When playing piano in a whorehouse, never forget Abide With Me
The visitor arrived like one of those British sportsmen in the golden days of Empire, with rod and gun in darkest Canada, loaded (as the saying went) for bear. But it wasn’t the big game that showed alarm. It was the rabbits — the intellectual rabbits, the liberal-minded rabbits of Canada, noses quivering with revulsion at they were not sure what, but it smelt like hateful orthodoxy, yes, a decided whiff of ultramontane incense. Rabbit ears twitched in pain at the clangor of discordant old opinions, arpeggios of satire, bright dissonances of invective denouncing materialism, birth control, abortion, self-indulgence, Marxism, feminism, capitalism, politicians, positivism. Enlightenment, pornography, the utter depravity of unregenerate 20th-century man. And worse than any of this, which could after all be quarantined in the part of the liberal mind reserved for uncomfortable dissent, were the interpolated revivalist hymns, the Sally-Ann drums, the simpleminded confessions of faith in the risen Christ, in man’s redemption by the blood of his dear Redeemer.
The alien presence was Malcolm Muggeridge, the great British journalist, wartime spy, former editor of Punch, book columnist of Esquire and champion interviewer and dragon slayer of British television. He was in Canada for a few months of winter 1973-74, first in Toronto, then in Saltspring Island, BC, three hours by ferry from Vancouver, lastly in Toronto again to complete a television series on six great religious thinkers, which is to be shown by the CBC, beginning November 13. A surprisingly benign figure, thatched with the snows of 70 years, Muggeridge, looked disconcertingly like Doctor Doolittle, not the Rex Harrison version but the original, as he cracked his whip over a circus of opinions, the push-me-pullyou kind with horned heads at both ends. If he was for Christ, why was he nasty about Christ’s bishops? If he was disillusioned with liberal democracy, why could he not say something nice about the dear Queen? He was deriding
the British Establishment in its own accent, a kind of renegade By Gad fly.
By the 1960s good middle-class people were beginning to get used to him: a generation was coming on that found his irreverence charming. Esquire magazine — which was running his highly personal book reviews — listed him among the 100 best people in the world. And then, at the height of his popularity and universal acceptance as the western world’s official iconoclast, Muggeridge had suddenly delivered a new shock, more radical and disturbing than any he had delivered before. He declared that he had found Christ. He wasn’t kidding. Without letting up on his campaign against swinging prelates and “randy clerics” (as he unkindly described the growing army of defrocked priests), he told the world that Jesus was his Savior. In 1969 he published his confession, Jesus Rediscovered.
Canadian editors, sons of the Enlightenment who kept their pencils in Cooper’s marmalade jars and sprouted sideburns when the cultural weather turned voluptuous, were drawn to the man as by a magnet, opposite poles exerting irresistible attraction. Late in 1972, I, then the Toronto Star's token literary man, had been assigned to interview Muggeridge and collect some of those quaint opinions that invariably made headlines.
I had reasons of my own for wanting to meet Muggeridge and his wife, Kitty, Irish and dynastic reasons that had little to do with his glamour and fame. I should explain that the Irish, either of the Holy Land or the dispersion, are among the last people in the world who cherish the bonds of kinship even unto the fifth cousin twice removed. Kitty Muggeridge was the daughter of my father’s first cousin, George Cumberland Dobbs of Castlecomer, County Kilkenny, and my father and hers had grown up together in that pleasant leafy village around the turn of this century when the Dobbses, a sporting breed, were numerous enough in those parts to field their own teams in cricket and
polo. Kitty and I shared a great-grandfather in Kildare Dobbs of Castlecomer, and all my life I had been regaled with anecdotes of Cousin Rosie, Kitty’s astonishing mother who was (as she would tell anyone who happened to be around, interested or not) the sister of Beatrice Webb, the crusading Fabian.
Cousin Rosie figures hilariously as the comic relief in Muggeridge’s memoirs, most memorably in the culminating episode of his second volume, The Infernal Grove. Muggeridge describes the scene in Westminster Abbey as the ashes of Beatrice arid her husband Sidney Webb in two bronze urns are brought in to lie with the honored dust of Britain’s military and cultural heroes. The two urns, Cousin Rosie knew, enclosed the mortal remains of the leaders of Fabian Socialism and the British Labor Party, but she wanted more precise information. “Which is Sidney and which is Beatrice?” she asked.
I met the Muggeridges at the party William Collins Publishers threw for them in the Park Plaza. I found Cousin Kitty one of those women whose beauty is refined by age and a transparent sweetness of disposition. She did not take after Cousin Rosie in any way that I could see.
