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The life of Bryan Magee

Blog | By Henry Hardy, David Owen and Simon Callow | Dec 06, 2019

Bryan Magee on the BBC's 'The Great Philosophers', 1987. Source: BBC

Bryan Magee – philosopher, writer, broadcaster, politician – died on 26 July at the age of eighty-nine.

After his death, the three main broadsheets swiftly printed the oven-ready obituaries they had on file. But the BBC, where Magee’s reputation was cemented in the later decades of the twentieth century, failed even to mention his death, let alone look back at his life and work. What were Front Row and Last Word thinking of? Not the tiniest clip from the rich Magee broadcasting archive were we offered.

Magee was (and still is) a household name among the chattering classes, rightly, and this was an astonishing failure of cultural memory on Auntie’s part. He was a consummate interviewer, and one of the most articulate and engaging expositors, especially of philosophy, who ever lived. The silence on the air waves at the end of his life was shameful. I turn to the Oldie as the natural organ to remedy this lamentable state of affairs just a little: one oldie standing up for another in a third.

At a celebration of Magee’s life held in the chapel of his undergraduate Oxford college, Keble, on 29 October, David Owen and Simon Callow both delivered stirring addresses, and the main purpose of this blog is to share these with Oldie readers. But first a quick recap of the life they were helping to celebrate.

Bryan Edgar Magee was born a Cockney in 1930 in Hoxton, the son of a gentleman’s outfitter who instilled in him a love of music and theatre that came to be dominant passions. He was educated at Christ’s Hospital and at Keble, where he took degrees in history (1952) and PPE (1953), and was President of the Oxford Union in Hilary Term 1953.

After a few years in temporary academic posts and a spell working for Guinness, he became an author and television presenter, fronting the ITV current affairs programme This Week, making documentaries about social issues, and writing books, including the hugely successful Popper for Fontana Modern Masters.

In 1974, he was elected as Labour MP for Leyton (this was when he met David Owen), but in 1982 defected to the SDP, losing his seat in 1983. He then returned to full-time writing and broadcasting, notably interviewing prominent philosophers with marked success for the BBC in the radio series Modern British Philosophy and in the two TV series Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987). Celebrated books on Wagner and Schopenhauer followed, contributing to the eventual total of 22 very various books, including poetry and novels.

I myself met Magee through his membership of the common room at Wolfson College, Oxford, which provided him with his main base for his last three decades. He first came to the College for two years in 1991 as a Visiting Scholar at the suggestion of its founding President, Isaiah Berlin, whom he had befriended in 1972, when he conducted a discussion with him and Stuart Hampshire on nationalism for Thames Television.

From that point onwards, he was attached to the College in various guises, and it was here that I myself came to know him well, eventually becoming his executor, literary and otherwise. In his early Wolfson years, he was working on his celebrated intellectual-autobiography-cum-introduction-to philosophy, Confessions of A Philosopher, published in 1997.

In 2000, he left London, where he had lived until then, buying a flat close to Wolfson. He became a familiar figure and almost daily presence in College, walking up for lunch after a morning of writing, and holding court in the dining hall and in the common room over coffee.

He was a superb talker, and his multi-faceted life provided a great deal of matter for him to talk about. He was a widely valued personal and intellectual presence in College. He continued to have short-term academic attachments elsewhere – in Oxford, Cambridge and Otago – but Wolfson was the home he returned to, sustaining him as he wrote The Story of Philosophy, Wagner and Philosophy, Ultimate Questions, and three volumes of personal autobiography, Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood, Growing Up in a War, and finally Making the Most of It, published in 2018.

As can be seen, Magee was a man of many parts who cannot be summed up by a single label, but probably his most enduring achievement will turn out to be his brilliant explanation of philosophy to non-specialists. He made the subject exciting and accessible without condescension or dumbing down. Luckily many of his TV programmes are on YouTube, compensating to some degree for the BBC’s inertia.

Candour requires a small sting in the tail. He was also a notable egotist, who almost always put his own desires and interests first. This characteristic was usually disguised by his great charm and conversational brilliance, but it did erupt uncomfortably from time to time. He wanted to do what he wanted to do, and when he wanted to do it, and nothing else. But this was probably a necessary condition of his successes.

He was driven by the urge to write, and this required discipline and even obstinacy. He wrote virtually every morning, like Trollope, though not so early. His other paid activities were motivated by the need to earn his living in a way that allowed him writing time. The value of the legacy he has left us, in print and in audio and video recordings, is so great that we should not begrudge him his purposeful selfishness, which may have been due in part to a dash of autism that he and I agreed was a productive part of his make-up.

