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  • Bryan Magee RIP

    Bryan Magee, author, broadcaster and academic with an unsurpassed ability to render complex philosophical ideas easily digestible – obituary

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    Bryan Magee in 1977 CREDIT: CHRIS RIDLEY/RADIO TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

    26 JULY 2019 • 1:32PM

    Bryan Magee, who has died aged 89, was a distinguished broadcaster, academic, author and a gifted populariser of philosophy; he also spent nearly a decade in Parliament as a backbench Labour MP before defecting to the SDP.

    Magee would have been the first to admit that his political career was the least of his achievements and sometimes regretted that he had gone into the Commons at all. Although he was a good speaker and played an active part in some high-profile debates, it was always clear that his heart was not in it, and he left politics without making his mark on the legislative process.

    The intellectual was really the dominant element in Magee’s personality; he saw the details of public life as far less important than his own inner philosophical pilgrimage, and it was his books and broadcasts which represented the real Magee more than his political activities.

    Magee was best known to the general public for his two series of television programmes – Men of Ideas (1978) and The Great Philosophers (1987) – in which he achieved the near-impossible feat of presenting to a mass audience recondite issues of philosophy without compromising intellectual integrity or losing ratings. This was a huge achievement. Men of Ideas attracted a steady one million viewers per show.

    Although he was not himself an original philosopher of the first importance, the breadth of Magee’s intellectual curiosity, and his unsurpassed ability to take complex ideas and recast then in a more easily digestible form, set him apart from his contemporaries.

    Magee regarded himself primarily as a writer of books who did other things only because books did not give him enough to live on. His Modern Masters book on Karl Popper was a classic of the genre. He was, in addition, a recognised authority on Schopenhauer and Wagner, and wrote books of synthesis on philosophy, political theory and music, several of which had a considerable impact. He was the author of a distinguished novel, Facing Death (1977), and of four volumes of reflective autobiography.

    Magee was interesting because he looked to philosophy for answers to real questions – the meaning of life, the nature of existence and knowledge – and because of his conviction that these were often easier to grasp through poetry and music than through abstract thinking. His rejection of the dry linguistic obsessions of so much of modern philosophy reflected the fact that philosophy had always been, for him, a consolation – an emotional prop since his troubled childhood.

    Bryan Magee was born on April 12 1930 in working-class Hoxton on the fringes of London’s East End, within a few hundred yards of where his paternal grandparents were born. He was brought up in a flat above the family clothes shop, where he shared a bed with his older sister, Joan.
    Magee described 'The Philosophy of Schopenhauer' as the nearest he ever got to an academic magnum opus

    Magee’s relationship with his mother was difficult. Though beautiful, she was, by his own account, a “very damaged” individual – “as near to being a person without feelings I have come across”. She showed no interest in or affection for her children, hated them enjoying themselves and was constantly slapping her son in the face, her tongue sharp with mockery.

    Bryan was close to his paternal grandfather and his father who, though they had little in the way of formal education, were both intelligent men with wide interests and infectious enthusiasms, for sport, books, music and the arts. His father, in particular, was a great admirer of Shakespeare and Wagner and would queue for amphitheatre seats at the theatre and opera most weeks.

    His parents’ marriage was rocky – young Bryan once saw his mother threaten to stab his beloved father with a kitchen knife. In consequence, he spent much of his early life on the streets, listening to the cries of the market traders, hanging around the pubs and soup kitchens, and witnessing the Fascist street-corner meetings and gang warfare of pre-war East London. “It was a jungle,” he recalled, “and I was at home in it.” To the end of his life his knees bore the scars from the fights that punctuated his early life.

    But his real refuge from family tensions was thought. At the age of nine he was struck by the perennial problem of the nature of time. He came to feel, without having read Descartes, that everything he knew of the world existed only in his head, a discovery which induced something akin to a panic attack. He wrote: “I was inundated by crashing great tidal waves of nausea, claustrophobia and isolation, as if I were forever cut off from everything that existed – apart from myself – and
    as if I were trapped for life inside my own head, I thought I was going to throw up or faint."


    T
    The third of Magee's memoirs

    When war broke out, he was evacuated to Sussex and then Leicestershire, an upheaval which, on account of his unhappy family circumstances, was something of a liberation. He never suffered from homesickness. In 1941 he won a county scholarship to Christ’s Hospital boarding school in Sussex, where he developed his interests in music and politics and became a socialist.

    His father’s death when he was at boarding school was a cataclysm which effectively severed family ties and left Bryan devastated. After the funeral the first thing his mother told him was: “If you think I’m going to keep you, you are mistaken. As far as I’m concerned, you’re on your own.” Her death, when Magee was in his early twenties, was a far less traumatic affair.

    After school he volunteered for early National Service, joined the Intelligence Corps and was sent to the Yugoslav-Austrian border, where he was involved in identifying and apprehending Yugoslav spies among refugees crossing the border into the West. In the 1960s he wrote a spy novel, To Live In Danger, drawing on his experiences.

    On his return to Britain, Magee went to Keble College, Oxford, somewhat reluctantly, on a History scholarship; he asked to change to Music, but was refused. He became president of the Oxford Union and published a volume of verse dedicated to Wagner. Meanwhile, he had rediscovered his early passion for philosophy and stayed on to take a second degree – in one year – in PPE.

