We like to pigeonhole people. But with Hoxton boy Bryan Magee it’s a tricky one. If you’d turned on the telly in the 1960s and 70s you might have known him as a current affairs reporter on ITV. Turn on Radio 3 and you would have him down as a critic of the arts on BBC Radio 3. At one time he taught philosophy at Balliol College, Oxford. From 1974 to 1983 he was Labour MP for Leyton … then a Social Democrat. He is now a full-time author. And his latest book (his twentieth) taps into the roots from where all these personas came – the streets of 1930s Hoxton.
Many readers will have got accustomed to the gentrification of their part of the East End. Wapping, Spitalfields, Limehouse and the Isle of Dogs have all seen themselves reinvented as fashionable quarters of inner London. Hoxton is no exception – now becoming a centre for artists and designers, and seeing rocketing property prices. Yet within living memory it was one of London’s most notorious slums. ‘Hoxton is the leading criminal quarter of London, and indeed of all England,’ wrote Charles Booth at the turn of the twentieth century.
It remained a byword for its combination of poverty and crime until the Second World War. This was the world the young Bryan grew up observing at street level, from the door of the family shop: men’s and boy’s outfitters, EJ Magee. But the keen eye he was later to turn to journalism observed other, rather less respectable, trade going on. Hoxton was London’s busiest market for stolen goods, the centre of the pickpocket trade, and home to a razor gang that terrorised racecourses all over southern England. Its main thoroughfare, Hoxton Street, was one of the East End’s best known street markets, but it was also known as the roughest street in Britain.
Magee’s recall of the 1930s is as good as any diary or film. As he says: ‘I was all the time avid for something, and I did not know what, so I wanted to absorb everything’. He recalls ‘Wingo: the dollar tailor’ and having his curiosity satisfied on discovering that a dollar meant five shillings (25p). He remembers every detail of childhood street games and songs. And he encounters anti-Semitism for the first time when his friend Davy Franks is called ‘Jewboy’ by bigger kids.
‘What did they do that for?’ asks a puzzled Bryan.
‘Coz I’m a Jew.’
‘What’s a Jew?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘How d’you know you are one then?’
‘Coz my mum and dad said so.’
Even as a child, Magee was to get a first-hand view of the extremist politics of the thirties. Hoxton was a favourite meeting place and rallying ground for the Blackshirts, and Bryan would stand at the back of the rallies, excited and appalled by what he was hearing. In his later career he would interview Mosley and quiz him about his methods of whipping up a crowd.
Everyone played in the street, turfed out by mothers sick of kids under their feet, and everywhere became a playground. Watching the steam trains at Liverpool Street, playing marbles, swapping cigarette cards, and pinching from the stalls in Hoxton Market.
This world would last only until World War II. On 2 September 1939, the day before war broke out, Bryan’s anxious parents evacuated him to live with his grandparents, in the Sussex village of Worth. It was to be the beginning of a long journey. He won a place at Christ’s Hospital School, then military service, followed by a scholarship to Oxford.
Returning, he was to find that first the Blitz and then slum clearance had ripped the heart from the place. But a new Hoxton emerged towards the end of the twentieth century. The swimming bath and public library used by the young Magee was now a rehearsal room for the English National Opera. And the market place where he observed the pickpockets (and more honest traders) was now home to the campus of a new university.
All was changed beyond recognition from the pre-War ‘garden of Eden’ he remembered, but it was still there inside. ‘I was not invariably happy, and I didn’t think of it as a paradise. I had the kind of innocence from not knowing anything else. There is a small part of me that has never left it, and that lives in it still.’
Clouds of Glory, A Hoxton Childhood by Bryan Magee, published by Jonathan Cape, £17.99 hardback, ISBN 0224069799