It would be pretentious of the writer to claim any special friendship with Malcolm Muggeridge. Although he did write the preface to my book, Against the Tide, in 1981, it is quite conceivable that among the galaxy of distinguished friends, associates, and opponents who have claimed his attention on almost every continent, he would barely recall the three or four occasions on which our paths actually crossed.
The first time was when he interviewed me on one of the Sydney TV channels in the midst of all of the troubles of the Labor Split of the Fifties. The second came soon after, in my office in Gertrude Street, Fitzroy, when we had a bite of lunch together. The third was a walk along the seafront at Albert Park, Victoria. The last was at his own home, a small but comfortable farmhouse in Robertsbridge, Sussex, at the beginning of 1978 when I happened to be visiting Britain on the occasion of my son's marriage.
These reflections are evoked by the two almost simultaneous occurrences - his eighty-fifth birthday last March, and his reception into the Catholic Church. The story of that odyssey is told in his latest - perhaps last? - work, Conversion: A Spiritual Journey.
These few reflections relate one or two episodes in our short personal acquaintance to that last event. To him, although not to me, they might have been so inconsequential that he does not even recall them.
An Australian journalist, Deborah Smith, has written that his ostracism in Britain, after his criticism of the Royal Family in October 1957, was almost complete until, in the following year, he was invited to tour Australia by the Sydney Morning Herald. He interviewed a number of public personalities on that paper's Channel Seven.
Since it was still High Noon among the events consequent on the Labor Split, he asked me to appear which, against my better judgement, I did. The film of that interview still exists. I wish it didn't. A provincial handicapper should not measure his speed against the most seasoned weight for age performer of his time. Muggeridge once interviewed Brendan Behan, when the latter was so drunk that he could barely put two words together, and yet managed to emerge triumphantly from the "interview". Perhaps I should have known better.
At the subsequent lunch in my office, Muggeridge amused himself by asking what could possibly have persuaded me to devote so many years to fighting Communists. particularly in the Australian labour movement. To which I replied that, unwittingly of course, he had been partly responsible. Rummaging in a suburban library in 1934, I had come across his description of the horrors of the Soviet collectivisation of the peasantry, and I had been even more deeply impressed by his personal experience of the outright and conscious lying as to the nature of Soviet Communism among his colleagues in the Western press corps in Moscow. In that litany of infamy, I remembered particularly the name of Walter Duranty. His description had made so great an impression that I held him partly responsible for my subsequent troubles!
His reply: "As you know, I am an incurable agnostic, and cannot quite understand your choice. Even though I saw and wrote about what you have only read, we agnostics are no match for the Marxists. They go through us like a knife through butter. Perhaps you need an absolute creed to resist an absolute creed."
What he said about agnostics has since turned out to be far from universally true, since some of Communism's most able opponents have been religious agnostics, but that statement about himself is worth recording.
By the time Muggeridge next returned to Australia his situation had changed - radically. His own statement is that it was while he was filming A Life of Christ in 1967 that he visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and there felt the first stirrings which ultimately resulted in his conversion to Christianity. Out of this encounter, he wrote his Jesus Rediscovered, which became a best seller.
His meeting with Mother Teresa in 1969 - whom he introduced to the world - represented another critical turning point in the road from his agnosticism to Christianity. From this meeting he wrote Something Beautiful for God, the earnings from which have all been given to Mother Teresa.
Walking along the seafront at Albert Park at seven o'clock in the morning, I recalled his "incurable" agnosticism, and asked, more or less innocently, if having travelled part of the way, he should not complete the journey by embracing Catholicism.
He has written elsewhere that a far more likely advocate, Mother Teresa herself, had often done the same. It was not, of course, a propitious moment: we had just been discussing the alleged renewal of Catholicism after the Second Vatican Council, and especially the internal disintegration of so many of the religious orders. He stopped in his tracks, and said with explosive force: "Have you ever seen a rat joining a sinking ship?"
As I have written elsewhere, Muggeridge is no "rat" - no "rat" could ever have attracted and, for over fifty years, kept so beautiful a helpmate as his wife Kitty - and the Catholic Church, although still caught in the storms of the Roaring Sixties, is no "sinking ship", although it often gives that impression.
And so, in 1984, the "rat" did join the "sinking ship", but without optimism or intimations of imminent resurgence.
The final lines of his recently published Conversion demand both some knowledge of the history of Christianity as the universal faith of Europe, East and West, as well as an effort of the imagination to savour their significance.
Muggeridge repeats - with full agreement - the remark made to him by the great American preacher, Fulton Sheen, who visited Australia in 1948, and became Bishop of Rochester before his death in 1979. Sheen said to Muggeridge: "Christendom is over, but not Christ".
George Hill of the London Times asked Muggeridge why he concluded his book with Sheen's statement.
"Well," replied Muggeridge, "most of the heads of the Church - churches of all denominations - are agreeing to things being done, which deny everything the Bible suggests ...".
"As Malcolm's biographer", wrote Richard Ingrams of The Spectator and Private Eye, "I have to face the fact that I am dealing with a man whom many people may well have forgotten by the time my book is published after his death. Yet this slow eradication of the TV personality makes it easier to disinter the Muggeridge who will not be so easily forgotten - Muggeridge the journalist, the autobiographer and, above all, the diarist who emerges as a true representative of 20th century man."