Gardening: Memories of Muggeridge

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The Muggeridges and I lived roughly equidistant from the Longfords, on the Kent-Sussex border, Kitty and Malcolm at Robertsbridge, myself near Burwash, and Frank and family at Hurst Green, in the middle. Frank had, and still has, his own chapel, into which it was his purpose to inveigle Malcolm. Eventually he got his wish, both Malcolm and Kitty being received into the Church there in 1982.

Thirty years ago, the prospects did not look bright. 'Tell me this,' I said to the sage of Robertsbridge, as we were trudging in the Sussex mud. 'Do you really subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion?' The famous simian grin split his face. 'Not a single one of them, dear boy,' said he.

'Do you think you might wind up a Catholic?'

'I rather think not.' Lips pursed, hands clasped. I did not believe him, but a man's soul is his own business and an unfathomable mystery, even to himself.

I was there in the role of fervent admirer and disciple. He was, after all, by far the best as well as the most famous journalist of his generation, and exceedingly generous with his time and advice. When my tape-rec

corder broke in the course of an interview, our first, he told me to make it up; he would trust me to get it right.

I had been instructed to bring up the subject of sex and did so, reluctantly. The ferocious critic of loose behaviour, had he not previously been . . . well, generous with his favours, eventually embracing fidelity and chastity perhaps as the consequence of advancing age rather than any Pauline conversion?

'Absolutely, dear boy,' said he, smiling. (His generation really did address you as 'dear boy'. It is a pity it has gone out of fashion.) 'You will find it a blessed relief yourself when the time comes.' (I am still waiting.)

I had heard of his misbehaviour from Claud Cockburn who, being the most notorious liar since Frank Harris, was not a reliable source. Claud was a contributor to Punch when Malcolm was editor. Had he made passes at Patricia Cockburn in the Cockburn household in London, and had she really knocked him unconscious with a telephone, I asked sternly. 'Yes. I woke up with a frightful headache. Claud came into the office in the morning wanting to know if I still wanted him to work for the paper. I was so dreadfully ashamed of myself. I sent her flowers.'

''But that didn't stop you making further advances on Patricia?' Sheepish grin. 'Did she not threaten to break one of your fingers in the back of a car while Kitty and Claud were in the front?'

'Claud told you that, did he?'

'No, as a matter of fact Patricia did.'

'Quite right. She promised to break my little finger if I didn't desist. I didn't, and she did. It hurt like hell.'

Malcolm had a merry time cuckolding employers and employees equally. To what extent Kitty put up with this we shall never know now, but I got the impression that Malcolm will have suffered patrician disapproval of a severe nature. Kitty had been brought up to believe that persons were free to behave as they wished but must accept responsibility for what they got up to. Malcolm had trouble grasping the second half of this proposition, but got there eventually.

By the time I met him, he longed frankly for death but had another 15 years or so to go. He displayed a most tender solicitude for Kitty and she for him. It is scarcely surprising that they lived so long; love is a great preservative and so is abstinence. Both had given up meat and drink but that did not prevent Kitty feeding me a ham sandwich, or Malcolm producing a bottle of whisky.

At that first meeting, all those years ago, I had had to walk to their farmhouse from the station. I was consequently covered in mud. Before driving me back, Malcolm stuck a fiver in my top pocket. I protested.

'Give it back to me when you're as rich and famous as I am,' he said.

Perhaps that is why I am kinder than I ought to be to young writers.

MORE Joyce nonsense. Bloomsday struck this Thursday, being the 90th anniversary of the date on which the action, or inaction, of Ulysses is set. Bemused Spaniards and Germans wondered what the bejasus we were up to as we paraded the town got up in panama hats and wielding ashplants, as our our women traipsed behind us in Edwardian underwear and floppy hats. A fleet of ancient messenger bikes converged on St Stephen's Green, the preferred mode of transport otherwise being horse-drawn carriages. These I avoid, as I much prefer the front end of horses to the rear.

Our most eminent architect, Sam Stephenson, being a Joyce fan, arranged a day- long series of readings from the Master, commencing at 8am, when the sterner Joyceans settled down to a breakfast of offal, like Leopold Bloom. This I declined, turning up at noon instead to contribute some of the filthier passages from Joyce's love-letters to his wife, Nora, including the one that lets slip the origin of Bloomsday: 16 June 1904 was chosen by himself as being the date on which he received the first sexual favour he had not paid for.

That was what Dublin was really celebrating on Thursday. We should also have a festival celebrating Nora. Without her, there would be no Molly Bloom and no Ulysses.