As for Malcolm, the initial surprise was to find him so genial, so affectionate. I had expected a sardonic man, a sharp tongue, an ironic smile. Instead there was this convivial gentleman, hardly elderly for all his soft white hair, warm and responsive, bubbling over with jokes and absurdities and perhaps, despite his civility and poise, a little shy, though one sensed that it gave him pleasure to be the guest of honor, the centre of attention. “He loves to hold court,” a friend said after meeting him for the first time. I found it endearing,
We made an appointment for an interview in the apartment he had been lent in the Brentwood Towers. By coincidence I happened to be living in the same building, and when 1 dropped in I brought an album of old photographs of Castlecomer days for Cousin Kitty to
“Western civilization is on its last legs,” Muggeridge said. “I see a breakdown. It’s happening now, creepmg anarchy. . .”
browse in. She found several pictures of her father and, in one group, Cousin Rosie herself. She brought coffee while Malcolm and I talked, the Star s Reg Innell ducking about with a camera.
Reg, an ardent book collector, had brought along a couple of rare Muggeridge editions, and the author autographed them happily. They talked
about George Orwell, who had been Muggeridge’s friend. Muggeridge said he had once been asked to write a biography of Orwell, but on going through the papers of Eric Blair (Orwell’s original name) he had found little support for the legend Orwell had created. “Burma policemen didn’t curse the British raj!” he said, laughing. (In Burma
Days Orwell had given the impression that he had been an unhappy police officer who hated imperialism.)
“It’s impossible to find out the truth about anything,” Muggeridge complained. He lifted his chin above the coffee cup and held forth on politics. “I attend to politics out of habit. No, I didn’t stay up all night listening to broadcasts about your federal election, but I heard some of it. I always thought the BBC was the most boring medium in the world on elections, but I must say the CBC have got them beaten.”
Muggeridge began to talk about the decline and fall of the*western world.
“The whole of western civilization is on its last legs. I see a breakdown. It’s happening now, creeping anarchy, day by day people are becoming conditioned to it. Who would have thought that men and women would be killed in the streets of a city in the U.K. — in Belfast? Even three years ago it would have been incredible: murderous men walking about!”
Did he think radio and television had anything to do with it?
“The media enormously distort life. People are given a surface picture which they come to believe — the legend made visible, the word become television. It promotes complete conformism. A. phrase like ‘population explosion’ is bandied about as if it meant something!”
Why did he take part himself in this world of illusion?
“I’ve tried to appear on TV as little as possible. But you have to get as much mammon for as little unrighteousness as possible, make your bargain with the people who have the money. I feel it would be cheating to refuse to take part at all.”
I came away from that first meeting with the expected headlines for the Star and the feeling that there was something fatuous about making newspaper copy out of a man who despised newspapers for the good reason that he knew them too well. “News, like sensuality,” he had written, “is a passing excitement, perhaps the ultimate fantasy.” I was not to see him again till he returned in the fall of 1973 to stay for a while and help edit his TV series for Nielsen-Ferns, the production company. Entitled A Third Testament, the series, written, hosted and narrated by Muggeridge, discusses St. Augustine, Blaise Pascal, William Blake, Soren Kierkegaard, Leo Tolstoy and Dietrich Bonhoefier. Meanwhile, The Green Stick, volume one of his autobiography, was brilliantly reviewed in
Muggeridge rejoiced when war broke out
the Globe and Mail under the head, NO, MUGGERIDGE THE GADFLY HAS NOT FLIPPED. The reviewer was John Muggeridge, the author’s Canadian son, a citizen of some years who teaches English and Canadian studies in a community college in Welland, Ontario. It’s a wise child who knows his own father well enough to put the Atlantic between himself and that father’s fame; and I have always explained John’s biting elegance as a writer by pointing out that he comes by his talent (as blurb writers say) honestly — his mother, after all, is a Dobbs. John wrote: “Here one glimpses the authentic Muggeridge, the man I have walked and talked with as far back as I can remember, whose funny profound view of the human condition I have been mulling over at least since a memorable evening in 1945 when, tucked in on the living room sofa of our single-bedroom flat below Kingsley Martin’s (later, in more affluent times, we moved in above Martin, as if, as well as being editor of the New Statesman, he was an economic indicator) and optimistically assumed to be sleeping, I heard it propounded to a room full of smoking journalists. What this book shows above all is the consistency of Muggeridge’s thinking. He has not, it is now safe to report, flipped his lid, or made some sudden Road-to-Damascus type conversion. He has refused to accept mortality as a final end.”
I was beginning to see Muggeridge, in a way one does not often see a writer whose work one admires, even if he happens to be a friend, as a man with a personal context, with relations and relationships, with no taste for luxury of any kind beyond the comfort of human affections, and I thought that if I ever wrote about him outside the narrowly abstract pages of a newspaper I would want to show him in that way.
