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Chapter One: Childhood
Malcolm's earliest memory of life was of men--his father and his cronies--talking. They would assemble in the sitting room of the Muggeridge home in South Croydon on Saturday evenings and with the help of small quantities of scotch and water, discuss politics although with literary and philosophical undertones. To avoid being noticed and sent to bed, Malcolm would hide himself in a high-backed damask-covered divan which was called the 'cosy corner', an incongruous piece of furniture which his father had acquired in a second-hand shop. Thus concealed, the boy listened intently to the conversation and when he finally went to bed would go over endlessly in his mind the various schemes that had been proposed, for example the superiority of municipal trams to other forms of transport, all of which he unreservedly accepted would make the world a better place.
Malcolm's father, H. T. Muggeridge, who was to dominate his early life, was a small bearded man with a large frame, a twinkling eye and a rather bulbous nose which he passed on to his son. He was born on 26 June 1864, the eldest son of Henry Ambrose Muggeridge, an undertaker in what was then the Surrey village of Penge (Aspinall's Directory of 1867 lists Henry Muggeridge of Maple Road, Penge under 'Auctioneer' and 'Cabinet Maker and Upholsterer'). When Henry was twelve, his father abandoned his wife and eleven children and Mrs Muggeridge was forced to support them by running a second-hand furniture shop in Penge High Street. Henry left school at the age of thirteen and a half in order to earn a living to help support the family and took a job as office boy in a lawyers, office in the City. He earned 7 shillings a week which he gave to his mother who gave him a shilling back for travel by early workers, train and 4 pence a day for food.
Every day he bought a glass of milk for a penny and a penny bun and spent the remaining tuppence in the bookshops of Charing Cross Road. He taught himself French and how to play the piano. Later, realizing that he could never become a lawyer, he got a job as office boy at MacIntyre, Hogg Marsh and Company, a firm of shirt manufacturers in New Basinghall Street EC2 (later demolished in the Blitz). He remained with the firm until he retired, eventually becoming the company secretary though, to the disappointment of his wife, he turned down a directorship, as he thought it conflicted with his political principles.
From his lunchtime reading, H. T. Muggeridge acquired an absorbing interest in politics and literature. Though later he became a Labour MP, his first commitment was to the Penge Liberal Association and he played an active role in campaigning for a free library in the borough as well as for public baths. By the early Nineties he had become a socialist, joined the Fabian Society in 189, and later the ILP. He became secretary of the Croydon Socialist Society in 1895 and stood unsuccessfully as a local council candidate in Norwood in 1896 and '97. He was an excellent public speaker though not always allowed a hearing. A lively report in the Croydon Times for 5 October 1899 tells of an anti-Boer War demonstration at Duppas Hill where a mob of about 2,000 'patriots' broke up the meeting before it could even begin.
On Mr H. T. Muggeridge mounting the seat with a view to opening the proceedings he was instantly assailed with cries of 'Kruger', 'Put him down', 'traitor', etc. He succeeded in beginning however - 'We only ask for -' he said but had got no further when Powls of decision were raised. Somebody called for "Three cheers for Salisbury, and these were given with a will after which the crowd lustily sang the refrain of 'Rule Britanica'.
Mr Muggeridge: 'We only ask for -' (cries of down with the old Kruger and more of Rule Britannia and yet others calling for cheers for the Queen, Chamberlain, Ronald Grahame and everybody else they could think of- even for the police!).
A rough looking fellow unfurled a dirty and ragged specimen of the Union Jack to the intense delight of the crowd who cheered and cheered again.
Sensing that it was useless to try to proceed with his speech, Mr Muggeridge gave up the attempt--his vacation of the seat being the signal for more cheers.
In spite of the town's predominantly middle-class electorate, socialism had a strong footing in Croydon and by 1903 there were five Labour members out of the thirty-six on the council. Muggeridge was elected in November 1911 and remained a councilor until 1930. His special interest was housing and he was instrumental in getting the first council houses built in Croydon. He also campaigned for Trade Union rates of pay for all municipal employees. He stood for Parliament in South Croydon in four elections unsuccessfully and was finally elected as MP for Romford in May 1929. In December 1930 he was one of a group of MPs from all parties to sign Oswald Mosley's manifesto calling for a planned economy to stimulate exports and plan home consumption. He lost his seat in October 1931 but was re-elected to the Croydon Council in 1933 until he resigned, due to ill health, in 1940, by which time he was 75.
