“Ambition and suspicion always go together.”
—G.C. Lichtenberg

Back in the 1950’s and 60’s, when Malcolm Muggeridge was one of the resident personalities of British television, all over Britain people used to wonder what the origins of such a bizarre figure might be. Many of them would watch solely to be amazed by this dark-suited clown with the fleshy nose and wide, loose mouth, the fine, thinning, silver hair, the extravagant gestures, and the outlandish, drawling accent. “Where did they find him?” they would ask each other. “Is he really like that, or is it all an act?”

Muggeridge died, after some years of silence, in 1990. If any of that old curiosity about the Muggeridgean phenomenon survives, Richard Ingrams’ absorbing biography will go a long way to satisfy it. American admirers, on the other hand, who never knew Muggeridge in his television glory days, and who idolized him as “St. Mugg,” the late-converted Christian sage and stylist, may be in for surprises, some of them possibly unpleasant. Yet that shouldn’t stop them from reading the fascinating story that Ingrams tells. He is sympathetic to the later Muggeridge, but it is the earlier Muggeridge, the hard-living, anti-Establishment individualist, mentor to the young satirists of the 60’s (including himself), who really holds his interest.

Malcolm Muggeridge was a most unusual man. He was born in 1903 in Croydon, just outside South London, into a working-class family in the process of upward moNcmcnt into the new middle class whose appearance has been a feature of British life in this century. In that respect the Muggeridges were part of the same process that produced the Larkins, the Amises, the Thatchers, and thousands of others. Muggeridge senior must have been a man of considerable drive and vitality. He combined two modestly successful careers, one on the clerical side of a firm of London shirtmakers, the other in the ranks of Fabian socialism. In middle life he managed to be simultaneously a Labour town councilor (even, briefly, a member of Parliament) as well as secretary—potentially a director—of the company he worked for. In this unusual mix of vocations one sees the unsettled ambition and divided loyalty that recurred in the life of his favorite son, Malcolm. Ingrams presents Muggeridge senior as a benign, domestic figure, but there must have been some turbulent currents in his psyche. Interesting evidence of that is Malcolm’s wife’s message to him after his father’s death, that in death his father’s face lost its angry look.

Muggeridge seems to have inherited from his father a lifelong disposition toward anger and contentiousness, and that combative emotional equipment, joined to ambition and competitiveness, produced a formidable, though unpredictable, personality. Ingrams, who knew Muggeridge well, and liked him, says more than once in this book that he was without personal ambition. This is an odd diagnosis to make of a man like Muggeridge, and can only mean that he had none of the English public-school-and-university-boy’s ambition for the kind of distinction recognized in England by awards of titles, positions, and decorations. That was true enough. Instead, Muggeridge’s ambition took a distinctly egotistical turn, and he thrived by attacking conventional sources of reward and honor. In this, too, he was like his father, who turned down a directorship of his company because it would have been against his socialist principles to ally himself so frankly with traditional forces of wealth and social success.

Muggeridge’s own brand of ambition revealed itself early on when he got himself into Cambridge from his local grammar school in Croydon, though only as a student at a minor Church of England college (Selwyn), and at some sacrifice of principle. To begin with, his school offered no preparation on the classical side, so he went up as a natural scientist, subject matter he had no interest in. More seriously, to enter Selwyn, Muggeridge, whose family was decidedly secular, had to become a confirmed member of the Church of England, a maneuver he later kept quiet about, even though his undergraduate religious phase was genuine enough. Yet the main purpose, of getting out of Croydon into Cambridge, was served, and he went home for his first vacation already speaking in the peculiar drawl that was his trademark ever after, and calling his (no doubt surprised) father and mother “pater” and “mater.”

One wishes that Ingrams had been more interested in his subject’s motivation at this and later stages of his life. Himself a journalist notable for his connection with Private Eye magazine, he is content to explain Muggeridge as an anarchic individualist possessed with a zeal for speaking truth. Useful as that approach is up to a point, there must always have been more to Muggeridge than that. Although lie never allowed himself to become identified with any of the institutions or newspapers he worked for, he always had a keen honing instinct for centers of influence and power while at the same time remaining suspicious and wary of the people he found there. It was characteristic of him that having married into the purple of the English left wing by choosing Sidney and Beatrice Webb’s niece for a wife, he quickly began to dissociate himself from their politics and way of life. Although his heavy drinking and aggressive, sometimes intolerable womanizing reminds one of less complex power-maniacs, in his case one suspects that an element of self-dislike, even self-contempt, powered the continual urge to attack and dominate. In that connection it is interesting that his one undoubted period of despair came during service with British Intelligence during World War II, when he found himself isolated, deprived of the self-defining freedom to speak and act that his psychology required.

