In the second part of his memoirs, titled The Infernal Grove, Malcolm Muggeridge shows his hand early (by page 19, to be precise) by musing on that strange thing, innocence, which he calls “often a quality of worldly success, as sophistication is of worldly failure.”
To some extent, The Infernal Grove is Muggeridge’s book of World War II. Many in his generation survived to see the end of it, and then write about their particular angle, the particular events in which they were involved during those heady days. The best such book is Evelyn Waugh’s The Sword of Honour, actually a heavily-novelized version of Waigh’s misadventures from Scotland to Yugoslavia by way of Crete (even though Edelweiss, from the German-Nazi side, and With the Old Breed, from the American, also merit consideration), but The Infernal Grove has many particular charms.
One of the strangest things about the memoir is that Muggeridge was closer than most who made it alive to not survive the war. At one point, he narrates how he tried to commit suicide when posted in Mozambique (he was a somewhat successful British intelligence officer there as, unlike Waugh, he couldn’t find a way to get his aging self into some military unit), and he talked himself out of it.
Like so many of his generation, he somehow welcomed the war as a change of pace and a way to tell good from evil, and yet by 1945 he was even more disenchanted than before. A deep conservative, even a reactionary by the time he wrote the book, he once approvingly quotes Simone Weil, when she wrote that Christianity is “a religion of slaves, and me the first.”
Muggeridge was clearly under no illusions about human nature; in this graph, he doesn’t mention the Catalans or the Scots, but one, living in 2015, can’t help but thinking of such disaffected former members of imperial castes:
“The British in India, originally of a lower class, became upper class there, acquiring “servants, playing polo, changing for dinner and other intimations of gentility in a single generation. Furthermore, a socially aspiring Sahib, by sending his progeny to public schools, could ensure that they took this changed status for granted, and so were firmly integrated into the upper classes from the beginning. This was one of the attractions of Empire for its lowlier devotees, and maybe, too, why its loss has tended to produce revolutionary impulses among those who would have been its beneficiaries.”
He also knows journalism. He tells how, before the war, one of Dean Inge’s weekly columns on Christianity in Lord Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard was advertised in the paper’s vans with the bill: IS THERE AN AFTERLIFE? SEE TOMORROW’S EVENING STANDARD. Which is excellent in so many different levels. Of Beaverbrook himself, he writes:
“(He) was not quite sure that there might not be such a thing as everlasting damnation, and if there should be, clearly, he would be a likely candidate.”
Now, Beaverbrook’s Evening Standard was a smart paper, with this basic policy:
“To write always on the assumption that our readers were a notch or two higher in the social scale that is actually the case… They had all been to public schools, played rugby football rather than soccer, changed for dinner… Such a picture of themselves was comforting as they commuted between Purley and London Bridge, and alleviated the tedium of trimming the private hedges on Saturday afternoons, or holidaying en famille at the seaside in the summer.”
Like all papers, it contained its fair share of particular characters, people mostly unemployable someplace else. There is Leslie Marsh, Muggeridge’s colleague there, whom he describes as akin to Augustus Moddle in Martin Chuzzlewit, “who spoke for all the poetically disappointed when he wrote to Miss Pecksniff: ‘I love another. She is Another’s. Everything appears to be somebody else’s.”
Some of the great and good were friends of Muggeridge. George Orwell once discussed with Muggeridge how their common friend Kingsmill reminded him of “a gate swinging on a rusty hinge.” Later, during the war, Muggeridge enjoys views of the Blitz with Graham Greene. This is his description of watching a night-time bombing with his then fellow intelligence officer:
“The spectacle appealed to him for its tattiness and seediness; the guise in which he most likes the Devil’s offerings to be presented… He made a special act of penitence and other appropriate liturgical preparations in case death came upon him unawares. It made me feel uneasy, even envious.”