    Magee hoped to return to the sorts of questions he had been asking himself as a child, questions relating to the mysteries of existence. But he was disillusioned to find that philosophy, as taught at Oxford, was altogether different.

    The 1950s was the heyday of linguistic analysis, when philosophers such as Gilbert Ryle, P F Strawson and J L Austin were at the height of their influence, and when the prevailing view was that the philosophy of the past was a catalogue of mistakes involving the misuse or misunderstanding of language. Magee believed that such a view amounted to a rejection of philosophy and he never entirely forgave Oxford for wasting his time on what he saw as trivialities.

    In 1953, Magee left for a teaching job in Sweden. While there, he met Ingrid Söderlund, a laboratory pharmacist; she fell pregnant, and they married. They had a daughter, but the marriage broke up quickly and he returned to Oxford to embark on a doctorate, though he continued to maintain contact with his daughter. He never remarried, though he had several long-term relationships.

    Back in Oxford, he soon abandoned his doctorate and took up a fellowship at Yale, where the philosophical faculty was more congenial to his academic leanings. His time in America would transform his political outlook. He arrived with the complete set of Left-wing anti-American prejudices but found that Americans had far more of the socialist “goods” – social equality, high living standards and opportunity for all – than Europeans. In 1958 he published a travel book, Go West Young Man, and returned to Britain with a new commitment to social democracy.

    Continued below
    Last edited by Maurice; 26th July 2019, 03:28 PM.

  • #2
    Telegraph obituary (continued)


    Magee in 1976 CREDIT: CHRIS RIDLEY/RADIO TIMES/GETTY IMAGES

    In 1959, Magee was adopted as a Gaitskellite Labour candidate for the safe Tory seat of mid-Bedfordshire. He scored well against Alan Lennox-Boyd and, in a by-election the next year, against Stephen Hastings, but it would be a further 14 years before he achieved his goal of entering Parliament.

    Instead he became a reporter for the ITV current affairs flagship This Week, and chaired several intellectual and arts programmes including The Arts This Week on the BBC’s Third Programme. He also made a series of documentaries about sex in Britain, dealing with such subjects as prostitution, adultery, sexually transmitted diseases, abortion and homosexuality (then still illegal), and went on to write a book about homosexuality, One in Twenty (1966), which called for homosexual law reform.

    Magee’s involvement in mainstream philosophy continued with an acclaimed series on BBC Radio 3 of Conversations with Philosophers (1970), published as Modern British Philosophy (1971) and his Masters book, Karl Popper (1973). He also lectured on the subject for a year at Balliol in 1970-71 and was elected a visiting Fellow of All Souls in 1973.

    At the same time he worked as a music and theatre critic for The Musical Times and The Listener. In Aspects of Wagner (1968), and his later Wagner and Philosophy (2000), he examined the composer and the emotional turbulence he generates, but sought to exonerate him from charges of guilt by association for the anti-Semitism and militaristic nationalism of the Nazi years.

    I

    In his second book on Wagner, Magee sought to exonerate the composer from charges of guilt by association for the Nazis' anti-Semitism

    Outside Parliament, Magee contributed to the debate within the Labour Party in The New Radicalism (1962), an attempt to persuade the party to embrace social democracy, and The Democratic Revolution, about the Third World. By the time he won Leyton in February 1974, he was firmly on what Anthony Crosland described as the “extreme moderate” wing of the Party.

    He thus found himself out of step with the prevailing Left-ward drift during the 1970s. The election of Michael Foot as leader in 1981 was the last straw, and Magee eventually left to join the SDP, under whose banner he lost his seat in 1983.

    During his time in Parliament, Magee continued to broadcast and to write. His 1977 novel Facing Death was shortlisted for the Yorkshire Post fiction award and in 1979 he received the silver medal of the Royal Television Society for “outstanding creative achievement in front of the camera” during 1978 – a tribute to his 15-part series Men of Ideas.

    Magee’s exit from politics coincided with the publication of The Philosophy of Schopenhauer (1983), which he described as the closest he had ever got to an academic magnum opus. Later writings included On Blindness, a selection of correspondence between Magee and the blind philosopher Martin Milligan, exploring philosophical questions related to blindness. He also wrote four memoirs, Confessions of a Philosopher (1997), Clouds of Glory: A Hoxton Childhood (2003), Growing Up In a War (2007) and Making the Most of It (2018).

    Magee's final volume of memoirs

    In 2016 Magee published Ultimate Questions, a summation of his thoughts on what he called “the fundamentals of the human situation”. In an interview two years later he told The New Statesman that he regarded the book as his only genuinely original contribution to philosophy: “Popper had this originality, Russell had it, and Einstein had it in spades,” he said. “I wish I was in that class – not because I want to be a clever chap but because I want to do things that are at a much better level than I’ve done them.”

    Magee was a senior research fellow in the history of ideas at King’s College London from 1984 and visiting professor from 1994. He undertook “great and good” roles on public bodies, and in 1994 he resigned as chairman of the Arts Council music panel in protest at budget cuts.

    Bryan Magee is survived by his daughter.

    Bryan Magee, born April 12 1930, died July 26 2019
    Last edited by Maurice; 27th July 2019, 06:05 PM.

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    • #3
      The Guardian obituary

      https://www.theguardian.com/educatio...magee-obituary

      Nick

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