I now give way to the two Keble speakers, who come at their subject from markedly different angles, dipping into just a few of Magee’s many parallel lives. I hope that their words will contribute to his memory.

Bryan on politics

David Owen

Bryan Magee entered my life in 1962 through his recent book The New Radicalism, when I found myself, I must admit to my own surprise, the adopted prospective Labour parliamentary candidate for Torrington in north Devon, where for me the only issue was whether I could save my deposit at the coming election. As a newly qualified doctor of medicine, I was desperate to find out more of what lay underneath the then Labour Party, led by Hugh Gaitskell, a man who to this day has still much wisdom to give to British politics.

In Chapter 5 of The New Radicalism, ‘Conflicting Elements in Socialist Thought’, Bryan warned about a form of socialism where ‘wisdom was handed down like orders – down through the social hierarchy, down through the generations’. He quoted Karl Popper’s presidential address to the Aristotelian Society in October 1958: ‘A school of this kind never admits a new idea. New ideas are heresies, and they lead to splits: should a member of the school try to change the doctrine, then he is expelled as a heretic.’

He then went on to explain the heart of Marxism. ‘Marx believed’, he wrote, ‘that he had discovered the Natural Laws of historical change, and that these were scientific laws in precisely the same sense as that in which Newton’s laws of motion were scientific laws. Their operation, like that of all other Natural Laws, was entirely independent of human wishes or motivations.’

Bryan had a philosophical approach to politics which I wanted to understand. He wrote then: ‘socialism is a hybrid, combining the best traditions of liberal science with some of the worst traditions of oracular pre-science: combining hostility to authority with elements of authoritarianism – crossing humanitarianism with collectivism, idealism with materialism, the belief in moral responsibility with the belief in determinism’.

We never knew each other well, though we first met and became parliamentary colleagues in the Labour Party in February 1974, when he came in for the safe Labour seat of Leyton. I had come into Parliament eight years earlier in 1966. He left the Labour Party at the start of 1982. He wrote of this period in his third volume of autobiography, Making the Most of It: ‘It is important for me to say that I left the Labour Party not in order to join the Social Democrats but because I could not go on any longer in the Labour Party. I was not enthusiastic about the new party and did not join it immediately on leaving the Labour Party.’

Roy Jenkins, as SDP leader, asked him to be the party’s front-bench spokesman on education. But he refused, as this would entail sacrificing his private working time, and he was already beginning to write a lot. When he lost his seat in 1983, he quietly left his membership of the SDP, and it lapsed.

Yet he writes of this nine-year period in the House of Commons very interestingly: ‘I would not un-wish the period I spent in the House. It was an enormous, many-sided experience, and taught me a great deal. I learnt, from close up, how the country is actually governed, not only nationally but locally, and I was a small cog in the process.’ This was a man who had been on our television screens frequently, on This Week, reporting all around the world.

With his political and philosophical beliefs, it was impossible for Bryan to be at ease in either the Labour Party or the SDP. He wrote in the Preface to The New Radicalism: ‘Socialists had always believed that the measures would actualise the ideals and it is this belief that was wrong. But this means that something fundamental to the whole Socialist philosophy was wrong.’ And at the end of his book he writes: ‘what is needed? […] a dynamic philosophy free of the major conservative and Marxist fallacies appropriate to the world as it actually is today […]. It is not a fixed philosophy.’

What I always liked about Bryan’s attitude to politics was that he saw that ‘The need to be ever alive, ever thinking, ever seeking out new ideas and new approaches is more important in politics than in any other aspect of human life,’ he wrote. ‘It should be the mainspring of a radical party.’

He also warned about ‘the innocence of responsibility’: the aim of some socialists was not to direct society, but to play a particular role, irrespective of its effect. That is true of the trade unions but is also true, he wrote, ‘of everyone who wants the Labour Party to promote the interests of one class against another. This is irresponsibility in the deeper sense.’ The need to embrace the whole impact of policies which is the life of politics was essential to Bryan.

When he reached the age of forty, he concluded that there was only one philosopher that he had not read and that was Schopenhauer, and when he did he claimed ‘he changed my life’, because ‘he writes with the deepest insight about the profoundest of all questions of human beings, namely how human experience itself is to be understood’.

Typically, Bryan asks that we should not read the first edition of his OUP book The Philosophy of Schopenhauer, published in 1983, but the revised and enlarged edition published in 1997. I confess I have not read it, but reading more about his own writings over the last few months and weeks, I have vowed to myself that in my retirement from politics I will read this book. Whether I will understand it is a rather different question.

