Wednesday, August 27, 2008
From the Shelves of the Paco Library
Malcolm Muggeridge lived a full and active life: teacher, foreign correspondent, military intelligence officer, editor, novelist, essayist, television talk show host, and lay theologian. He also penned one of the best autobiographies of the 20th century: Chronicles of Wasted Time, the subject of today’s “Shelves” feature.
Originally published in two volumes (The Green Stick and The Infernal Grove), and covering the time from his childhood to the end of World War II, the story of Muggeridge’s life is a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress for the modern era. He was born into a socialist family, and he married into another (his wife, Kitty Dobbs, was the niece of Beatrice Webb). Muggeridge saw socialism as the wave of the future, and took up residence in the Soviet Union in 1932 as a correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. His intelligence and honesty, however, undermined his youthful enthusiasm for the workers’ state, and he was one of a (shamefully small) group of reporters who tried to get out the story of the Stalin-induced famine in the Ukraine. Thus began his long journey, not only from the political left to the political right, but from agnosticism to Christianity (and ultimately to the Catholic Church).
Chronicles is written in simple, yet elegant, prose, and is filled with the satirical wit and self-deprecatory humor for which Muggeridge was widely known. The following snippets afford only the merest taste of his fine style and the tiniest inkling of the extent of his innumerable encounters with both the great and the obscure.
Here is Muggeridge, during WWII, studying tradecraft for an intelligence mission in Africa – specifically, the creation of invisible inks, using a variety of substances, including “…what my instructor referred to primly as BS, meaning bird shit.This last required some special explanation; it could, he said, be used when all else failed, and worked well, but procuring a supply was not as easy as might be supposed. For instance, he once had to fall back on it when he was stationed at The Hague, and had imagined that crumbs spread on his little balcony would bring a goodly number of sparrows that might be relied on to leave behind a supply of BS. Not so; the birds duly arrived and ate the crumbs, but, whether because they were constipated, or out of delicacy, there were no droppings. In the end, he explained to me, he had to walk in a public park – which, fortunately, was spacious – and when he saw traces of BS, he dropped his handkerchief as though by chance, and scooped the BS up. His dolefulness became almost unbearable as I pictured him walking mournfully about questing for BS, and I tried to cheer him up by expressing my unbounded admiration for the brilliant stratagem he had devised, which, I said, I was sure would prove invaluable in Mozambique. He nodded, I thought without much conviction, and expressed some doubts as to whether the sort of birds found there would prove suitable donors.”
And here is the author’s judgment on Walter Duranty, the Stalinist stooge who wrote for the New York Times, and is today chiefly remembered as the journalist who lied about the terrible government-induced famine in the Ukraine: “I had the feeling…that in thus justifying Soviet brutality and ruthlessness, Duranty was in some way getting his own back for being small, and losing a leg, and not having the aristocratic lineage and classical education he claimed to have. This is probably, in the end, the only real basis of the appeal of such regimes as Stalin’s and Hitler’s; they compensate for weakness and inadequacy…Duranty was a little browbeaten boy looking up admiringly at a big bully. By the same token, if the New York Times went on all those years giving great prominence to Duranty’s messages, building him and them up when they were so evidently nonsensically untrue…this was not, to be sure, because the Times was deceived. Rather, because it wanted to be so deceived, and Duranty provided the requisite deception material…Just as the intelligentsia have been foremost in the struggle to abolish intelligence, so the great organs of capitalism like the New York Times have spared no effort to ensure that capitalism will not survive.”
To which I can only add, Amen.
Of additional interest to Muggeridge fans (and potential fans) is My Life in Pictures, which combines hundreds of photos of the people Muggeridge met throughout his long life with anecdotes, vignettes and brief character sketches (George Orwell, Hugh Kingsmill, Evelyn Waugh, Peter Sellers, William F. Buckley, Jr., John Reith, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa – the list seems practically endless). I also recommend the Diaries of Malcolm Muggeridge, written in much the same lucid style as the Chronicles, and covering the decades following the Second World War.