As Ingrams’ book reveals so well, even Muggeridge’s well-publicized conversion, followed by reception in the Catholic Church, represented no real break with ingrained mental habits. Recoil or revulsion, accompanied by prophetic denunciation, was a recurrent Muggeridgean pattern which persisted throughout his life as teacher, journalist, and broadcaster, and from which more than one of his friends suffered. Seen in that light, Muggeridge the repentant hot-go-speller (to adapt a phrase of Anthony Powell’s) was the fully realized version of a character long in the making. Beatrice Webb, his aunt by marriage, would have understood that; her analysis of young Muggeridge, quoted by Ingrams, detected an affinity for Catholicism even then. Even so, as long as he retained the power of choice Muggeridge remained a hard fish for ecclesiastical anglers to land, hi a late interview in the Times, he said that though he found the Catholic Church the most acceptable of those available, he really belonged to no church.

In an earlier England, Muggeridge might well have found a niche as a fashionable Protestant preacher, running his own ecclesiastical shop where he pronounced on issues of the day to congregations of the influential and fashionable. In our unchurched century journalism provided his first effective pulpit, but it was in television that he really flourished. As a mass medium reaching huge audiences, television has always been divided between indulging its audiences or instructing them, and in pursuit of the latter aim it has been hospitable to punditry of all kinds. Television provided an ideal forum for Muggeridge’s brand of broadly generalized, opinionated talk, also for his strong, eccentrically dramatized character. Kingsley Amis, in his Autobiography, recalls him “screwing up his face” as he produced some enormous cliche with a suggestion of tremendous effort: “What we all have to realize is that we live in an increasingly materialistic society.” Television, then as now, could absorb any amount of that.

It is fascinating to see from Ingrams’ book that the BBC, initially pleased with Muggeridge as interviewer and host, was so shocked by his stronger views (of the royal family, for instance) that they tried to put him off the air entirely. The effort failed because of the appearance of competition in the form of independent television in Britain, and because the BBC itself needed Muggeridge’s services in reaching and holding an audience. One ironic result of Muggeridge’s interaction with the television audience was that he became a participant in the very cultural developments he liked to inveigh against. As contemporaries pointed out at the time, especially when he joined various crusades for public morality, television personalities are ill-placed to attack materialism and self-indulgence in society at large, let alone power-seeking and self-importance in individuals.

Nonetheless, despite the comical side of his television career and the criticisms of the uncharmed, there is no doubt that Muggeridge was an engaging man, a clever, amusing conversationalist, and a first-rate entertainer. Moreover, he has a claim on posterity as moralist and prophet. I laving gone to live in Stalin’s Russia as a convinced communist journalist, he immediately saw the truth of the regime, sent his findings back to his newspaper, the Manchester Guardian, and later published a book on the subject. This was an act of personal, moral courage that put him well ahead of the later stream of communist penitents. He also gets high marks for his kindness to P.G. Wodehouse whom he encountered in Paris toward the end of the war. Wodehouse was in real danger from misinformed Allied authorities, and Muggeridge, then a British officer, took care of him, again at some risk to his own standing. On television, his most influential program was probably his documentary on Mother Teresa, which not only introduced her to a huge public but led eventually to his own conversion, and enabled him to write what may be his best book, Something Beautiful for God.

Taken as a whole, though, Muggeridge’s writing, while praised in its time, does not age well. It suffers from facility and a monotonous, all-too-predictably egotistic point of view. Readable in short doses, it palls at any length. In spite of that, Muggeridge remains interesting as a figure in his times, a self-invented man who defined himself by opposition and ridicule of things established, yet who nonetheless became famous in the employ of institutions he affected to despise. If he found a degree of happiness in conversion, who will begrudge it him? Anyone curious about Muggeridge, or about the profession of punditry in our times, will find Ingrams’ biography a fascinatingly informative document.


[Muggeridge: The Biography, by Richard Ingrams (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco) 264 pp., $27.50]