Malcolm Muggeridge was a friend of mine, from the day we met over tea at the Huntington Sheraton in Pasadena in 1965, until the day he died, Nov. 14, 1990 – 24 years ago today.
He was the single most interesting person I’ve ever met.
He lived an amazing life, from a teacher in India in the time of Gandhi to a foreign correspondent for The Guardian in the Soviet Union during the Stalinist purges; from an intelligence officer with M-5 during WW II to becoming editor of Punch, the famed British satirical magazine; from the best known television presenter of the BBC to a convert to the Christian faith, where he became one of Christianity’s ablest defenders (only C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton among laity, were more so).
The Times of London said Malcolm’s autobiography was the “greatest autobiography of the 20th century.” Having read it, I offer no dissent.
Lately, each night before turning off the lamp beside my bed, I’ve been reading from Ian Hunter’s “The Very Best of Malcolm Muggeridge.” It is at once a joyous, hilarious, provocative experience. The brilliance of Malcolm’s mind is to take one’s intellect on a journey of enlightenment.
In the book’s opening chapter, entitled, “The Echoing Green,” Hunter begins by quoting Malcolm from William Blake’s “The Song of Innocence,” in which Blake wrote:
“Such, such were the joys
When we all girls and boys
In our youth-time were seen,
on the Echoing Green.”
And then Malcolm wrote:
“The first thing I remember about the world — and I pray it may be the last — is that I was a stranger in it. This feeling, which everyone has to some degree, and which is, at once, the glory and desolation of homo sapiens, provides the only thread of consistency that I can detect in my life.”
In a later chapter, “Vendors of Words,” he wrote, “The tabloid press, with many readers, deludes few. Serious newspapers like The Times and Guardian, with fewer readers, delude many."
“As a television performer, I see myself as a man playing a piano in a brothel, who includes “Abide with Me” in his repertoire in the hopes thereby of edifying both clients and inmates.”
“The glory of journalism is its transience. Only the greatest bores like Walter Lippmann imagine that their offerings reach beyond the last edition.”
In “Faces in Time,” Malcolm began, “The only fun of journalism is that it puts you in contact with the eminent without being under the necessity to admire them or take them seriously.”
“Faces of Time” is one of my favorite chapters in the book. It is where Malcolm shared his views of Winston Churchill, Clement Attlee, Oscar Wilde, Rudyard Kipling, G.K. Chesterton, Neville Chamberlain, Charles de Gaulle, Bishop James Pike, Kim Philby, Bertrand Russell, Hugh Hefner, Mick Jagger and Germaine Greer.
I was greatly amused by what Malcolm wrote of Walt Whitman:
“I have long been of the opinion that Walt Whitman, rather than Thomas Jefferson, George Washington or Abraham Lincoln, is the true originator of contemporary Americana, and I try to read everything I can lay hands on about this bearded, narcissistic, old charlatan-pederast, who wrote adulatory reviews of his own work under a pseudonym, and paid for a national tomb to be constructed while sponging on others for his housing and sustenance.”
But my favorite is what he wrote of Evelyn Waugh:
“Mr. Waugh, I always feel, is an antique is search of a period, a snob in search of a class; perhaps even a mystic in search of a beatific vision. His bad temper and bad behavior are symptoms rather of an unrealized quest than of any native malignancy in himself.”
On one occasion, Malcolm said to me of Ernest Hemingway:
“Poor Ernest, with that self-inflicted hole in his head. The only target he ever hit!”
Whenever I think of him, as I often do, it saddens me immeasurably that the last time I called Malcolm at Robertsbridge in Sussex, England, Kitty, his wife of 63 years, answered.
I said, “It’s George Mitrovich, calling for Malcolm from San Diego.”
Kitty said, “George, I am so sorry, but your friend won’t know you.”
The man who possessed the greatest mind of anyone I’ve ever known had fallen victim to Alzheimer's.
No one would have better understood the terrible irony of that than Malcolm himself.
During a visit in 1982 with Malcolm and Kitty at their home, Malcolm asked of me, “George, do you know Simone Weil?” I was embarrassed to say I did not. Pointedly, he said, “George, know Simone Weil.”
I accepted that challenge, and in coming to know the French philosopher, I became, and remain, overwhelmed by her life and intellect — no less than that of Malcolm’s. It was one more of the enduring gifts he gave me, and for which I am so grateful.
So as Malcolm so pointedly suggested to me to know Simone Weil, I now suggest to you, know Malcolm Muggeridge.
For me, to have known this very great man for 25 years, this man of transcendent wit and intelligence, was one of the great privileges of my life.
I suggest you visit www.malcolmmuggeridge.org.