Britain's Malcolm Muggeridge; PORTRAIT OF A PUNDIT
Robertsbridge, England — He stands at the far end of the platform, indistinguishable at a distance from the small swarm of people who get on and off the train at the village of Robertsbridge. In his navy blue jacket, baggy trousers, and oldish shoes, he could be a railway worker. But his cap is pulled down at a sharp angle in a possible attempt to shield his instantly recognizable face.
It is, of course, Malcolm Muggeridge, once the world's most mischievous pundit and Britain's most ubiquitous broadcaster, now transformed into the committed Christian thinker and resident sage of Robertsbridge.
In the station parking lot his bright orange hatchback is waiting with the passenger door open. ''You get in there,'' he commands, pointing firmly. Seconds later the car is speeding along the road toward the Tudor country cottage that has become as much a part of the Muggeridge mythology as Tolstoy's home, Yasnaya Polyana, was to his reputation.
The house itself -- Park Cottage -- is situated close to a cluster of other houses, not isolated as one might expect. The Muggeridges receive a steady stream of visitors there, many uninvited, who come to see for themselves how much of the myth survives in the man himself.
Inside the cottage the effect of English country coziness is total. Nothing is fancy, but everything is comfortable. ''It's terribly difficult to find simple things,'' says Kitty, his wife of 54 years.
Before seating himself in an oversized pink armchair, Muggeridge stirs and pokes the wood fire as his wife works in the kitchen. It all might seem a little too quaint if one didn't realize how the Muggeridges have arrived at what seems to be a real-life picture of contentment.
Their story is detailed in Muggeridge's diary, excerpts of which have just been published in the United States under the title ''Like It Was'' (New York: William Morrow & Co.). The diary was published last year in Britain, where it was praised for its honest portrait of a man whose exciting career was counter-balanced in his private life by despair at the world and an eventual realization that Christianity was the only way of life for him.
January 5, 1954 Bad night full of dark fears. While shaving suddenly thought with infinite longing how, of all things, I'd most love to live a Christian life. This is the only wish now I'd ever have. And yet other satisfactions, known to be spurious, still pursued. (''Like It Was,'' p. 457)
This, in a paragraph, is his private story. There is also the story of the man who wanted to be a great novelist, like Tolstoy, but instead became a supremely successful journalist; a man who attracted the wrath of the public in his youth and the adulation of that same public in his old age; one who never quite attained the respect of most of the ''loftiest'' minds, but became a broadcaster who communicated serious ideas to a wide public with outstanding effectiveness.
He isn't a Tolstoy -- he doesn't pretend to be; but he is for many people a serviceable symbol of the kind of intellectual and spiritual warmth that Tolstoy expressed. He leads a simple life, as Tolstoy tried to do; he is a vegetarian who neither smokes nor drinks. In the recent biography of him by the Canadian academic Ian Hunter, Muggeridge is referred to as ''the most influential lay exponent of Christianity since C.S. Lewis.''
''I've had a very good life,'' says Muggeridge, reclining in his armchair. ''I mean I've been fortunate in having a very delightful wife and children and grandchildren, and things that I like very much. But still, life is intrinsically unsatisfactory. I think I've always had a religious temperament. It never seemed to me that what is available for one in materialistic terms is enough.''
This distrust of worldly success and pleasure -- he's had a great deal of both in his life -- has been one cause of suspicion for Muggeridge's critics. Many of them would also consider that any claim Muggeridge might have to being taken seriously as a thinker is invalidated by his wide association with television. Muggeridge doesn't mind. Having been so outspoken for so long, he is used to criticism and responds well when it is constructive.
He concedes, for example, that his critics are right when they say he has sometimes taken controversial stands for controversy's sake. ''Perhaps I am too hard on people,'' he says. ''I love human beings, but I couldn't love them if I wasn't aware of their inadequacies, follies, and vanities.'' He would certainly include himself on any list of people covered by that description.
Though in person he seems the embodiment of elderly moderation and good sense , a Muggeridge trademark has always been stating things in extreme terms. He blames this partly on the nature of the media, which demands that you exaggerate in order to get things printed or broadcast.
He has publicly stated many times that he detests television as a medium; and yet his reputation was made by it to such an extent that many people -- particularly in Britain -- were asking themselves, just why is this man so famous?
It is a reasonable question to ask of a life that has a rather structureless quality to it, almost as though success found Muggeridge rather than the other way around.
The turning point in his life was probably when he and his wife went to live in Moscow in the 1930s. She was the niece of socialists Beatric and Sidney Webb. He was the child of a socialist upbringing and a Cambridge education.
Though they were full of hopes when they went to Moscow -- as many intellectuals were -- they became radically disillusioned with leftist politics. To this day he finds the faintest whiff of liberalism abhorrent.
