The great explicator

<strong>Growing Up in a War</strong>

Bryan Magee <em>Pimlico, 400pp, £17.99</em>

Any time you find yourself thinking what a brilliant child you were (or have), read a chapter or two of this book and think again. Bryan Magee was - is - a cookie so smart that it is all but impossible not to crumble in his company. Thirty years ago, during one of his television series designed to introduce the general viewer to the history of ideas, Magee told Herbert Marcuse that he wished they had the airtime to debate properly the Frankfurt School's claims. Marcuse looked understandably relieved that the Beeb's schedulers had let him off the hook, but the rest of us felt disappointed that our man wasn't going to unpack the tautologies of, say, repressive tolerance.

Magee is one of our age's great explicators, a man who believes with Renard that clarity is no more than writerly good manners. His study of Schopenhauer, long ago established as the standard primer, was written on the hoof while he worked as MP for Leyton, first for the Labour Party, later for the SDP. His two books on Wagner contrive not only to open up some of the most forbiddingly wondrous music ever written, but also to introduce the central tenets of the likes of Feuerbach, Fichte and Nietzsche. There was a moment, reading Wagner and Philosophy, when I fleetingly grasped Hegel's dialectic.

It was a rather less distinguished thinker who did most for Magee's own education. Thanks to Adolf Hitler, he was granted a scholarship to the highly selective Christ's Hospital in Sussex. Magee had been the only pupil at his Hoxton primary to pass the grammar-school entrance paper, but thanks to the Blitz he was shortly afterwards evacuated to Market Harborough in Leicestershire. The local authority refused to foot the bill for a non-local boy to attend its grammar (which, like all such schools of the time, charged fees), so off to Christ's he went.

Though his cockney vowels won him the nickname Blimey Magee, our hero fitted into his new surroundings effortlessly, piano lessons here, debating societies there, undesired but character-building ball games everywhere else. Working his way through Victor Gollancz's yellow books, Magee became a socialist, though never a misty-eyed one. An article in a pal's Young Communist League newspaper assured him that there is nothing more dignified or uplifting than manual labour, but Magee was instinctively unconvinced. Later, a guided tour of a factory in which armies of women assembled screw-top caps confirmed for him that his instinct was correct.

Growing Up in a War's Dickensian social conscience is of a piece with its narrative thrust, Magee's transparent but lapidary style tugging things along with Victorian verve. For all that this is a slice of autobiography, the book is as tightly constructed as any novel, opening with the ten-year-old Magee pooh-poohing the facts of life, closing with the now 17-year-old Magee - broken-legged and bedridden - being taught the arts of love by a school nurse.

It helps, too, that his story is blessed with a ma and pa who might have come from the central casting agency for dramas of tortured adolescence. While Magee adored and worshipped his father, he had little time for his mother - largely because she had no time at all for him. Widowed when Magee was 17, she took great pleasure in telling her son: "If you think I'm going to keep you at your age, you're mistaken." There would be no more money for his schooling, let alone the degree he so longed to read for. Out of this reversal of fortune, needless to say, Magee constructs a couple of chapters worthy of a thriller, demanding the right to try for an Oxford scholarship unprepared and a year early. No prizes for guessing whether he gets in.

For all the derring-do of Magee's daunting intellect, though, this is a reassuring book for anyone who thinks they could have profited more from their schooling. Not because all real learning is done one on one - you and a book or a painting or a sonata - but because formal education, Magee reminds us, is about far more than just passing exams. To read about David Roberts, Magee's history tutor at Christ's, is to read about the teacher we all wish we'd had. But Magee is one of those teachers, too, and he has had the advantage of giving so many of his lessons on the goggle-box. Why his Socratic dialogues with some of the great thinkers of the 20th century are not in a state of perpetual repeat on BBC4 is a nut not even Wittgenstein could have cracked. Meanwhile, we have this marvellous book to console us.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan: The Taliban takeover