Bryan Magee – BaA 41-48

Friday 16 August 2019

Submitted by David Arnold (BaA 1944–52)

I was sorry when I got back from holiday recently to learn of the death of Bryan Magee. I have known him for nearly seventy-five years, since September 1944, when I arrived as a new boy and he was already in the GE. When he became a History Grecian I aspired to emulate him, and when I went up to Oxford he was already a past President of the Union. So nearly all my life I have looked up to him with admiration, read his many books, as well as postcards and letters, and counted it a privilege to meet him from time to time and talk about philosophy and our memories of Christ’s Hospital. I always felt an affinity with him, not least because he spent his childhood in Hoxton, not far from where I was born, and his elementary school was in the same road as the factory where my father worked.

Bryan went to Housey with a cockney accent, though there was no trace of it by the time I knew him, and he was as surprised as I was at the time of the 1945 general election to discover that there were large numbers of boys, and even masters, who wanted a Conservative victory.

He made his name nationally with the two television series in which he discussed their ideas with a number of distinguished philosophers, and it was no surprise that he entered parliament in 1974. He was the Labour member for Leyton, near where we had both grown up. More surprising was his lack of political preferment, which he told me he ascribed to an occasion when he appeared on television with Harold Wilson and took apart what Wilson had said. He was never forgiven.

His ruthless dissection of sloppy thinking led some to see him as arrogant, and he was dismissive of those Christians whose ideas he saw as irrational and intolerant. He was also agnostic, and once told me that he would like to be remembered as the Philosopher of Agnosticism. But his account of the nature of Jesus’s moral teaching on pages 292–3 of Confessions of a Philosopher shows more understanding of and sympathy for that subject than anything else I have ever read, and he ends by describing Jesus’s moral teaching as ‘unsurpassed’.

The last time I saw Bryan was a few months ago in the hospital room in Headington which had become his home. He was immobile but mentally active, and he knew that death was approaching. He gave me a copy of one of the very few of his books which I had not yet read. It was a novel published back in 1977 and was called Facing Death.

 A celebration of his life.

It felt slightly adventurous for a nonagenarian to make a solo trip from Lincoln to Oxford and back, but I wanted to attend the celebration of my old classmate’s life. I’m very glad I did. A large congregation had gathered under the lofty vaulting of Keble Chapel and we were treated to an expertly devised and produced composition  reflecting the leading elements of Bryan’s creative life. An orchestra and organ  played favourite pieces, interspersed with eulogies: from Henry Hardy about Bryan and his music; from David Owen with a carefully prepared account of ex-MP Bryan and his politics, and from Simon Callow who expatiated unscripted at length on Bryan and drama. There were clips from Bryan’s TV series “Men of Ideas” including an interview with Isaiah Berlin which demonstrated Bryan’s wonderful clarity in expounding and questioning the ideas of fellow philosophers. At the sumptuous reception afterwards I saw three Old Blue ties, of later vintage than my own, but it was good to see this representation of the school. Bryan was a truly distinguished Old Blue. I returned to Lincoln safely, thinking of David Roberts, the brilliant teacher who had prepared us for university. He would have been proud. So am I.

Christopher Laurence (PrepB, La A, 39 -47)