The middle of five brothers, Muggeridge was born in Sanderstead , Surrey. While still a student, he taught for brief periods in , and at the John Ruskin Central School , Croydon, where his father was Chairman of the Governors. After graduating in with a pass degree in natural sciences, he went to India for three years to teach English Literature at Union Christian College, Aluva , Kerala. Ransome recommended Muggeridge to the editors of the Guardian, who gave him his first job in journalism.
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Muggeridge is an obvious reactionary, but one with the personal and historical credentials to pull it off with the utmost class and credibility.
He describes his birth in to a family of committed British socialists. They even flirt with, though never quite join, an experimental commune being set up in their area, about which Muggeridge has the best stories: The land was cheap in those days, and they acquired it by purchase; then, to demonstrate their abhorrence of the institution of property, ceremonially burnt the title deeds. It must have been a touching scene — the bonfire, the documents consigned to the flames, their exalted sentiments.
Unfortunately, a neighboring farmer heard of their noble gesture and began to encroach on their land. To have resorted to the police, even if it had been practicable, was unthinkable.
So after much deliberation, they decided to use physical force to expel the intruder; which they did on the basis of a theory of detached action, whereby it is permissible to infringe a principle for the purpose of a single isolated act without thereby invalidating it. The intruding farmer was, in fact, thrown over the hedge in the presence of the assembled Colonists. There were many such tragi-comic incidents in the years that followed; as well as quarrels, departures, jealousies, betrayals, and domestic upsets.
But he and his family are convinced that all of this is just a momentary hiccup on the road to Glorious Progress. Against this enthusiasm, he had only a personal tendency which he describes as a deep-set conviction: …that I was born into a dying, if not already dead, civilization, whose literature was part of the general decomposition; a heap of rubble scavenged by scrawny Eng Lit vultures, and echoing with the hyena cries of Freudians looking for their Marx and Marxists looking for their Freud…a Gaderene descent down which we all must slide, finishing up in the same slough.
By the same token, a strange certainty has possessed me, almost since I can remember, that the Lord Mayor riding in his coach, the Lord Chancellor seated on his Woolsack, Honorable and Right Honorable Members facing one another across the floor of the House of Commons, were somehow the end of a line. That soon there would be no more Lord Mayors, Lord Chancellors, Honorable and Right Honorable Members, the Mother of Parliaments having reached her time of life or menopause, and become incapable of any further procreation… Doubtless other glories lie ahead.
We all know, though, in our hearts, that our old homestead is falling down; with death-watch beetles in the rafters, and dry rot in the cellar, and unruly tenants whose only concern is to pull the place to pieces. This feeling — that everything around him was in a state of permanent decay — was not so far-fetched given that he spent much of his early adulthood in the far-flung territories of the crumbling British Empire.
He describes again and again looking on something apparently healthy enough and being overwhelmed with a feeling of impending sickness and decay. He describes T. Now the time has nearly come for the coffin to be actually interred. Then at last their occupation will be gone forever. I sometimes have patients with very severe depression who tell me that everything they look at is infested by maggots. Sleep disgusts them, because the bed is infested with maggots. Et cetera.
He had a point, but what he failed to understand was that we had destroyed our city already before the Luftwaffe delivered their bombs; what was burning was no more than the dry, residual shell. The only things that seem to give him any kind of brief reprieve from the maggots are church services, classic literature, quiet domestic life with his wife and 2.
And he is convinced, absolutely convinced, that he should be a socialist and go move to the USSR. This goes approximately as well as you would expect. After graduating college, which he dislikes because maggots, he gets a couple of jobs at various far-flung British Empire outposts, which he hates. Then, somewhat by coincidence, he ends up in journalism.
His reaction to journalism is an increasing terror that this might be his calling. He is very good at it, takes to it like an old veteran almost immediately, feels in some strange way that he has come home — but the entire enterprise fills him with loathing. He writes: So I began, and the words seemed to come of themselves; like lying as a child, or as a faithless lover; words pouring out of one in a circumstantially false explanation of some suspicious circumstance.
The more glib, the greater the guilt…it is painful to me now to reflect the ease with which I got into the way of using this non-language; these drooling non-sentences conveying non-thoughts, propounding non-fears and offering non-hopes. Words are as beautiful as love, and as easily betrayed. Malcolm Muggeridge has a plan!