In 1893 at the age of twenty-nine HTM married Annie Booler, whom he met when they were both holidaying in the Isle of Man (['It was a pick-up,' Malcolm used to say). Later he would visit her in Sheffield, though even then, it seemed, politics took precedence over passion and Annie would first hear of her suitor's presence in the town when one of her brothers told her: 'Your Harry is down outside the factory gates spouting., After their marriage they set up home in Broomhall Road, Sanderstead, a village on the outskirts of Croydon. Annie was a very pretty, fair-haired, working-class girl, the daughter of Ida and William Booler, a foreman of a cutlery factory in Sheffield. She shared none of her husband's political interests, though she did sometimes accompany him to his meetings, sit beside him on the platform and tug on his coat-tails when she thought he had gone on long enough. "Annie is still living in the world of simple love for those who the great father has given her" her husband wrote to Alec Vidler in 1926. "She has no introspection, no doubts, no ambitions--except perhaps still to look beautiful as is, I think, to be envied.'
Annie bore him five sons at three-year intervals--Douglas, Stanley (killed in a motorcycle accident at the age of twenty-three on 19 August, 1922), Malcolm, Eric and Jack. His third son was born on 24 March 1903 and named Thomas Malcolm after one of his father's heroes, Carlyle. He was, according to his own account, a pretty child and at the age of three months won a beautiful baby contest sponsored by Mellins Food. Although Malcolm spoke warmly in later life of his mother's working-class relatives, it would seem that he was never very close to his mother. "She was extremely pretty" he wrote, 'with very fair hair and an expression of fathomless innocence . . . only, if you looked deep into it, far from the pellucid surface, you came up with something steely, tough and merciless there.' Kitty Muggeridge always insisted that Malcolm was never really loved by his mother.
Shortly after the birth of the youngest son, Jack, the Muggeridges moved from their three-bedroom semi-detached home in Sanderstead to 17 Birdhurst Gardens, South Croydon, a five-bedroom detached house 'standing in its own grounds' which HTM had built by a co-operative for 1,000[pounds] (land and all). Though well constructed, the house was plain inside, the only heating in the large living room being a closed anthracite stove on which Malcolm used to sit when he was at home. This room also contained a pianola--a present from one of HTM's friends. Despite the five bedrooms, three boys (Eric, Jack and Malcolm) had at one stage to share a bed and Jack remembered that Malcolm often had nightmares and sometimes walked in his sleep.
Birdhurst Gardens was a short unmade road, deep in the heart of suburbia. The Muggeridges, neighbours were highly respectable and looked on the socialist visitors at number seventeen with some apprehension. It was not long before Malcolm and his brothers were being spoken of as 'those dreadful Muggeridge boys'.
All the boys doted on their father even though, with his city job and his political meetings in the evenings, he was, more often than not, away from home. He took them for bicycle rides into the country on Sundays and in the evenings read aloud to them from a large illustrated edition of Shakespeare's plays, or sat at the pianola playing Beethoven with a dribbling pipe stuck between his teeth. His wife played little or no part in these activities although she could sometimes be persuaded to sing to his accompaniment. She had no special interest in books and only wrote with difficulty. Envious perhaps of her husband's achievements she kept herself in the background and when, as a young man, Malcolm sailed for India his mother was not at the quayside to see him off (an absence that he did not seem to find remarkable) and seldom wrote to him when he was away.
His father was God. "From the beginning" he wrote, "we had some bond, some special intimacy which made me want to share and explore all his thoughts and interests and altitudes." Malcolm would walk with him to catch the 8.30 train, up a rather steep hill, by the water tower and through the recreation ground to East Croydon Station; at the ticket barrier in the evening, delighted when he recognized the little bowler-hatted figure striding out at the head of the tide of city workers resuming home. Often he would go straight to Croydon Town Hall for a meeting of the Borough Council and sometimes, as a special treat, Malcolm was allowed to sit in the public gallery and listen to his father taking part in the debate. But Malcolm's most vivid memories were of his father in the market in Surrey Street on Saturday evenings, erecting his little platform and haranguing passers-by about the need for socialism. He had one particular joke which his son always remembered: "Now ladies and gentlemen. It's His Majesty's Government, His Majesty's Navy, His Majesty's Stationery Office, His Majesty's this and His Majesty's that. But it's the National Debt. Why isn't that His Majesty's? We'll gladly let His Majesty have that, won't we?"
