The Idler: John Muggeridge (1933-2005)

Adversities we have had, but also incredible luck, as I am reminded by the passing of my very dear friend John Muggeridge on November 25, 2005. American Catholic readers may know him as the son of the late Malcolm Muggeridge and as one of the finest contributors to the late J. P. McFadden’s Human Life Review. He was also the husband of Anne Roche Muggeridge, who wrote The Desolate City (1986), perhaps the deepest analysis of the crisis in the Catholic Church post—Vatican II.

John was—and this is hardly my private opinion—the sweetest, kindest, most decent human being I have encountered. Though possessed of great passions, he was an extraordinary exemplar of simple, Christian love in his daily life. By “simple” I of course do not mean reflexive, for love is the creative force, and the action of love never fails to betray a kind of genius in the lover. He could deflect the most cynical, jaded remark made in his company into a positive channel, without changing the subject, by his genius for spotting the “one good thing.”

Indeed, his besetting flaw was that he “so much loved the world.” He loved the company of others—of his sprawling family, including innumerable grandchildren, and of buddies great and small (few men have drawn to themselves such a wide range of acquaintances). He set others consistently before himself. On his deathbed, racked with pain from the metastasized cancer that had destroyed his intestines and liver, the only complaint we heard from him was when one of his tenants mentioned that she’d been out to a certain Pauper’s pub. Said John, “A pint at Pauper’s, oh! All I want in the world is a pint at Pauper’s.”

Raised in boarding schools, then Cambridge, from a family in that crazy, bohemian Bloomsbury world of an England now shrunk into history, John came to manhood in national service “mau-mauing the Mau Mau” in Kenya, as he told in one of several fragments for a brilliant memoir he was never going to finish. The more the pity, because that chapter alone, replete with risible confessions of his own incompetence as a soldier (once absentmindedly firing a mortar straight up, and being saved with his companions only by the wind), was an English variation on Good Soldier Schweik.

 

Indeed, John was, in every word he wrote, a masterful prose stylist, and the only thing stopping him was that he hated writing and would always put it off. Instead he made his living, as he explained, teaching generations of vocational college students “the difference between ‘it’s’ with an apostrophe and ‘its’ without,” or as the administration liked to call it, “English.” He was widely read, especially in English and French literature, and the world has lost a remarkable interpreter of Dickens who never got around to publishing a single thought on the subject.

His voyage into Catholicism, like his father’s later, was under the tutelage of his remarkable wife, whom he met in Corner Brook, Newfoundland—the remote outpost of the British Empire where he washed up as a schoolteacher after his war. She survives him now, as the Alzheimer-ridden inmate of a Toronto “home,” where in the last years of his own frailty, John went faithfully every day, to feed this beloved woman who could no longer recognize him. In her prime, Anne was formidable, feared by liberal bishops and adored by a large, invisible tribe of faithful Catholics who looked to her, and to her husband, for guidance in dark times. One of John’s most extraordinary accomplishments was the easy grace with which he carried off the “Dennis Thatcher” role, squire to a talented and famous woman, and yet paternal anchor in a very normal home. In time, John himself will become more famous.

David Warren

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David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.

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