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Sharp, witty and original


Malcolm Muggeridge ... an unlikely convert to religious faith.

A COUPLE of columns ago (July 6, 2003), I mused on the much-heralded centenary of that great writer and humanist George Orwell. But earlier this year I had missed another centenary altogether — also that of an Englishman of letters — and so, it seems, had most of the world press. This might not be entirely surprising, since few reputations are as evanescent as those forged in the transient arena of popular journalism, which is where Malcolm Muggeridge, who would have turned 100 in March 2003, made his name. But just three decades ago, at the height of his fame, Malcolm Muggeridge was surely amongst the half-dozen best-known Britons in India, and it is a little too soon, in my view, for us to have completely forgotten him.

Muggeridge is best remembered in our country as the man who "discovered" Mother Teresa — the journalist whose impassioned reporting of her work, captured first on BBC television and then more memorably in the 1969 book Something Beautiful for God, first catapulted the Kolkata missionary to worldwide attention. At the time Muggeridge declared that he "saw life as an eternal battle between two irreconcilable opposites, the world of the flesh and the world of the spirit". His admiration for Mother Teresa helped convince him of the triumph of the spirit, and turned him into an increasingly religious figure, who was finally received into the Roman Catholic faith in 1982, at the age of 79. "God made the world", Muggeridge observed, "and saw that it was good." When he died in 1990 it was the Malcolm Muggeridge of Catholic compassion whom the Indian obituarists all memorialised.

But this was in fact an unlikely ending for a notorious libertine; for most of his life it was the world of the flesh that Muggeridge inhabited, and in which he dazzled. The son of a socialist factory clerk in a London suburb, Malcolm Muggeridge was a brilliant student at Cambridge who developed by his late twenties into a formidable writer and commentator of sharp intelligence, admirable originality ("never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream", he once remarked) and coruscating wit (Prime Minister Anthony Eden "was not only a bore, he bored for England.")

Muggeridge wrote plays, published novels, and reported on pretty much every event of worldwide importance from the 1930s to the 1970s. He did so, of course, in print, his byline appearing in virtually every English newspaper we have ever heard of in India, from the Guardian and the New Statesman to the Listener and Punch (which he edited for five years). But he was also a famous radio broadcaster on the BBC from the 1940s, and an early television celebrity, so famous in Britain that Madame Tussaud's immortalised him in wax in 1968 alongside such other cultural icons of the day as Elizabeth Taylor and the Beatles.

Muggeridge also produced a remarkable amount of personal reflection, scribbling frank and perceptive dissections of his contemporaries into his diaries (for the delectation thereafter of a wide readership), and authoring two volumes of memoirs with the delicious title Chronicles of Wasted Time. Much of Muggeridge's appeal, it must be said, lay in his irreverence. Visiting Tokyo after the Second World War, he attended a public appearance by Emperor Hirohito and described him as a "nervous, shy, stuttering, pathetic figure, formerly god". He began an interview with Salvador Dali not with some pretentious question about modern art but by asking what happened to the painter's famous upwardly-pointed moustaches at night ("they droop", Dali replied). Muggeridge was so contemptuous of the soap-opera conduct of the British royal family in the 1950s that the BBC briefly exiled him from the ether (he was too popular for them to banish him altogether). This was in reaction to the relatively decorous affair between Princess Margaret and the gentlemanly Group Captain Peter Townsend; one shudders to think what Muggeridge would have made of Princess Di and Fergie.

But if he was famously contrarian, it was in the service of a larger cause — the preservation of a society in which "everything should be subject to criticism", authority was always suspect, and conformism was to be avoided. Though brought up as a socialist, and married to the niece of the famous Fabians Sidney and Beatrice Webb, Muggeridge was wary of the socialists' starry-eyed idealism, and fierce in his denunciations of Stalinism. Reporting from Moscow, he was among the first to broadcast exposes of Soviet tyranny, at a time when the Communist experiment was still idealised by the left; and he was equally early to denounce Fascism and Nazism in his journalism from Berlin. Within a decade of World War Two he was scathing about the dangers of liberalism, calling it "the destructive force of the age" because it assumed a willingness on the part of individuals to live amicably "seeking one another's good" — a "fantasy" which "in human terms, cannot be". Hence Muggeridge on the welfare state: "a kind of zoo which provides its inmates with ease and comfort and unfits them for life in their natural habitat."

It is clearly a long way from such robustly individualist views to the softly glowing halo Muggeridge placed on Mother Teresa. A chain-smoking, hard-drinking philanderer who was notorious for his advances at every passing woman (and whose own wife matched him in the frequency and variety of her adulteries), Muggeridge seems an unlikely convert to religious faith, let alone one as rigorous and doctrinaire as Catholicism. "His enemies, and even his friends", according to the critic Roger Kimball, "saw in him the aging reprobate who, stymied by flagging appetite, rails against the sins of his youth and cravenly turns to religion". Many would prefer to remember the Muggeridge who, when told on TV by the preacher Billy Graham that only God could answer one of his questions, responded tartly: "And we haven't got Him in the studio — or", he added, rolling his eyes to the ceiling, "have we?"

Malcolm Muggeridge is largely forgotten today, but his life is not his only legacy. "From earliest childhood," Muggeridge once recalled, "it always seemed to me that the only thing worth doing in life was to write."

What words will endure no writer can know, but for those of us who have to struggle to find the time to write, that motto remains an inspiration.

Shashi Tharoor is the United Nations Under Secretary General for Communications and Public Information.

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