From the beginning his father had looked on Malcolm as different. 'I now have three young sons', he wrote to his brother Percy in Australia in 1906. 'Little Malcolm, who is two and a half, is the youngest and we think the most promising of all.' As he grew up, his brothers too came to share their father's view. His youngest brother Jack (the only one he ever really got on with) was always aware of a spiritual element in Malcolm's make-up that was lacking in the others. It was not that he was necessarily cleverer, he was simply more aware. (Jack remembers how Malcolm while still a schoolboy spotted that he was naturally left-handed and helped him to write with his left hand. Predictably, this was immediately corrected when he started school.) He had started piano lessons at a school run by two sisters called Monday just around the corner from the Muggeridges, home and at the age of seven he went to the elementary school. Here began that strange sequence of apparently chance encounters which ran through his life. His teacher was Helen Corke, who at the time she was teaching Malcolm was having an affair with a young teacher at the nearby Davidson Road School whose name was D. H. Lawrence and who was then beginning to write. Helen Corke later told Kitty that Malcolm had been "very charming but impossible".
Malcolm was always grateful for the fact that he went to state schools and was thereby spared the various complexes that affected his public school contemporaries. At the age of twelve he won a scholarship to a local grammar school. "School to us" he wrote, "was a place to get away from as soon as possible and for as long as possible. Everything exciting. mysterious and adventurous happened outside its confines, not within them."
As a schoolboy he gave few indications of unusual ability. "Certainly no one would have accepted that he was exceptional in any way" schoolmate Robert Edgar, later a headmaster, remembered. 'In fact he was inclined to be a bit of a chump . . . the masters' attitude to him was one of amused tolerance., Another contemporary, Arthur Gibson, recalled: "We all regarded him as rather an odd fellow. He was an emotional person. Always got very het up and angry over injustices. And frightfully excitable. Excelled at written English and in conversation." George Ratcliffe, who became head accountant at the London Electricity Board, remembered Malcolm as "Usually in the bottom half if the form when it came to exams. But always very verbose and self-assured." (Women's Mirror, 19 February 1966)
As far as getting het up over injustices, was concerned, Malcolm's brother Jack recalled an incident which bears it out. The headmaster, Mr Hillyer, was a sadistic beater who, after the war years, when discipline in the school was at a low ebb indulged his taste for caning boys in his study or in the library. When one of these sessions was in progress Malcolm entered the library seized the cane from Hillyer, broke it and walked out without saying a word. He heard nothing subsequently.
As for books and ideas, Malcolm was educated almost entirely by his father. He went through his library--six or seven shelves in a glass-covered case- the books being those which would be found in any progressive Fabian household at that time, Carlyle Dickens, William Morris, Ruskin, Bernard Shaw, as well as socialist classics by the Webbs and R. H. Tawney. His own most treasured book was A Pageant of English Poetry (Clarendon Press) which his father gave him for Christmas in 1914 when he was eleven. It was the first book he possessed and he used to gaze at the frontispiece showing six famous poets (Keats, Tennyson, etc.) and wonder which one he was going to be.
In the Muggeridge home, as elsewhere, idealism and optimism about a new world had been dampened by the outbreak of war in 1914. Like many on the left, HTM, while not a pacifist, had been before the war instinctively pro-German and anti-French. The war unsettled him and Malcolm had a vivid memory of finding his father one morning sitting at the breakfast table staring at the long list of casualties in the morning papers, his face streaming with tears.
To Malcolm, only eleven when the war broke out, the whole thing was exciting and glamorous. His elder brothers joined up Douglas in the Army, Stanley in the Royal Flying Corps, and he secretly longed for it to continue so that he could wear a uniform and be like the soldiers whom he enviously watched dancing with the pretty girls on Saturday evenings at the Greyhound Hotel. He even went to the local recruiting office when he was thirteen but when he was told to report back with a birth certificate, fled, panic-stricken that his fraudulent application might be reported to the public. At the age of seventeen, Ma]co]m fed] in dove for the first and by no means the last time. Her name was Dora Pitman and they first met on the municipal tennis courts. From then on he spent many hours with her, visiting her home in Thornton Heath. 'Am fearfully in love with a charming little girl Dora" he wrote; 'she has simply wonderful eyes and writes poetry.,
None of Dora's poems survive, though one of Malcolm's addressed to Dora does because he rather cruelly included it in his play Three Flats produced in 1931.