Malcolm Muggeridge is going to escape this duplicitous charade of lies and petty propaganda. So he does. The mood on their ship is electric; he describes them all singing, sure that they are leaving behind this wretched bourgeois world for the Golden Future: On their way to the USSR they were in a festive mood; like a cup-tie party on their way to a match, equipped with rattles, coloured scarves and favors.
His excitement dissipates relatively early; he finds that the Soviet journalistic world fails to live up to his expectations: Being a correspondent in Moscow, I found, was, in itself, easy enough. The Soviet press was the only source of news; nothing happened or was said until it was reported in the newspapers. So all I had to do was go through the papers, pick out any item that might be interesting to readers of the Guardian, dish it up in a suitable form, get it passed by the censor at the Press Department, and hand it in at the telegraph office for dispatch.
One might, if in a conscientious mood, embellish the item a little…sow in a little local colour, blow it up a little, or render it down a little according to the exigencies of the new situation. The original item itself was almost certainly untrue or grotesquely distorted. This bizarre fantasy was very costly and elaborate and earnestly promoted.
Something gets published in Pravda; say, that the Soviet Union has a bumper wheat harvest — so many poods per hectare. Soviet statistics have always been almost entirely fanciful, though not the less seriously regarded fro that. When the Germans occupied Kiev in the war they got hold of a master Five Year Plan, showing what had really been produced and where.
Needless to say, it was quite different from the published figures. This in no way affected credulity about such figures subsequently, as put out in Russia, or even in China. It must be true! The Guardian tells us so! Finally, he finds himself a part of the elite fraternity of western journalists on the Soviet beat, who maintain their morale by one-upping each other in how cynical and patronizing they can be towards their Russian hosts and their credulous readers back home: We used to run a little contest among ourselves to see who could produce the most striking example of credulity among this fine flower of our western intelligentsia.
Persuading church dignitaries to feel at home in an anti-God museum was too easy to count. I got an honourable mention by persuading Lord Marley that the queueing at food shops was permitted by the authorities because it provided a means of inducing the workers to take a rest when otherwise their zeal for completing the five-year plan in record time was such that they would keep at it all the time, but no marks for floating a story that Soviet citizens were being asked to send in human hair — any sort — for making of felt boots.
It seemed that this had actually happened. And he remembers the contempt of these grizzled veterans for the steady stream of Western tourists, intellectuals, and general Stalin fanboys who arrived to gawk over the Glorious New Civilization: I have never forgotten these visitors, or ceased to marvel at them, at how they have gone on from strength to strength, continuing to lighten our darkness, and to guide, counsel and instruct us.
They are unquestionably one of the wonders of the age, and I shall treasure till I die as a blessed memory the spectacle of them travelling with radiant optimism through a famished countryside, wandering in happy bands about squalid, over-crowded towns, listening with unshakeable faith to the fatuous patter of carefully trained and indoctrinated guides, repeating like schoolchildren a multiplication table, the bogus statistics and mindless slogans endlessly intoned on them.
There, I would think, an earnest office-holder in some local branch of the League of Nations Union, there a godly Quaker who had once had tea with Gandhi, there an inveigher against the Means Test and the Blasphemy Laws, there a staunch upholder of free speech and human rights, there an indomitable preventer of cruelty to animals, there scarred and worthy veterans of a hundred battles for truth, freedom, and justice — all, all chanting the praises of Stalin and his Dictatorship of the Proletariat.
It was as though a vegetarian society had come outwith a passionate plea for cannibalism, or Hitler had been nominated posthumously for the Nobel Peace Prize. His final break with the rest of the enlightened progressive world comes when he decides to do something that perhaps no other journalist in the entire Soviet Union had dared — to go off the reservation, so to speak, leave Moscow undercover, and see if he can actually get into the regions where rumors say some kind of famine might be happening.
He describes the scene — famished skeletons begging for crumbs, secret police herding entire towns into railway cars never to be seen again. At great risk to himself, he smuggles notes about the genocide out of the country, only to be met — once again — with total lack of interest. Guardian readers want to hear about how the Glorious Future is already on its way!
Muggeridge, on the other hand, penurious from lack of interest in his stories, fearing for his safety from the Soviet government, and generally disgusted with everything — even more so than usual for a world infested with maggots — decides to get the hell out of Dodge. He hangs out in Berlin for a while, sending his pieces on the Russian famine to all the newspapers he knows, watching more and more rejections come in each day, earning the ire of all of his leftist friends for apparently deserting the cause and turning traitor.
