Malcolm and Kitty Muggeridge joined the Church ten days ago. Christopher Howse meets them in their Sussex home.
KITTY Muggeridge's aunt, Beatrice Webb, was not pleased when Malcolm started on his return from Russia in 1932, to write of the horrors and starvation there. He ought to "go off and join the Roman Catholic Church and confess and be absolved," she said, huffily.
Fifty years later that is what they have both done; and they are very happy about it. But Kitty is not the 24-hour media person that her husband seems. "When the cameras came into the church, I put my paper up in front of my face. And then the little man said: 'We don't want to be here.' I felt awfully sad."
Kitty was sitting on the sofa away from the fire, propped with cushions and dispensing endless cups of tea from a pot cocooned in a thick cosy which snapped up with a metal clasp, like Miss Murdstone's purse. She was looking very beautiful, with her intent features framed by her steel grey hair. She wore buckled blue suede shoes, grey woollen stockings, a thick red skirt and jersey, with a black neckerchief. Wrapped in a knitted coat, into the sleeves of which her hands sometimes disappered, she still felt the cold. Her voice is not so strong as Muggeridge's nor her skin so ruddy.
"It was a marvellous service." says Muggeridge, "I'm very taken with that bishop, I get the impression he is a good man. And of course Bidone is a marvellous man."
It was to Fr Paul Bidone that Muggeridge wrote in August to arrange his reception into the Church. What impressed Muggeridge about him?
"First of all he looks after these Mongol children, and does it extremely well. I've seen quite a lot of his establishments. I think he's a very holy man. He belongs to these Sons of Divine Providence. Being received into the Church at this time was more due to him than anybody. It's because of what he is and because he said to me things which made it seem almost inevitable that it was the appropriate and natural and right thing to do."
Ian Hunter, Muggeridge's biographer says that as a young man: "He shunned formal theology as boring and slightly suspicious." Did things change when Muggeridge was preparing for his new creed? y theological investigations are absolutely worthless. I don't really take theology very seriously. I think it's only a very superficial aspect of the whole thing. I haven't even studied it carefully, so that I can't pretend to pronounce upon it.
"The theological approach to the Gospels and the Incarnation no more impresses me than the scientific approach to our creation and the purpose of our existence. But I can see that it has utility. I can grasp the Incarnation, Resurrection and Eucharist, I hope and believe I can, but the least helpful part of it is the theology of them.
"I can see that God had to become man in order that men could aspire to be God. In interpreting it, that is the prevailing thought that I have about it."
Muggeridge was looking very well and attacked the log fire in the grate forcefully with a pair of tongs. His high-necked jersey almost hid his blue tie. He wore a light-coloured tweed coat, blue corduroy trousers and clean fawn suede shoes. He sat upright on one side of the fire on a little plush-covered chair. It had two worn patches on the pile where he propped himself up with his hands.
In his diaries, at the age of 21, Muggeridge blames himself for having glimpses of the infinite, and not having the guts to follow it up. Does he still blame himself for being such a long time on the road?
"Well I probably ought to. The fact is it seems pointless to blame. You have to accept things that happened in this way for good or ill. But most people think that I received a late visitation — it's not at all true. I've been haunted all my life by this. And I've never in my whole life felt happier or more serene about it than at this moment."
In Muggeridge's life there seems to have been a sort of wave movement towards and away from God. In 1932, before going to Russia, he got rid of his wedding certificate.
"That was a different thing — the last dying flicker of believing in a kingdom of heaven on earth, in which I was brought up. I was brought up to believe that if my father, whom I adored and do, and his friends took over power then everybody would be happy ever after. So wanting to go to Moscow was due to the fact that in the circumstances of the first big depression that the game was up, and I still think it is up: The alternative then, it seemed to me, was the Soviet regime. Having found that that was not so and never could be so — that man was incapable by virtue of his nature of creating a kingdom of heaven on earth, of course one looked more than ever for a kingdom of heaven in heaven. And for the Incarnation which is the link between the two."
When the Muggeridges were in the Soviet Union, Kitty was badly ill. And in Hastings in 1936, she was saved by a blood transfusion from her husband, who lay connected up to her veins.
"I didn't then have conscious religious beliefs," she remembers. "But when I learnt I was supposed to be dying, I had a wonderful feeling of complete ecstasy, and although the kids were around, without any regret at leaving. When I found I was getting better, there was a slight reluctance to come back. I don't know if that was religious or if that's what everyone feels like.
"When I was a kid I used to believe very strongly in God. I thought my mother was an angel. But it wasn't belief in any kind of orthodoxy. When we lived in Switzerland, it was a Catholic Canton and when we went up in the mountains, every now and then there would be a shrine with a crucifix and flowers. Once a year there'd be a procession to a little chapel, carrying figures of the Virgin Mary. I suppose that probably had an effect on me."
Writing for The Times, Muggeridge said that he thought fiumanae Vitae the right response to moral collapse of our age. His opposition to contraception is nothing new.
"I've always hated the idea, instinctively, which is one of the reasons I've felt a sort of kinship with the Church. I think its judgements in these matters are extraordinarily correct. Like its condemnation of usury which would have saved us from being a capitalist society."