Come let us sleep beloved and not waste Our time in idle passion There are a thousand star-lit nights to taste Our loins in wild flesh fashion.
No one would wish to be judged by their juvenile efforts, let alone their letters. However, Dora's surviving letters to Alec Vidler suggest that Malcolm had a lucky escape. "And now I haven't told you how Malcolm is" she wrote (22 March 1923). 'When we went down there he did not look as well as he should have done, because in a mad rag which they had a few weeks ago he had a jug smashed over his head by accident . . . He is a stupid child . . . I think this has taught him a lesson, however, and I feel sure he will be more careful in the future. In himself he is just the same, dear, lovable boy--a little more serious than he used to be.,
By this time, Malcolm was already a Cambridge undergraduate, having gone up to Selwyn College in October 1920. He spoke disparagingly of the teaching at Selhurst School--many of the masters had joined up in 1914--but it cannot have beef as bad as all that if he w as able to gain admission to a Cambridge college.
In 1920 Selwyn was, according to its historian Professor W. R. Brock, 'very small, very poor, very Anglican and academically pretty dim'. There were some 120 undergraduates, about evenly divided between public and grammar school boys. The fees were lover than those of the older colleges and a large number of the students were the sons of clergymen. The college admitted only confirmed members of the Church of England, a restriction which meant that the college was not officially part of the University. As a result, Malcolm had to be confirmed before he could go to Cambridge. This in turn meant that he had also to be baptized. Malcolm always dismissed Cambridge, saying he profited little from his studies. This perhaps was not surprising as he had been compelled to read for a Natural Sciences degree--it being the only subject available at his secondary school for post-matriculation study. Nevertheless the evidence does not altogether support Malcolm's picture of himself as a lonely outsider from a state school pitched into a world of public school snobs and homosexuals and hating every minute of it.
Malcolm joined in the college activities. The Selwyn magazine, The Calendar, records that on 18 February 1922 he proposed and carried a motion in the Debating Society that "The 20th Century shows a general improvement on the 19th". He joined another debating society, the Friars, and was elected President in 1923. He rowed one of the college boats, played tennis and even soccer but was dropped because he was no good. So far from turning up his nose at the public-school men, he did his best to become like them. (However, one contemporary, C. W. Phillips, later a distinguished archaeologist, remembered him as a very difficult undergraduate- rebellious and unpopular.) His brothers were amazed at the transformation in him after on]y one term. His accent had become a strange mixture of suburban Croydon and upper-class drawl and his conversation was full of peculiar expressions, hitherto unfamiliar in Birdhurst Gardens. His parents were no longer Mum and Dad but Pater and Mater or "my people" while things or persons who won his approval were awfully good, or 'simply topping' (a description he applied in all seriousness to his girlfriend Dora).
Nothing suggests that H. T. Muggeridge was disconcerted by the change in his son or his apparent defection to the despised bourgeoisie. Like many self-made men he set enormous store by the benefits of education and was determined that his favourite son would have all the advantages that he himself had gone without. All his hopes were pinned on Malcolm and he lavished what money he had to spare on him to the detriment of his other sons. He bought him life-membership to the Cambridge Union and on three occasions bailed him out when he ran up debts at his tailors. Even Malcolm's failure to excel at his studies did little to dampen his pride in his son. It may have been thanks to his father's connections that Malcolm had obtained a bursary from Croydon Council to help pay the college fees. Thus under the terms of the Board of Education Scheme he was obliged to do four years at Cambridge: three years for the Tripos and a fourth doing a teacher training diploma after which he was expected to teach in a state school for two years. It also involved him in teacher practice in local schools in Croydon during his first two Tripos years. Malcolm gained a teacher's diploma (class 2) in December 1924. The examiner commended his 'splendid control of the class' while at the same time noting: 'Talks too much, hindered by a certain amount of conceit.'
His general summary read as follows: "After his failure in the Tripos he developed a liking for English. He has a confident opinion of himself. He is most pleasant to deal with. He is frank and pleasing in manner. His interests are wide and varied but he lacks depth. He is friendly and courteous and will make an agreeable colleague. He is somewhat immature and has a child-like outlook. He is devoted to teaching which he prefers above all things . . ."
It was a shrewd assessment of his character which many of those who knew him in later life would recognize. As for the lack of depth and immaturity, it was to be some time before these were to be wholly eradicated.
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