The last time I saw Bryan was over dinner in my home in Limehouse a few years ago, and I was particularly pleased that one of my sons was there as well. He had read philosophy at King’s and by then had become a psychiatrist. We had a fascinating evening and Karl Popper was the common ground.

The man whose memory we honour today will fortunately remain with us for decades to come because I think it is no exaggeration to say that he was the greatest populariser of philosophy of our generation. In books and on television, there is his legacy, in particular where he drew out from some of our cleverest contemporary philosophers simple explanations of their views. What I suspect is that of all his books the most widely read by people who are not philosophers is Dorling Kindersley’s The Story of Philosophy, published in 1998. Pictures and words are well worth more than just a glance.

Bryan wryly remarked in Making the Most of It: ‘The eighteen years of Conservative government 1979–97 coincided with the peak years of my professional life.’ But in his teaching here in Oxford he has left a human legacy of undergraduates and postgraduates who got to know him, one on one, and were then in the presence of a very considerable mind.

Bryan in my life

Simon Callow

(Speaking after a performance of the Prelude to Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde by the Amherst Sextet)

How Bryan would have relished that thrilling recasting of the Prelude to Tristan for string sextet! It has made me hear it all over again. Of course Tristan was for Bryan the greatest of all Wagner’s works, because, perhaps, the most Schopenhauerian. And it was Wagner that eventually led to my transforming and profoundly nourishing friendship with Bryan.

It was about ten years ago that we became friends. But he’d already entirely changed my life forty years before. People are often asked in those terrible Sunday Times questionnaires about the book that changed their life. It’s normally Jane Austen, or sometimes it’s the Bible, or some major tome of our tradition. But the book that changed my life, and set its course, was one published by Bryan in 1966, called One in Twenty.

The title refers to the one in twenty of the population who are homosexual. I was seventeen at the time, living the life that many young gay men were leading, which is one of extreme anxiety, because we’d not long emerged from various scandals, such as the Vassall case. The Montagu Trial, only ten years before, was still very vividly in our minds. As a young person who knew himself to be gay, I felt discarded, despised, rejected, loathed, to be suppressed, to be put in prison, to be exiled if possible; altogether not likely to make much of a contribution to my society, and not likely to have a very happy life. Almost all the books that one could read on the subject were extremely depressing, like the Pelican book Homosexuality by the ex-military doctor D. J. West, which literally stated that if you’re homosexual, and if you intend to live your life as a homosexual, you will have a miserable and probably a pointless life.

But this was the period of ferment. We’d had the Wolfenden Report, and already people were beginning to think the law should change. There was an increasingly militant, revolutionary view of homosexuality, a very angry one in many cases, one which proposed that perhaps gay people should have a separate life from heterosexual people. We had nothing in common; there was no way that we could be part of an integrated society. And of course I read some of those books, but with equal distress. I didn’t see why I should be defined by this one aspect of me, why I should fight and become a full-time militant. I was all for fighting, but I didn’t want to be defined in this way.

And then came Bryan’s book, which was utterly radical in the sense that, like everything else about Bryan, it was entirely rational, balanced, clear. It looked very calmly at the situation, and it came to a very sensible conclusion, which was that homosexuality has been with us since the beginning of civilised records; that a certain number of the population have these inclinations, which essentially do no harm unless pursued in a harmful way. It’s hard now, particularly in the light of the transformations of the last few years, even to imagine how radical those conclusions were, how they transformed my view of myself, how they gave me an optimistic view of myself, and perhaps of society too.

I don’t know what influence Bryan’s book had. I don’t know whether it really did contribute to the changes that have occurred. But for it to exist at all! I hope lots and lots of people read it. I read it the other day, and it’s still an absolute model. I don’t think Bryan had any particular axe to grind. He just said, ‘This is a situation that needs to be looked at clearly and calmly’, and he did so in his famously lucid and unemotional style.

So that book made a huge difference to my life. Then I read another book by Bryan which made almost as great a difference – not quite as great, of course, but it transformed my view of Wagner – Aspects of Wagner, a wonderful book, very brief, a hundred and ten pages or something like that. Again wonderfully clear, abolishing myths about Wagner, going straight to the heart of what he was about, of the extraordinary revolutionary that he was. It dealt head on with Wagner’s loathsome anti-Semitism by putting it in a context, at least, so that one could see how this had come about in nineteenth-century society, but particularly how Wagner would be involved in it. I became a Wagnerian pretty much from that moment onwards.