I read his own account of his life in The Green Stick, then in The Infernal Grove when that came out, and I thought of James Joyce’s idea that the important question about any work of art was from how deep a life did it spring. Muggeridge’s had been a complex life, a newspaperman whose profoundly alive mind and imagination were desolated by this waste of time, this expense of spirit, so that when the bombs rained fire and destruction on London there was something in him that rejoiced to see the city of illusion go up in flames, infernal splendor that cast long shadows on personal history. The best of war, he wrote, was the killing. And in Lourenço Marques, His Majesty’s Honorary Consul to
He played at spying and clandestine love
Portuguese East Africa, Muggeridge played the games of espionage and clandestine love till the folly of them took away his wish to live. But not for long. God was gone up with a merry noise, and in a dying civilization the artist was playing Harlequin, a clown, a kind of holy fool who, as the poet e. e. Cummings put it, sang his didn’t, who danced his did.
From all his odysseys Muggeridge returned to Kitty, his true Penelope. I felt this when I met them in Toronto again in the fall of 1973. It was a family dinner with John Muggeridge and his wife, Anne Roche, a marvelously vital young Catholic writer from Newfoundland whose fierce advocacy of a faith undiluted with ecumenism has turned many a guitar-strumming priest white with terror.
When Muggeridge and Cousin Kitty came to my own house for dinner I asked Robert Fulford and his wife, Geraldine Sherman, to meet them. What could be more agreeable? Fulford and Muggeridge, two superb journalists, who admired each other, in full cry. It was Fulford who, as a Maclean’s editor, had got Muggeridge fired from Lord Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard by inciting him to write a disrespectful article on the Beaverbrook cult in Fredericton, New Brunswick. It was the only time Muggeridge had been fired in his w'hole career and, characteristically, he cherished Fulford for it. He and Fulford, I recall, were trying to find good things to say about Richard Nixon that night, if only because the rest of the world was saying nothing but nasty things.
After that evening with the Fulfords I didn’t see Muggeridge again until, his time in Saltspring Island being over, he stayed over in Toronto a few days on his way back to England. We talked in the downtown office of his film producer.
He was already overflowing with opinions about Canada, had taken part in a demonstration against easier abortion laws, dismissed Canadian nationalism (“a lot of lemonade” he told me) and upheld his belief in man’s need for God against the agnostic Charles Templeton on Pierre Berton’s The Great Debate. An irony in this last performance was that Templeton, a former bible thumper, has recently published a synoptic version of the Christian Gospel, and Muggeridge was himself at work on a book about the New Testament.
It looked as if he was spending a lot of time meeting the devil of the media on his own ground. “I see myself,” he confessed, chuckling, “as a man playing the
“I’m an old lecher in his senility”
piano in a whorehouse. And he occasionally includes Abide With Me in his repertoire.”
Paul Johnson, former editor of The New Statesman, noted in 1973 a “strong theatrical streak” in Muggeridge, adding that he was also a “surpassing exponent of the art of friendship.” Johnson thought his friend had played many parts, a man who had begun life as an earnest socialist, the son of a Labor MP, who had been a “worshipper, briefly, at the shrine of Stalin’s Russia, followed by a much longer spell as one of its principal iconoclasts” and was now documenting his loss of commitment to the notion of progress.
Muggeridge himself feels that his life is all of a piece; through all the vicissitudes, the changes of role (in Johnson’s terms), he has been embarked on the same quest. He notes in his memoirs that he has often been called a Manichee. The Manichean heresy taught ~that the physical world, the body and the flesh, were totally evil. Something of the emotional color of this outlook runs through Muggeridge’s ideas and touches his judgment which, though normally acute, sometimes flashes out in a way that is intemperate. His scorn for intellectual follies and sensual distractions may be heightened by the knowledge that he himself once shared in them, though this is not a view of his life he cares for in the least. “I’m a kind of old lecher!” he says sarcastically. “Naturally! In his senility!”
And then, as so often, he laughs.
The last I saw of him he was greeting his film crew like the old friends they had become, with hugs and smiles. A small, aging figure, yet a writer in full spate, I thought. There was something gallant and passionate about him which I would not forget. He had written it near the beginning of his autobiography, that elegy for lost life:
“Possibilities vaguely envisaged but never realized. A light glimpsed, only to disappear. Something vaguely caught, as it might be distant music or an elusive fragrance; something full of enchantment and the promise of ecstasy. Far, far away, and yet near; at the very farthermost rim of time and space, and in the palm of my hand. In any case, whether strained after in the remote distance, or reached for near at hand — unattained. No light seen more enduring than a match flickering out in a dark cave. No lasting ecstasy experienced, only a door closed, and footsteps echoing ever more faintly down stone stairs.”