Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Rusty Sword of Truth

In the graveyard of St. Mary Magdalene church in Whatlington, a village hard by the A21 two miles north of Battle, there is a small unassuming gravestone bearing the legend “valiant for truth”. Having ploughed miserably through John Bunyan’s allegorical A Pilgrim’s Progress a few years ago, because I thought I should, I recognised the phrase as the name of a character appearing towards the end of the pilgrim’s journey to the Celestial City: Valiant-for-Truth is engaged in a single-minded pursuit of the truth.

The trusty sword of truth was not something I associated with the occupant of the grave, the writer and broadcaster Malcolm Muggeridge. As someone born just over fifty years ago, I was familiar with Muggeridge for his regular appearances on television in the late 1960s and 1970s. But, picking up on the responses of my mum and dad, I formed the impression that he was a figure of fun.

My view of him as a pompous moraliser was cemented around the time I became an adult, when he famously appeared with the Bishop of Southwark on the television chat show Friday Night, Saturday Morning to take on two of the Monty Python team and denounce their film Life of Brian as blasphemous and “tenth-rate”.

However, having read Muggeridge’s obituary – he died in a Hastings nursing home in 1990 at the age of 87 – I realised that his Christian evangelism was something that only developed in the late sixties. Prior to that, he had been an acerbic and rebellious journalist, challenging the social order of Britain and the world in the middle part of the 20th century.

Born in Croydon to socialist parents – his solicitor’s clerk father later became an MP in Ramsay MacDonald’s second Labour government – Muggeridge was fervently left-wing in his youth. And when the Manchester Guardian posted him and his wife, Kitty, to Moscow in 1932, the Muggeridges’ admiration for the Soviet Union was such that they intended never to return to Britain. However, the widespread famine he discovered that year, and the censoring of his journalism, quickly disillusioned him. On his return, he wrote Winter in Moscow, a fictionalised condemnation of Stalin’s system.

Continuing his journalistic career before and after the Second World War, there was no target too sacred for Muggeridge - his agnosticism and republicanism were constant themes. In a 1957 article entitled Does England Really Need a Queen? he denounced the monarchy as “a royal soap opera” and caused an international controversy. And in 1965 he courageously attacked the virtual sainthood bestowed upon the assassinated John F. Kennedy as hypocritical. However, in 1969 he hung up his sword, published Jesus Rediscovered and began to attack the permissiveness of society, hanging-out with that monumental figure of fun Mary Whitehouse and her Festival of Light reactionaries.

Picture by Lori Oschefski

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