Observer review: Clouds of Glory by Bryan Magee

In Clouds of Glory, philosopher Bryan Magee vividly recounts his childhood years on the mean streets of Hoxton, says Matthew Reisz

Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood
by Bryan Magee
pp320, Jonathan Cape, £17.99

Once, when suffering from writer's block in the Reading Room at the British Museum, Bryan Magee ordered up the 1939 issues of a comic called Wizard. He instantly found he could recall every detail of serials he had read more than three decades before.

There is something incongruous about Magee, stern-faced philosopher, former MP, Oxford don and television presenter, leafing through comics in the BM. And those who have read his serious, rather patrician books on Wagner, for example, may be startled by Clouds of Glory.

It might be described as a philosopher's memoir of his 'street-fighting years', up to the age of nine, in the now yuppified but once notorious London district of Hoxton. Novelists and sociologists alike casually alluded to it as 'the archetypal low-class criminal area', the police kept away, and the key social division was between the 'rough' and the 'respectable'.

Magee's father and grandfather ran a clothing shop, detested violence and avoided serious crime (although the latter sold the same homing pigeons in the market week after week), but gangs and fights were an ever-present feature of daily life. When a fish-and-chip shop owner tried to stand up to a local hood, his cat was thrown straight into the deep-fryer.

The book begins slowly with a tour of Magee's childhood home and the neighbouring shops, but it soon dives into the world of fences, illegal gambling, protection rackets and bare-knuckle fighting.

For years, the Hoxton gang were lieutenants of 'the Birmingham boys' and controlled many of the race meetings in southern England. They were eventually outwitted by the Sabini brothers from Clerkenwell, in league with the police, at the 1936 Battle of Brighton (which inspired Graham Greene's Brighton Rock).

Much of this clearly fascinated a young boy, and Magee gives a surprisingly cool analysis of the pros and cons (for the discerning gangster) of guns, knives, cut-throat razors, coshes and iron bars.

Other moments offer amusing glimpses of the future philosopher, as when he ponders the mysteries of the bacon-slicer: 'I used to stand there wondering how thin the slices could get without disappearing altogether, realising that no matter how thin they got they could always get thinner, so you would never get down to nothing.'

As the comics episode suggests, Magee has a striking gift of recall and is excellent on the repertoire of market cries, his favourite fireworks, the jungle of the school yard and the times when the whole deserted City of London became their playground. He is very frank about his own interest in violence and destruction - despite loving animals, he would experiment with throwing his pet tortoise 'high up in the air in our back yard and letting him smash down on the concrete' - and offers a kind of connoisseur's analysis of Oswald Mosley's rabble-rousing rhetoric.

There are vivid glimpses of the horses slipping downhill on the cobbles; the sieve-maker who lived in the basement and would suddenly emerge through the floorboards in the family shop; the coins tossed to passing children as the men set off to the racetrack in a charabanc from the pub...

On more emotional terrain, Magee manages to describe and analyse his feelings without always quite capturing them. He paints a very sympathetic portrait of his fun-loving father, who introduced him to racing, classical music and the 'pure anarchy' of pantomime.

But his mother liked nobody and was 'as near to being a person without feelings as I have come across outside institutions that cater for disturbed personalities'. She would slap him in the face and endlessly whine about money, other people's unreliability and the disaster of having children. He only survived by escaping: 'When she told me to go out and stay out, it was what I wanted to hear.'

This is all recorded with an admirable lack of self-pity and a strong sense of how it left him with 'a feeling of radical insecurity, a feeling of not daring to exist'. Perhaps it also explains a kind of emotional remoteness. Magee makes almost no effort to woo his readers and seems happy for us to take or leave his memories. Yet despite a certain chilliness, this is a complex and compelling evocation of a vanished world.

Matthew Reisz

The GuardianTramp

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