When Malcolm Muggeridge died in 1990, it can be said without any fear of hyperbole that one of the most sparkling minds and souls of contemporary Christianity and the pro-life movement had been taken from us. The body died, but the achievements live on, mostly in books such as Jesus, The Man Who Lives, Paul, Envoy Extraordinary, volumes of autobiography, biographies of Mother Teresa and delightfully clever and cutting accounts of 20th-century history.
He was a satirist, a spy and a raconteur. And the author of legions of articles and essays and some of the wittiest and most penetrating television broadcasts we are ever likely to see. Ironic, in that he claimed to despise television as a means of communication and would eventually boycott it.
He was perhaps the finest journalist of his age and could have demanded any job in British media. Instead, he chose to take up the cause of the unborn, the disabled and Christian moral teaching. As a consequence, he often found himself isolated and despised. A martyrdom, however, that he welcomed.
Born in south London, Muggeridge graduated from Cambridge University in 1924 and then taught in India, Egypt and England before working as a journalist for the Manchester Guardian. In 1927, he married Kitty. Along with so many other intellectuals of the era they were attracted to communism; unlike so many other intellectuals of the era, they travelled to the Soviet Union and saw what a hellish social experiment it had become.
Muggeridge went to the Ukraine and witnessed the forced famine that was taking place. He smuggled back reports of this holocaust, but many of them were never fully printed and Soviet zealots in Europe and North America denied the accusations.
Walter Duranty in the New York Times was particularly spiteful and dishonest, claiming that the Ukrainians were a healthy, wealthy people. He was joined by the likes of George Bernard Shaw and other socialist writers. It’s significant that the massively influentialTimes went on to virtually ignore the attempted genocide of the Jewish people by Hitler and now refuses to expose the international massacre of the unborn.
Muggeridge began to satirize the left in his writings, but never embraced a consistently right-wing position. His politics were too subtle for that. It was truth rather than power that fascinated the man.
During the Second World War, he worked for the British Secret Intelligence Service but abandoned espionage for journalism in the late-1940s. He worked for the Evening Standard and the Daily Telegraph and then, in 1953, became editor of Punch magazine.
Punch was an institution. Part serious columns, part humour and renowned for its cartoons, it was a prestigious appointment. And Muggeridge was an outstanding editor. The magazine’s later editor Alan Coren, my cousin, once explained that Muggeridge “imposed himself on the thing, made it even greater than it had been. And it had always been great.”
In the 1960s, he became a regular broadcaster for the BBC and the personification of intelligent and ethical objection to the new permissiveness. On radio and television, he would interview and comment, exposing the selfishness and sheer banality of so much of what was allegedly new and daring.
It’s no coincidence that the more he saw the waves of self-indulgence and sexual silliness, the more he swam towards the sea of faith. In 1967, he preached a famous sermon on his beliefs in Cambridge and the following year, he interviewed Mother Teresa. His documentary and book about her, Something Beautiful for God, presented the woman to the world.
It was a perfect match. A literary giant and a tiny saint colliding in heavenly light. Millions watched the little Christian genius as she spread the love of Christ in the slums of Calcutta. Muggeridge was the conduit.
He became public about his Christian faith, making short films about Augustine, William Blake, Pascal, Bonhoeffer and Kierkegaard. In 1982, he became a Roman Catholic. It was, he said, inevitable. There was only one institution that understood life and stood absolutely firm in its defence. As did Malcolm Muggeridge.
He was sharp and precise in his arguments. “Either life is always and in all circumstances sacred or intrinsically of no account. It is inconceivable that it should be in some cases the one and in some the other.” And with a terrifying brilliance he made predictions: “Writers like Aldous Huxley and George Orwell have imagined the sort of scientific utopia which is coming to pass, but already their nightmare fancies are hopelessly out of date. A vast, air-conditioned, neon-lighted, glass-and-chromium broilerhouse begins to take shape, in which geneticists select the best stocks to fertilize and watch over the developing embryo to ensure that all possibilities of error and distortion are eliminated.”
His son John came to live in Canada and died, too early, in November 2005. He had much of his father’s charm and wit and faith. I loved him. Many did. Oh, for his and his father’s kind again, as the culture of darkness claws at our homes and families. Malcolm Muggeridge knew that it would, long before most of the world had any idea.