of such writers for newspapers and magazines as Hazlitt, Cobbett, Chesterton, and Orwell; a journalist, moreover, about whom Ingrams, belonging as he does to that same company, has the prudence to add, "It is too early to say if his writing will survive as theirs has done." Above all, he is a journalist who tells the truth. Muggeridge, claims Ingrams, had "natural powers of insight and occasionally of prophecy," which, because he was "without worldly ambitions," he exercised "indiscriminately, thus getting himself over and over again into hot water." This seems to me a fair assessment. Muggeridge's commitment to truth, as Ingrams makes clear, had nothing to do with "any special scruples or sense of religious obligation." It derived from a determination to write about the world only as he saw it. In all his thousands of hours in front of microphones, he never once, so I heard him boast, spoke someone else's words. Occasionally he would get things wrong, but at least he got them wrong in his own way. And even when his version of reality most sharply conflicted with the facts, it nearly always illuminated some corner of the truth that no-one else had thought to investigate. Thus Muggeridge insisted against all the evidence that Kim Philby, far from being a dedicated Marxist, was nothing more than an opportunist who went over to the Soviets only when they seemed to be winning. Philby, of course, had worked for the KGB since his university days; nevertheless, as Ingrams shows, Muggeridge turned out to be right on one point. The spy had indeed first offered his services to Moscow out of fear rather than conviction.
But what of the Muggeridge of History? On this question Ingrams is at his most guarded. No, says Ingrams, Muggeridge wasn't another C. S. Lewis. To write about Christianity as Lewis did, you need theology, and Muggeridge had none. In fact, he despised theology. Nor did he have much time for doctrine. He realized that joining a church meant having to accept its dogmas. In the same sort of way, travelling to France necessitated converting one's money into francs. When, three months after my father had gone over to Rome, an interviewer put it to him that, in all really essential points, the Catholic Church was teaching through the Pope and the bishops exactly what Christ taught, he responded, ".I couldn't believe that." In other words, he had become a Catholic without being able to subscribe to Catholicism's central teaching. No problem here. Muggeridge simply decided, as he told his interviewer, to justify the step he was taking "through individuals rather than through any sense of the Church."
This easy-going approach to dogma proves Ingrams's point that Muggeridge was "one of nature's anarchists". It also proves another claim he makes. For all his non-conformity, Muggeridge was as deeply influenced as any of his contemporaries by the times he lived through. Ingrams even calls him "a symbol of twentieth-century man". Here at last is a Muggeridge that does ring true. He lived through eighty-seven years of this century, always with his eyes and ears wide open. And he spent over two-thirds of that period hitting out on his typewriter (I remember so well its thundering) what those two senses conveyed to him.
But I cannot help fearing that Saint Mugg will carry the day.

John Muggeridge is a writer who lives in Welland, Ontario.


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