A Satirist in Search of Salvation
By Frances Stead Sellers
Sunday, March 3, 1996
Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the BBC's talking heads of the '50s and '60s. A regular contributor to radio's "Any Questions," he was also an interviewer and sometime emcee for the staid Monday night newsmagazine program Panorama. When the great and the godly pondered current events, Muggeridge could be relied upon to shake things up.
A former editor of Punch, Muggeridge was known for his acerbic and opinionated commentary. He had, throughout his career as a trenchant newspaperman and mediocre novelist, skewered Britain's sacred cows (including both Winston Churchill and the Royal family in the days when they were still off-limits). But as he aged, Muggeridge's clear-sighted irreverence gave way to religious convictions and harrumphs about national morality. His new-found evangelism may have won him some support among Christian conservatives in the United States and Canada, but little sympathy from the skeptical, understated British middle classes. It was hard to reconcile talk of miracles and public condemnations of abortion and birth control with the habitual cynicism, adultery and alcoholism that had plagued the man's personal life. Then, aged 79, under the sober influence of Mother Teresa, "St. Mugg" announced in the London Times that he was joining the Catholic Church -- in a much-photographed conversion ceremony. "He had become in his old age," writes his biographer Richard Ingrams, "the sort of person that in his youth he would have mercilessly mocked."
Muggeridge's life (1903-1990) is an entertaining story of inconsistencies that smack of pure hypocrisy. Yet Ingrams, a fellow satirist and former editor of Private Eye, insists that "my personal and strongest impression, whether reading him or listening to him face to face, was of a man who told the truth."
There were moments in Muggeridge's life that reflect courageous honesty and foresight. The son of a staunch Labourite from the London suburb of Croyden, he graduated from Cambridge and, after spells abroad in India and Egypt, began working as a leader writer for the Manchester Guardian. When an opening came up in Russia, the young socialist went to Moscow, hoping to witness "the birth of a new kind of civilization." He was quickly disillusioned. In 1933, the Guardian published the 27-year-old's accounts (the first, according to Ingrams, by a Western journalist) of what Stalin's "collectivization of agriculture" actually meant for the people of Russia: "On the platform a group of peasants were standing in military formation, five soldiers armed with rifles guarding them . . . Somehow, lining them up in military formation made the thing grotesque -- wretched looking peasants, half-starved, tattered clothes, frightened faces, standing to attention." Muggeridge's bold reporting prompted retaliation from the Russian press office. Nor was it what readers at home really wanted to hear: The young reporter's judgments ran afoul of his paper's political commitments, as well as the fashionable intellectual orthodoxy of the day. Stalin's prominent apologists included Muggeridge's aunt by marriage, Beatrice Webb.
Drawing on diaries, personal correspondence, memoirs and extensive interviews, Ingrams portrays Muggeridge as a man plagued by restlessness, insomnia, bouts of self-absorption and depression. When he moved to Moscow, he seems to have had few qualms about leaving a 3-year-old son in the care of neighbors in England; later he traveled abroad alone, indulging his compulsive womanizing in the absence of his wife and lifelong companion, Kitty. (He seems to have found it hard to accept Kitty's modest indiscretions.) Despite Ingrams's obvious sympathy and admiration for his subject, Muggeridge emerges as an unappealing character.
As is so often the case with biography, it is not only Muggeridge's tormented personality but his experiences that make his story so compelling, and Ingrams tells them well: the wartime escapades in Portuguese East Africa; the friendships and feuds with other British journalists on both the left and the right; the close contact he enjoyed with literary giants like Anthony Powell, Graham Greene and George Orwell.
But Muggeridge's memory is also subject to the ironies of the century, best reflected by a meeting in his latter years: In 1968, he was persuaded to interview an Albanian nun. The BBC documentary he subsequently made, "Something Beautiful for God," helped turn Mother Teresa into a celebrity, larger than life. It has become the job of biographers to reveal the person behind the persona. The small screen also made Muggeridge larger than life. With this biography, Ingrams seeks to convince us that the essential Muggeridge was neither the TV personality nor the sanctimonious Catholic convert, but the idealistic, if unlikable, writer, determined to see -- and -- tell the truth. Ingrams succeeds.
Frances Stead Sellers is a British-born writer and the deputy editor of Civilization magazine.
© 1996 The Washington Post Co.
Back to top