Clouds of Glory: a childhood in Hoxton by Bryan Magee

Gangsters and blackshirts of the old East End
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One day in the British Library, Bryan Magee, the author of numerous books on philosophy and music, found himself with a writer's block. For diversion, he called up the weekly Wizard comics for 1939. To his amazement, he found he could remember entire pages, and even predict what would lie on the page after the one he was reading.

As a child in the slums of prewar Hoxton, he had read not books, but comics: the Dandy and Beano from their first issues, but also American comics by the armful. He points out, rightly, in this attractive memoir of that long-gone world, that the 1930s were the great era of Britain's first Americanisation. Before television, Jimmy Cagney and Felix the Cat were far better known than any politician. After talkies came in, British singers began adopting bastardised American accents. Even in those distant days of empire, five shillings (25p) was always known as "a dollar": which, believe it or not, was the actual exchange rate.

Magee, born in 1930, was the child of shopkeepers. His father, like his grandfather, sold men's and boys' clothes. His memoir is one to put alongside AS Jasper's charming A Hoxton Childhood (1969) and Raphael Samuel's engrossing oral history, Chapters in the Life of Arthur Harding (1981). Together the three accounts socially triangulate that corner of the old East End. Jasper, born 1905, was a couple of pegs below the Magee family, brought up in poverty in a two-room hovel. Harding, born 1886, was a criminal and ex-Mosleyite, brought up in the old Jago district; his main contact with Hoxton, a few hundred yards away, was to fight local gangs.

In the days before anyone saw an art gallery here, the great social researcher, Charles Booth, wrote that "Hoxton is the leading criminal quarter of London, and indeed of all England". The interaction between such respectable if struggling folk as the Magees - father was a Freemason, with a love of Wagner - and local gangsters is part of the fascination of this memoir. The gang leaders came to be fitted for suits, but their guns meant they always "had unusual pocket requirements".

Hoxton in the 1930s was pullulating with life. Young Magee observed it all, partly because his mother ("as near to being a person without feelings as I have come across") was someone it was best to be away from. About half of the neighbours were Jewish. The Mosleyite chant rang through these streets: "The Yids! (beat) The Yids! (beat) We gotta get ridda the Yids (beat)". The boy found this conflict exciting, like a movie.

Sometimes, Bryan Magee dips too much into his later Oxford philosopher and West End clubman mode. Longed-for toys in a shop window are described as "numinous objects"; Magee genealogy is tracked with the help of a friend who is Dragon Rouge Pursuivant at the Royal College of Arms. But he still bears scarred knees from the fights that punctuated his childhood life. This is a loving report from what was often a loveless terrain.