Muggeridge has always seen pain as part of the world's pattern, instead of an argument against God's goodness.
"I have never felt that objection, or that people should be made unhappy or that people should suffer. If I could generalise — a key thought which came to me early on is embodied in the sentence which I've so often used — that life is a drama, not a process.
"Christianity is an exemplification of that. For instance, in the drama of the Incarnation, there had to be a Judas. Our Lord in a way conveyed that — which had often puzzled me when I was first familiar with the Gospels — that he knew Judas was going to betray him, but still he washed his feet with the others, and gave him the first Sacrament with the others.
"If you talk about these things in public, its a million to one on that the first question will be 'How can you have a loving God who lets people suffer?' Their first aim is to avoid pain — and hence drugs.
"Everywhere you look, there's a parable to be found. For instance when Thalidomide was first discovered, the Swiss people who had it were thinking of marketing it and the first name they thought of was Soma. That's the drug in Aldous Huxley's book, Brave New World, which makes everybody happy. Well, there's no need for me to elaborate."
"If you think about God's creation, the nearest human version of it — though of course it's about a billionth of it — is Shakespeare writing King Lear. That gives you the key. I think its one of the greatest things ever written.
"Let's imagine that two very humane elderly ladies went to see King Lear and they thought to themselves 'However could anyone make that poor old man suffer in that way?' And then they meet Shakespeare in the eternal Shades, and Shakespeare says, 'Well, yes of course, I could have given him a sedative at the end of Act I. But then you know, there would have been no play'."
Christopher Booker has made the point from his own experience that when someone is faced with an incomparable crisis in their life, they either turn to God, or commit suicide, or go mad (which Dr Johnson saw as the alternative) or go on the booze. Muggeridge has contemplated suicide in the past, and even attempted it by swimming away from land in Africa. "I did make one effort. In almost an identical way to Evelyn Waugh, yes. Very strange. If you set off to commit suicide and don't succeed in doing it, you may be sure you don't really want to. It's rather an easy thing to do, in fact, kill yourself."
"Has anybody remembered," asks Kitty, "that you describe a similar thing in your first novel? It describes his mother swimming out to sea in an attempted suicide."
"Yes. I have always been haunted that it would be a way to die."
Even in 1978, Muggeridge said "When one reaches my age, one must choose between suicide and sainthood. I have chosen sainthood." Now he thinks sainthood rather a ridiculous thing to have said. Kitty suggests faith would have been the right word.
"God has ultimately given us faith. There is nothing else in human life worth speaking of. As a near octogenarian, there isn't any value except faith, says Muggeridge. "Love," interposes Kitty.
Kitty goes on: "I think love is the most important thing about life. The only thing of value. I mean the sort of love Mother Teresa shows. Or love of one's children. That's why I think this business of 'fulfilling yourself' and women's lib and everything breaking up marriage, and abandoning the responsibility of parenthood is so terrible. The children never know what love is. They can only know it through the parents who are God's representatives on earth.
"The best observation including love and sex is Donne's, in the poem The Ecstasy:
Love's mysteries in souls do grow And yet the body is his book."
Muggeridge admits that Mother Teresa's care for the useless is particularly touching. "These babies she finds in dustbins — no doubt only a small number actually come out of dustbins, but metaphorically they're all out of dustbins." Muggeridge stretches out the word he wants to stress in his best TV manner. "She's the complete opposite of a welfare officer, because from a welfare point of view, it's ridiculous to go to all that trouble to take some derelict in from the streets, in a country which according to the nonsensical ideas of our time is called over-populated."
In the early thirties, the Muggeridges asked Alec Vidler to baptise their children, but he refused, thinking that they hardly knew what they meant. Muggeridge himself had only been baptised to qualify him to enter Selwyn College, Cambridge. Kitty was baptised because her mother thought there might just be a Hell and wanted her children to keep out of it.
"Underneath she was very spiritual, but her arguments for things were idiotic. The funny thing is that she should tell us this. So I always knew why I'd been baptised, and that made me believe it. I wasn't frightened of hell as a child. I always said to God 'Do have my mother in heaven, because she's an angel' ."
Muggeridge asked for some fresh tea. He drinks it in quantities equal to his hero Dr Johnson.
In 1936 Muggeridge and Kitty agreed in conversation that the survival of truth in the Church was an astounding thing. That was one thing which persuaded them to enter the Church on the last day of the liturgical year more than four decades later. i"It can't ever depart from its foundation which is Christ."
Muggeridge had been troubled when he moved to Christianity by the trendy vicars in the Church of England. "I didn't want to put that in my Saturday article, because it wouldn't have been a very elegant thing to do, but one of the things that drew me to the Catholic Church very strongly was my utter dissatisfaction with the state of the Anglican church. And I think if the Catholic Church ever unites with it, be uniting with a corpse."
Dusk has descended over the Muggeridge's Sussex cottage, with its low-pitched tile roof and white ends. The branches stand out black against the sky. Birds gather in the empty fields. Kitty and Malcolm Muggeridge plan the observance of their new religion with the enthusiasm of neophytes.