Like Waugh, Muggeridge found the army and all its components a hilarious disgrace, occasionally enlivened by half-decent people. Early in the war, he approached a top official named Vansittart with suspicions that a general was in contact with pro-German elements. His description of Vansittart, a leftover from the Edwardian era, is peerless:
“Having quarreled with Chamberlain over his Munich policy, he had been made special adviser on foreign affairs, which meant, of course, that no one took his advice, and he exerted no influence at all, while still having a large office and all the appurtenances of dignity and authority… Vansittart made no comment and took no note; just stared across his desk at us, a monocle in one eye; in his blank gaze all the past comprehended – Victorian-Edwardian, limited editions, epigrams fashioned, restaurant table looking out on the Danube and an orchestra playing Chopin and Richard Strauss, boots with trees in them, velvet smoking-jacket. A whole décor – embossed notepaper, ’My dearest love’, leisure hours given over to literary pursuits: ‘Lady Eleanor’s boudoir. “The Count, my lady, left the flowers with a note.” Opens, reads…’ All this in a gaze directed at Bobby and me, not exactly vacant, but – how shall I put it? – stolid, wooden, impassive; like a heathen idol receiving the prayers and oblations of worshippers.”
The last stretch of The Infernal Grove is low-key and dark. It does much to explain why Muggeridge never wrote the third part of his memoirs. The book ends with the funeral of Sidney Webb, the early socialist hero Muggeridge’s family idolized, who died just after World War II.
Muggeridge was invited to the event because his wife was a distant cousin of the Webb family, and he endures it all the best he can. At the time of his death, Webb is beloved and his and his wife’s great works, Soviet Communism: A New Civilisation and The Truth About Soviet Russia, are key components of the British strain of Stalin’s cult of personality. Muggeridge describes thus one of those who didn’t pivot left quickly enough:
“When Voigt turned the furious indignation with which he had lambasted the Nazi terror on to Stalin’s, his former liberal friends and associates discovered in him a Nazi sympathizer. Another liberal newspaper, the News Chronicle, ran an article about [his publication] headlined HITLER’S FAVORITE READING, with pictures of the Fuhrer and Voigt looking amicably across at one another.”
Webb’s hero funeral was the result of George Bernard Shaw’s exertions. Shaw wrote a letter to the newspapers suggesting such pomp was needed, and Webb and his wife were interred in Westminster Abbey before a crowd of dignitaries including the Prime Minister, despite their own atheism and specific demands not to be placed in a church.
Muggeridge watches the whole sordid spectacle, in which the Dean of the Cathedral sang the praises of an unrepentant atheist “whose crowning achievement had been to commend to his fellow-countrymen and the whole world as a new civilization a system of servitude more far-reaching and comprehensive than any hitherto known.” The book last sentence follows soon thereafter: “Another way has to be found and explored.”
I’d rather end with this image of Muggeridge chuckling about a meeting he had after the war with Hjalmar Schacht, Hitler’s first central banker. Schacht told Muggeridge after the War that he had been receiving parcels from Montagu Norman of the Bank of England throughout the conflict, via the Swiss Red Cross.
The parcels, Muggeridge writes, were “sent on the theory, presumably, that bankers, whoever they might be, should in no circumstances be allowed to go hungry. With his rimless pince-nez gleaming, his hair en brosse, his tall stiff collar and air of impeccable rectitude, he seemed astonished that I should find anything bizarre in this. It would be interesting to have a look at the Swiss Red Cross records for 1939-45—if any such exist—to see just who sent parcels to whom.”
If you’re reading this, Malcolm, you’ll be interested to know the following: Schacht was fired by Hitler in early 1939 on suspicion of being a heavy leaker, right after Schacht and seven others in the Reichsbank warned Hitler in a letter about inflationary pressures resulting for recent ‘foreign operations’ with German resources used overseas for political intrigue. Montagu Norman told the US ambassador in London, Joseph Kennedy (who reported the tidbit to Washington Feb 27, 1939) that Schacht had been his constant informant over sixteen years about Germany’s precarious financial position.