A review by Paul Jennings
ACTUALLY there is only one joke in Male o 1 m Muggericige's Tread Softly for you Tread on my Jokes (Collins. 30s.), using that word in its real technical sense of a Funny Thing — a Mysterious, formal, organised. self-sufficient surprise, an arrangement of words that stands out from the surrounding words as quartz or precious ore stands out from mere rock.
It was made by a splendid man called Cholerlon, a colleague of Mr. Muggeridge during his early days as a correspondent in Russia (where he was cured of any disposition to admire Stalinism. almost before the Wehbs, to whom he is related by marriage, became besotted by it); arguing with one of the commissars about whether there was a Habeas Corpus in the
Soviet Union, Cholerton said that what they had was Habeas Cadaver.
Mr. M„ as he says perhaps a shade too often, is terrified of jokes, the English sense of humour and all that, and he writes of the gloom which overwhelmed him at the Punch
office over which he presided I or five years (with startling effects on the sales curves, both upwards and downwards: a most interesting and artistic shape). It is difficult to see why.
This collection of his pieces (how did he get away with omitting the customary acknowledgement bit at the beginning showing where they were all first printed?) is a despairing statement ahout contem
porary civilisation which would be an intolerable jeremiad, producing an unprecedented wave of suicides in its readers,. were it not for the marvellous rolling, antithetical, cumulative and above all funny style in which it is written.
Some of his targets, of course, are unmissable. The current obsession with sex, the ludicrous bandying-about of that so anti-climactic word "orgasm" (as though that were all). has produced nothing more owlish than Wayland Young's book "Eros Denied", on which Mr. M. does a real hatchet job—by the simple device ("writers of my genera tion . . are asterisk men") of "using 'to Wayland' for the four-letter word which occurs on almost every page of 'Eros Denied', and 'Young (ni)' and 'Young (f)' for the almost as frequently referred to male and female organs.' " And how about this for a sentence: "Its [nomography's] avowed purpose is to excite sexual desire, which. I should have thought, is unnecessary in the case of the young, inconvenient in the case or the middle-aged, and unseemly in the case of the old."
This is classical style—the cumulative three statements used by writers in the grand tradition from Cicero to Newmatie at New man. Its useis deceptive.
catalogues our illusions and vulgarities—the shallowness of politicians (Churchill's rhetoric "wore badly", the Kennedy regime's "inherent and devastating second-ratenest casts a pall over its adulators"), the arid materialism, the misuse of mass-communication for myth-making.
It is all done with a weary and fastidious polish that somehow leads the reader to assume that such diamondhard clarity and incisiveness could only proceed from some imniense, deeply-held tradition. If we have gone wrong, surely so articulate an observer can tell us where we should have gone. Surely. now we know what he is so rightly Against, it will be even more exciting to read what he is For? Well, although he is against our modern lightweight England, he isn't for ,solid old Queen Victoria (that "podgy bronze empress", "unpleasing old Germanic lady"). He is against the cruelties of totalitarian communism but he is equally despairing of liberalism.
A brilliant piece on the Fabians has a paragraph with this characteristic ending: "it is the disparity between the Fabian achievement and the world setting in which it came to pass that has tended to detract from its impressiveness in contemporary eyes. Admiration for a tasteful window-box display is diminished if the building incorporating it happens to be on fire."
Yes. One wants to say, but does this mean the people who planted the window-box started the fire? Like all good books, Mr. M's makes you wish he was present so that you could argue with him.
The Catholic reader will naturally be interested to find that even the Church does not now seem to him a sufficient corrective to our Gadarene rush. "Pessimism has, indeed, been Christianity's g r ea I strength. The concept of this world as a wilderness, and of human life as short and brutish, fits the circumstances of most people most of the time . . . the Roman Catholic Church is the one remaining, and far and away the strongest, bastion of Christendom.
"If it is now crumbling (as seems to he the case), and in process of succumbing to the siren voices of material and fleshly well-being wafted across the Atlantic, then the game is finally up . . a light will have gone out which has illumined all our lives. shone through the art and literature of a long civilisation, and served, and served to hold at bay, if only fitfully and inadequately, the wild appetites to gorge and dominate which afflict all our hearts."
Ate Mr. M., the Church doesn't really give a damn about the art and literature of a civilisation, or even philosophy ("she will have no philosophies", wrote Belloc), but one sees what you mean.
But why and off one wants to go, arguing again.
Ali, but he is For. as well. The only hooray-pieces in this book are ahout individuals he admires, like Dwight Macdonald and Wodehouse, and there is a deeply moving tribute to his friend Hugh Kingsmill. lie loves men and hates man. And there's absolutely no need to tread soltly. Mr. M., and his jokes. can very well look after themselves.