"Carrying out the liberal ideal has very often produced the exact opposite of what it purported to produce. Russia being a good example, and our welfare state here in Britain,'' he says in his curiously drawling English accent.
''Don't mistake me,'' he says. ''I'm not against improving society, but I am against political dogma of every kind. Do you know any good governments?'' he impishly inquires.
At many stages of his life, Muggeridge has seemed to be a skeptic who doubted that any kind of improvement was possible. A long tradition of humor has saved him from becoming, at times, an extremist prophet of doom. He has publicly held a belief - which he still holds -- that the 20th century is heading in the wrong direction. But he has often turned these negative views into amusing comments on our time.
He admits: ''It's much easier to be funny through denigration. It's rather difficult to make people laugh in a positive sense.''
It is not difficult to compile a seemingly endless list of things Muggeridge is passionately against. Many applaud his current forceful stands against abortion, permissiveness, pornography, and euthanasia. But during his life he seems at some time to have been against almost everything: anti-monarchy, anti-technology, anti-tourists, anti-modern literature, anti-women's liberation, and anti-Picasso, to name a few.
But it is this comically philosophical Muggeridge, now mellowed, that is the most appealing: the televised prophet with a wide grin in place of the usual shaggy beard.
The prophet has been most interesting when he has associated himself in his writings and documentaries with the world's great thinkers: Blake, Kierkegaard, Cervantes, and Tolstoy, for example. Though he continually denies that he is of their stature, he has nonetheless been a conduit through which their ideas have been brought back into modern circulation. He has produced books and film on the lives of Jesus and the apostle Paul, and a highly praised movie of Mother Theresa's work in India.
Muggeridge's autobiography, ''Chronicles of Wasted Time'' has been described as the 20th-century equivalent of Rousseau's ''Confessions'' or ''The Education of Henry Adams.'' Though the two volumes in print detail the external events of his interesting life up to 1945, including his encounters with many of the best-known figures of the century, it is his spiritual development -- often at odds with the events -- that makes the books memorable.
He is now working on the third and final volume of his autobiography and confesses that it is not easy: ''I find the third volume - which I've been working on for a long time -- hard to get just right. You want to say something positive -- and that's important, particularly now, I think.''
It is as though the first two volumes of his autobiography, subtitled ''The Green Stick'' and ''The Infernal Grove'' have been a kind of long drum roll leading up to the third volume.
He plans to call the book ''The Right Eye'' after a phrase he came across in an old theological book: ''The left eye sees time and the creatures; the right eye looks out onto eternity.'' He adds, ''As I want this book to be rather about looking out onto eternity, it suits me as a title.'' (Nominally an Anglican, Muggeridge says his commitment is to Christianity and not to a specific church.)
Muggeridge mentions that a friend, the portraitist Graham Sutherland, once said that when he was studying a face to paint a portrait, he would always notice that the two eyes of his subject were different: ''He said it's true that one eye is a contemplative eye while the other is a worldly eye. I've been writing in a way about the worldly one; I would like to do this last volume more in regard to the other eye.''
The book will also complete the description of the chronology of Muggeridge's life: going to America for the Daily Telegraph, his editorship of the humor magazine Punch, and his years with the BBC.
But one of the most important ideas he plans to discuss in the book is his contention that the world is full of parables if one only has the eyes to see them.
Darkness takes over the beautifully melancholic Sussex fields behind the cottage, and Muggeridge explains: ''This world which journalists are concerned with I'd come to feel was a sort of theater of the absurd. It is in fact a different sort of theater which I call the 'Theater of Fearful Symmetry' - one of Blake's phrases. In other words, beneath the fantasy of the world there is a meaning. It's like a very poor soap opera, but it's a soap opera related to a reality. And in fact it's full of things which really are about how God is speaking to His creation.
''A favorite ironic example of mine was the richest man in the world dying of malnutrition: Howard Hughes. I mean that's a perfect piece of fearful symmetry. The point is that wealth is nothing, that Howard Hughes with the greatest amount of wealth was in the same position as the people who are carried in starving from the streets of Calcutta.''
He gets up to stir and poke a bit of life into the fire. It's a typical Muggeridge pronouncement, the kind he claims, with typical wit, he got into the habit of making when he worked as a tour guide in Belgium during a university vacation.
As to whether these pronouncements have made him a true success or not, and how adept he is as a seer of parables, perhaps the third volume of the autobiography will show.
Regardless of that result, Muggeridge is fixedly philosophic about his own estimation of his life: ''The difference between one life and another -- it seems to be dramatically different -- but in actual fact you're covering the same sort of ground, really.''
It was time to catch a train back to London. On the way to the station in that incongruous orange hatchback, a hare suddenly darted from the darkness and leaped magnificently across the glare of the headlights into the country beyond. It seemed some sort of parable, but Muggeridge wasn't saying what it meant.