'St. Mugg': How Spirituality Surfaced for a British Journalist

By

MUGGERIDGE: THE BIOGRAPHY

By Richard Ingrams

HarperCollins

Recommended: Default

264 pp., $27.50

In bald summary, the career of the British journalist and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge might sound interesting but not spectacular.

He taught for a spell in India in the 1920s, then worked in British newspapers, and took an unsuccessful stab at writing novels in the 1930s. After serving in British intelligence during the war, he blossomed as one of his country's best-known television personalities, combining that for a time with editing the humorous weekly Punch.

For some years, the gnome-faced man with a halo of white hair and a razor-sharp tongue was almost as well known in the United States as in Britain. (On one of many lecture tours to the US he began every address with the same quip: ''I always think when I hear the chairman introduce me I simply cannot wait to hear what I'm going to say.'') After a long period of retirement in the English countryside, Muggeridge died in 1990.

Richard Ingrams's affectionate but not uncritical biography makes it clear that there was much more to Muggeridge than a mere career.

Sent to the Soviet Union by the Guardian newspaper as a young Fabian socialist, he expected to discover paradise but became the first Western correspondent to describe the famine in the Ukraine and reveal the true horrors of the Stalinist state. He remained a bitter enemy of communism and dictatorships for the rest of his life.

Far from being an exercise in light-hearted mirth-making, his years at Punch landed him in overheated controversy as he launched thunderbolts at what he called ''the royal soap opera'' (he was the first prominent journalist of his era to mock the British monarchy) and attacked politicians of every stripe, including Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy.

At one point, Muggeridge was a hard-drinking womanizer and apparently passionate agnostic (teetering at times toward atheism). But he ended his life as a silver-tongued Christian apologist whose eventual conversion to Roman Catholicism dismayed many of his friends and puzzled the British public.

Like all good biographies, Ingrams's account of Muggeridge's life is content in the main to let the facts speak for themselves. The author was a friend and at one time a journalistic colleague of Muggeridge, and was on good terms with his widow Kitty, who died in 1994. But this is no hagiography.

Allowed full access to the family papers, Ingrams has used them to illuminate the contradictory character of a man who in early life appeared publicly to have the qualities of a convinced nonconformist but admitted privately to a persistent yearning for religious belief.

Having been conspicuously unfaithful to his wife over many years, he decided in the last years of his life to round on sexual permissiveness, denounce what he called the ''moral turpitude'' of modern society, and help lead a British campaign - strikingly successful - to ''clean up TV.''

Many believed Muggeridge's journey from nonconformism to religious conviction made him a hypocrite and were not afraid to say so. Cartoons labeled the Christian convert ''St. Mugg''; columnists hinted (often not-too-gently) that the renegade of the interwar years had simply gone off the deep end. Ingrams, while acknowledging the apparent disparities, discerns consistencies in Muggeridge's makeup that less charitable commentators have failed to grasp.

As well as noting the drum-beat of a submerged religious faith that finally broke to the surface, he draws attention to Muggeridge's unshakable distaste for everything that was pretentious, absurd, or cruel. Ingrams describes him as ''a genuine anarchist with no ambitions of his own, who regarded the political world as a comedy and the leading politicians as clowns''.

Ingrams also spots a quality in his friend's life that helped to make it seem more disjointed than it really was. Like many a journalist, Muggeridge was an unsettled spirit, never content to work for one employer or stay in one place for long.

This restlessness helped to bring him into contact with many of the century's most famous figures: Mahatma Gandhi, Nikita Khruschev, the Beatles, and Gen. Douglas MacArthur. But it also made much of his life seem episodic and unfocused. To form a true appreciation of Muggeridge, one must consider his character.

''He was blessed with natural powers of insight, and occasionally of prophecy, which enabled him intuitively to see people and events for what they were,'' Ingrams writes. ''Being himself without worldly ambitions, he exercised this gift indiscriminately, thus getting himself over and over again into hot water, especially when he went in pursuit of sacred cows.''

By turns sardonic iconoclast and passionate moralist, acerbic critic of politicians and unqualified admirer of such figures as the missionary Mother Teresa, Muggeridge was in the classic English tradition of satire, tempered in his case by eventual Christian humility. If one is looking for parallels, Jonathan Swift comes to mind as something of a kindred spirit, and I find it odd that nowhere in this highly readable book does its author say so.

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