Bryan was of course omnipresent in that period – in the 1960s and ’70s and ’80s – on television, in documentaries, in those astonishing interviews with philosophers, in other wonderful books, especially the book about Popper. All of this was absolutely marvellous. Without knowing it, Bryan had penetrated my whole being in so many different ways. It was almost as if he was, in a T. S. Eliot sense, a sort of guardian, someone who was hovering around in my aura. So I was extremely excited (but very nervous) to meet him, which I did at a party. It wasn’t a long conversation, but I was suddenly subjected personally to that gaze, those spectacles like two large television screens peering in at you with absolute fascination, as if one were in a zoo, perhaps, but equally with a great warmth and charm – but penetrating and stripping one bare of one’s content, it seemed to me. But it was a brief conversation, and I had no reason to expect to meet him again.

Then I came to Oxford, to the Playhouse, to do a one-man play. At the stage door was a package for me, which contained the utterly remarkable book that Bryan wrote about Wagner and philosophy. However, I was doing something else, I had nineteen other projects, and I put it somewhere where I would be able to access it. By chance, a couple of years later I was asked by the Royal Opera House to write a show about Wagner – a little challenge. They wanted it to be quite brief but entertaining. I accepted, and then found myself working my way through some of the vast body of works about Wagner, coming from every possible angle.

I became interested – of course, who would not? – in his life, interested in the work, but couldn’t get a proper handle on who this man really was, at core. Then I suddenly thought: Well, there’s this book called Wagner and Philosophy; perhaps that would tell me something. It told me everything I needed to know. It is the most astounding account of the mind of an artist, of the way in which this particular artist had to function in order to create his art. As Bryan says in the book, Wagner was the only composer who defined himself through philosophy. He traces, wonderfully, Wagner’s journey through the philosophers who influenced him, until he reached Schopenhauer, who was his final destination.

Because of Bryan’s passion for music, his profound immersion in Wagner, you saw that it wasn’t that Wagner was simply sublimely inspired, but that he worked incredibly hard on philosophy in order to release something in himself as a composer. He could not write at all, as Bryan so sharply makes us see, until he’d sorted out what he felt about the world. That’s unique and extraordinary, and I saw then that I had my way into Wagner, and that my show would be largely a revelation or an embodiment of that idea. So I got in touch with Bryan, and that’s when I finally met him properly. We sat in the Ashmolean, I remember, for some three or four hours. Bryan, with a generous rigour, extracted from me what I knew, or thought I knew, about Wagner, recast it in peerlessly lucid form, in attractive form, in exciting, dramatised form.

I discovered more and more, as I got to know Bryan, that he was passionate about the theatre, as passionate, almost, about the theatre as he was about music, and as learned, and had indeed been a critic – one of the BBC’s critics – and a critic for a newspaper as well. He understood the theatre, it seemed, from the inside. There followed a whole series of conversations and letters and thoughts that led to the play that I did at the Opera House, Inside Wagner’s Head, and eventually to a book that I wrote, Being Wagner. It was extraordinary to be connected to Wagner so intimately, but even more extraordinary was to be connected to Bryan, to his avidity, to his relish.

As he became more ill, and unable to do the things he loved doing, to get out and about, unable to write – to hold a pen became immensely difficult for him – never for one second did I sense a diminution of any kind in his appetite for life, for ideas, for friendship, for communication. Once, to my undying shame, I had to come to Oxford to do two or three things, and I found a space of thirty-five, forty-five minutes during which I could see him, and I probably hadn’t made it clear that it wouldn’t be as long as he might have liked. I eventually said, ‘Bryan, this is terrible, but I’ve got to go, because I’ve got to be there’, and he said, ‘Don’t do this to me, because I value these conversations of ours, they are my life’s blood now. Don’t come back again unless you have proper time to spend with me, because I need it, I want it, I love it, and to be torn away from it like this is unbearable.’ I felt, as you can imagine, some shame.

We never met again, as it happens: a great sadness. But still he was in contact, still he would leave messages on the phone. He would get somebody to write for him, or eventually, I think, he was able to write again for himself. The last thing of mine that he saw was a film that I’d made of my one-man version of A Christmas Carol. Bryan wrote a letter to me saying, ‘I’ve seen the film twice over. It will outlive both of us.’ And of course it has now – very soon, all too soon – outlived Bryan.

Everything that I do now, as a writer, or even as an actor and as a director, is imbued with some of Bryan’s extraordinary spirit, his ability to make thought dramatic, and to connect one to philosophy in the broadest sense, to thinking about life with such lucidity and avidity. I am infinitely grateful for our friendship.