Wandering through the streets of Hoxton made me pick up Bryan Magee’s childhood memoir Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood. He is blessed with a sharp memory – he said that until the age of nineteen he remembered everything he had read, which helped him from his working-class environment into Oxford – and his book is an extraordinarily vivid record of Hoxton in the 1930s. It is well written and probably one of the best childhood memoirs you will find.
Magee lived at the top end of Hoxton Street, near the canal, behind his father’s menswear shop. From about the age of three he lived much of his life in the streets, many of which he describes in detail. Being in the tailoring trade, his father came into contact with many Jews, with whom he was on good terms, and some of his business associates taught Bryan scraps of Yiddish, which he has since forgotten. His father hated the fascists. Because he was dark, smartly-dressed and had a big nose a gang of them tried to beat him up in the street.
I knew Magee when he was the Labour MP for Leyton around 1980. He never seemed to fit into the Leyton Labour Party, he was too smooth and too intellectual. He announced his defection to the SDP to the Leyton party and calmly walked out of a meeting that had burst into uproar around him.
He appeared too well dressed, in a banker’s overcoat and a good suit. He never carried a briefcase or anything, and when he gave his monthly report he took a single sheet of notes from his breast pocket. To people who said he was a toff and a snob he said that he had a working-class upbringing. I found it hard to believe until I read this book, which, as well as recording the vanished life of Hoxton, explains much about himself.
His father prided himself on the sale of good quality clothes and took trouble to find them. To advertise his trade, he was always well-dressed himself, and that’s obviously where Bryan inherited his taste for good suits. Magee senior used to measure customers and send the measurements to Jewish tailors. Bryan was his messenger and had to collect the suits, which were wrapped in a brown paper parcel and carried back through the streets. He hated this job and records that ever since he has hated carrying things about with him, hence no briefcase.