If it had been an oppressed minority, or subject people valiantly struggling to be free, that would have been another matter. Then any amount of outspokenness, any amount of honesty.
So it did; I was finished with moderate men of all shades of opinion forever more. Leaving Nazi Germany for neutral Switzerland, he says he had a pretty good idea even at the time how everything was going to end. And I believe him. By temperament, he expects everything to end in horror and madness and total collapse of civilization, so props to him for choosing the proper time and place for his temperament to be exactly correct. He writes: All this likewise indubitably belonged to history, and would have to be historically assessed; like the Murder of the Innocents, or the Black Death, or the Battle of Paschendaele.
But there was something else; a monumental death-wish, an immense destructive force loosed in the world which was going to sweep over everything and everyone, laying them flat, burning, killing, obliterating, until nothing was left.
Those German agronomes in their green uniform suits with feathers in their hats — they had their part to play. So had the paunchy Brown-Shirts, and the matronly blonde maidens painting swastikas on the windows of Jewish shops. So had the credulous armies of the just, listening open-mouthed to Intourist patter, or seeking reassurance from a boozy sandalled Wicksteed.
Wise old Shaw, high-minded old Barbusse, the venerable Webbs, Gide the pure in heart and Picasso the impure, down to poor little teachers, crazed clergymen and millionaires, drivelling dons and very special correspondents like Duranty, all resolved, come what might, to believe anything, however preposterous, to overlook anything, however villainous, to approve anything, however obscurantist and brutally authoritarian, in order to be able to preserve intact the confident expectation that one of the most thorough-going, ruthless, and bloody tyrannies ever to exist on Earth could be relied on to champion human freedom, the brotherhood of man, and all the other good liberal causes to which they had dedicated their lives.
All resolved, in other words, to abolish themselves and their world, the rest of us with it. Nor have I from that time ever had the faintest expectation that, in earthly terms, anything could be salvaged; that any earthly battle could be won or earthly solution found. It has all just been sleep-walking to the end of the night. I was not expecting this. You would be wrong. Muggeridge, inspired by some force even he did not understand, decided to enlist in the British military when the war broke out.
They recruit him as a spy. He describes a typical day: I find it difficult to recall what regular duties I had, if any…Our section was supposed to be responsible for securing the Headquarters from the incursions of enemy agents who might pry out its secrets or subvert its personnel. This gave us a free hand to do almost anything and go almost anywhere.
If we went drinking in pubs, it was to keep a look-out for suspicious characters; if we pikced up girls, it was to probe their intentions in frequenting the locality. A fellow-officer told me of how, on a pub-crawl, ostensibly a security reconnaissance, he got drunk, and, as was his way when in such a condition, pretended to be a foreigner, using strange gestures and speaking with an accent.
The next day, badly hung over, he was sent a report of the movements of a suspicious foreigner, and told to check up on them. When he told me of his adventure, to comfort him I said that it was what we were all doing all the time — keeping ourselves under close surveillance. This was what security was all about. In a similar vein, another FS officer, idly thumbing over the Security List — a top-secret document containing the names of all subjects who were to be at once apprehended if they tried to get into or out of the country — found he was in it.
Graham Greene was a very famous early 20th century author. The Mozambique chapters were among the funniest of the entire book. The Germans and Italians, inspired by the same principle, had also sent agents to Mozambique. There was only one nice hotel in Mozambique, so Muggeridge, the German spy, and the Italian spy all got rooms there and spent most of the time glaring at each other during communal dinners, or lying on the beach an appropriate distance away from one another, keeping watch.
Sometimes they would engage in hilarious secret plots against each other. Later in the war, Mozambique actually became sort of relevant as troop convoys started sailing by. Muggeridge bribed local officials to keep a watch out, and ended up foiling a very real German plot to do some sort of vague thing involving ships — as a result, when the war started winding down to the point where maintaining a presence in Mozambique was no longer viewed as entirely necessary, he came home and was promoted into the inner circles of intelligence.
But at the time he seemed okay enough, and he sent Muggeridge to France to aid in the Liberation there.
An international throng of writers, politicians, soldiers, spies, traitors and eccentrics jostles in these page from Attlee to Wodehouse via Burgess and Philby, Churchill, de Gaulle, Gide, Chanel, Montgomery, Evelyn Waugh. Apart from these, the wit sparkles on almost every page. There are paragraphs in this book that. In became editor of Punch, where he remained for four years.
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