Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 March 2005
Issue No. 734
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Mursi Saad El-Din

Plain Talk

By Mursi Saad El-Din

I spent a most enjoyable evening at the residence of the British ambassador and lady Plumbly. The occasion was a performance of Mugg Shots, the fascinating life of Malcolm Muggeridge, by the renowned British actor Peter Stockbridge.

Malcolm Muggeridge had a career of many diverse achievements: as teacher, writer, journalist, actor, television personality, soldier-spy and, finally, Christian apologist.

Following a welcome speech by Sir Derek Plumbly, Sally Muggeridge, Malcolm's niece, offered a bird's eye view of her uncle's life and numerous talents, in her capacity as president of the Malcolm Muggeridge Society. Then we were treated to Peter Stockbridge's hilarious impersonation of Muggeridge -- a great success when performed in London where it was described by the London Review as "undoubtedly one of the most polished yet erudite and challenging pieces of theatre you could wish to see". I quite agree with this.

During my 12 years of working in London I not only had the pleasure of watching his television programmes, but also to welcome him at the Egyptian Institute in London, where I invited him to talk about his sojourn in Egypt from 1927-1930. Which brings me to the main point of my column: the long chapter Muggeridge devotes to those years in his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time. In Egypt was to be his second teaching job overseas and an important stage in his life.

He was 24 upon his arrival with his wife Katherine Dobbs, whom he had just married. His teaching job started in Minya, which he describes in his autobiography as "rather reminiscent of India except that the erosion of British power had proceeded farther". In a satirical tone, which was to characterise his writings, he says: "As the Empire ran down, the farmer beneficiaries -- the putative colonial governors, district administrators, collectors and all recipients of the vast and varied patronage it offered to the middle and upper classes of its heyday -- displayed a remarkable flair for knowing when to leave the sinking ship. It seems to be almost their sole surviving talent."

After two terms in Minya, Muggeridge was summoned to Cairo to join the staff of the university there. He lived in Helmiyet Al-Zeitoun, a district which was close to the university, then located at the Zaafaran Palace (now the administrative offices of Ain Shams University). "We often used to go swaying and clanking into Cairo from Heliopolis on the Belgian-constructed tramway," he describes.

The head of the English Department was Bonamy Dobree, successor of the distinguished poet Robert Graves. It was through Dobree that Muggeridge came to hear of T S Eliot for the first time. Dobree, as Muggeridge recalls, would refer to Eliot as Tom and to E M Forster as Morgan. A favourite haunt, he writes, was "old Groppi, a garden café in a courtyard with trees growing in it, and tables set under their shade or under coloured umbrellas. There all day long sat the Pashas and Beys and Effendis consuming their tiny cups of sweet Turkish coffee."

Muggeridge became absorbed in the Egyptian political scene. "It would have been far more advantageous," he writes, "to study Arabic, or ancient monuments like the Ibn Tulun Mosque with which Cairo abounded; or the splendid Tutankhamen remains in Cairo Museum. Alas, I did none of this, but spent my time arguing about the Wafd and its then leader Nahas Pasha, a curious, distracted, almost Ramsay McDonald-like figure, successor to Zaghlul, considered to be the founder of modern Egyptian nationalism."

He comments further -- in a way that underlines his flair for political analysis, later making him a successful journalist -- that "a certain amount of street turbulence, in any case greatly exaggerated in some of the reports, should not blind us to the vitality and vision of Egyptian nationalism, or induce us to think yet again in terms of conqueror and conquered, with the inevitable consequence of struggling on for a few more years towards predictable disaster. The awakening of formerly subject people like the Egyptians is an essential fact of the 20th century."

Muggeridge wrote that in the 1930s.

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