4 JUNE 1965, Page 16


Muggeridge's America

MALCOLM MUGGERIDGE's exposure of life on the American lecture-circuit made stunning television (BBC-1). From the first moment when he loped towards us down some huge airport corridor, a frail gnarled figure in scarf and raincoat, with briefcase in hand, to his final dis- appearance across an identical waste of concrete —'Am I arriving or departing? Perhaps eternity is like this . . .'—one was entirely captivated by. this master of the lacerated smile, the con- torted gesture, the honeyed courtliness which manages to be both ironic and benevolent, mocking and self-mocking, persistently interested and as constantly surprised, shocked or pained. 'Awfully pretty . . . terribly nice . . . absolutely charming of you,' he murmured in his Ed- wardian way as yet another blue-rinsed matron -- 'compared with whom the Spartans were effeminate—deluged him, with the statistics of civic 'pride. Soon he was among his audience, whittling a gaunt aphorism with a wintry smile. The America revealed was that of the huge subtopian hinterland from Nashville, Tennessee, by way of the Great Lakes to Denver and the Californian coast. `One's ancient carcase is relentlessly transported,' Muggeridge sighed and, as place succeeded place, and one reception com- mittee followed another, it became clear that a highly personal interpretation was , being pre- sented (brilliantly aided by Jack. Gold's direc- tion: how did he keep everything so natural?). It was, for one thing, the loneliness, the 'existential void' which such a lecturer feels. It was the anonymous ugliness and scrappiness of the buildings moving past, 'America is largely made of cardboard.' It was the sense of boredom which steals over you on a Sunday morning in Racine, Wisconsin—'Belle City of the Lakes'- as you stare at the city map in your hotel foyer. press a button and pinpoint all of twenty or thirty churches in lights. It was the maddeningly loquacious earnestness and innocence of the culture-vultures you encounter. For although small-town ignorance and prejudice were generally omitted, and the many awkward questions about politics, race, class, left unasked, the programme was too narrowly selective to be objectively fair. Didn't Mug- geridge ever enjoy himself? Didn't he some- times find a pal? What about good meals and drinks? Oddly enough, we never discovered on what subjects he was lecturing, despite the fun made of his recurrent opening joke, while the intriguing matter of fees remained undiscusscd. Nevertheless, I felt there was more truth in this portrait of middle-class America than in far more comprehensive documentaries. Moments of near-nightmare included an over- solicitous air-hostess, a Universalist Church with phallic-symbol tower and a preliminary pep-talk in Los Angeles by the founder of Operation Moral Upgrade, who claimed that that city was 'the smut capital of the world,' and was in the') habit of distributing token haloes to anyone who" succeeded in removing indecent books like Tropic of Cancer or Suburban Sexpot from the stalls. There was a climactic moment of grim poetry on a Californian beach, with the sunlight soft and thick as flannel, the sea a syrupy fatigue, the sand vaguely shabby and a couple of muscle- bound gymnasts caught in a timeless vacuum as they heaved and yawned and swung.