Malcolm Muggeridge Revisited

Ian Hunter - - Art & Books
The London Yodeller

Ian2In 1975 I was five years into a career teaching law and I had written two law books.  I had also struck up an improbable friendship with the internationally-known British author and journalist, Malcolm Muggeridge, who had recently written an unlikely bestseller called Jesus Rediscovered; this book had generated the widespread but mistaken belief that Muggeridge, a former editor of Punch renowned for his acerbic wit and public agnosticism, had somehow undergone a recent and dramatic Damascus Road conversion (“the most unlikely Christian disciple since the Apostle Paul”, as one wag put it).

Now this was not true; Muggeridge’s earliest writings, as I knew even then, disclosed the same themes, the same doubts and religious preoccupations, the same thirst for living water, as his later writings.

One day, in 1974 I think it was, I accompanied Malcolm to a taping of the CBC television program Front Page Challenge; all the panelists, but particularly the bumptious Gordon Sinclair, rang variations on this idea of a sudden Damascus Road conversion; as we left the studio I said to Malcolm:  “Why don’t you compile an anthology of early writings to refute this?”

“Why don’t you?” Malcolm replied.

At first, I thought the idea was ridiculous but gradually it came to preoccupy my mind.

Thus was born Things Past, published in 1978.  The book received generous reviews, sold very well (thanks to a Book Club selection), and inspired me, two years later, to swap houses with Muggeridge and spend a sabbatical year in Sussex writing his biography, while he fulfilled a rash commitment he had made to his friend, Andrew MacFarlane, then Dean of Western’s Journalism School.

Decades have passed; I am now approaching Malcolm’s age when Things Past first appeared.  I had not looked between its covers until recently when I took the book down and reread it.

All of the entries prove beyond any shadow of doubt that Muggeridge’s preoccupation with “religious questions” (and, really, are there any other?) was no quirk of advancing age.  The theme running through all his writing, at all stages of life, was the same: a pilgrimage in quest of faith.  Like John Bunyan’s hero, Christian, Muggeridge’s rollicking path through the twentieth century traversed diverse earthly Kingdoms, Vanity Fairs, and Sloughs of Despond.  More than one Giant Despair sought to imprison him in castles of social, ideological, or religious conformity.  But whatever the climate, however fascinating or menacing the surroundings, he invariably folded his tent and made off at first light “ . . . with some notion, however indistinct, that at last one will see the Holy City set upon a hill.”  Hence the title – Things Past – from Bunyan.

Things Past opens with a short story, Muggeridge’s first fiction, called An Elderly Teacher, published in the NewStatesman in 1928, when Malcolm was 25; it concluded with an essay published in The Spectator in 1975, Albion Agonistes.  In between, half a century of the most eloquent journalism of the last century, arguably rivaled by the output of his friend George Orwell.  Whatever the subject Muggeridge is tart and to the point, with a demonstrable preference for malice over mincing; Muggeridge had the gift of compulsive readability.

Until I reread the book, I had forgotten that Malcolm had added an Epilogue where he summed up his view of life:  “The contemporary scene presents itself as a tragi-comic spectacle in which what pass for being humane and enlightened purposes give rise to the exact opposite of what is intended.  Thus, by a strange irony, a continuing revelation of what William Blake called Fearful Symmetry, illiteracy increases along with expenditure on public education, the demand for sedatives with increased leisure and affluence, and crimes of violence with libertarian schemes to prevent them . . . The more pacifists and internationalists in the world, the more belligerency; the more free speech, the less truth spoken; the more maternal and child care, the more foetuses aborted and thrown away with the hospital waste. Oh, the terrible inhumanity of the humane, the fathomless gullibility of the enlightened!”

These were words that Malcolm Muggeridge lived and died by, alas truer now, it seems to me, than even when he wrote them.

Ian Hunter is Professor Emeritus in the Faculty of Law at Western University


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