It is nigh on a decade since Christopher Hitchens passed from the quick to the dead. As the world’s best-known atheist, he would be the first to say that he has not gone to any hereafter. His only immorality, he said, would be his three children. But perhaps he is mistaken. He may well have attained a literary immortality. He is one of the four horsemen of the anti-religious cause. Christopher Hitchens was a pugnacious, demosthenic rhetor and never a glib one.
Hitchens was so committed to the idea of living but a single life that he refused to have any exequies. His donated his carcass to medical science. It was an admirable bequest in many regards. However, his numberless admirers were deprived of a ceremony, of closure. He has no grave and no memorial.
Public intellectual is the label often appended to Hitchens. Mercifully, he was not a desiccated academic, producing articles of tedious pedantry couched in unreadable scholarese in utterly forgettable dusty journals. He was more middle brow and therefore eminently accessible. His work is enthralling and brimful of vim. His asperity towards his nemeses made his work all the more captivating. He was the superlative polemicist.
As a person Christopher was affable and engaging. He was possessed of an inimitable voice which bellowed out his uncompromising opinions. His voice was coarsened by decades of cigarette smoking and consuming heroic quantities of hard liquor. This lent a gravelly gravitas to that rich baritone. Though he was winsome he was never one to mince words.
Was Hitch a gadfly or a mere barfly? Some panned him as a controversialist. Others contemned him for his alcohol abuse. But for much of the freethinking movement he was and is totemic. Perhaps his celebrity status went to his head. He quoted approvingly Gore Vidal: never miss a chance to have sex or appear on TV?
Christopher’s joie de vivre was about friends, tobacco and alcohol: invariably together. It was to be the death of him. Bragging about his intake of these substances was one of his least attractive and most puerile traits. There was a streak of boyish bravado in him when it came to his self-destructive penchant. Perhaps he believed like William Blake, ‘the road of excess leads to the Palace of wisdom.’ He was certainly an aficionado of Blake’s poesy.
I wandered London in search of sites associated with C Hitchens. There is a bench upon which he filmed an interview in his hard hitting 1998 documentary: ‘Diana: the mourning after’. There is the door to the Private Eye office: he is seen going in there in that same documentary which he made in his trademark irreverent and combative style. His elan vital is sorely missed.
Hitchens was the author of some two dozen books on divers topics. He addressed himself to matters as eclectic as the Israel-Palestine Conflict, the works of Thomas Jefferson and the liberation of Iraq. The book on Iraq (The Long Short War) is one in which he lacerates the Ba’athists and their apologists. He wrote sundry articles with aplomb on all sorts of issues. That gives you an indication of the breadth of the man’s talents and the catholicity of his interests. Reading his extraordinarily broad oeuvre is one of life’s benisons.
I trust it shall not be thought a belittlement of Hitchens to call him a controversialist. Many have dubbed him a contrarian but that does him an injustice. He did not take positions just to irk people or draw attention. His views were sincerely held. Likewise, the term provocateur would also be a misnomer. His foes were convinced that he was guilty of attention seeking perversity.
Because he was partisan, Christopher delighted in skewering his foes. His elegant character assassinations of those he hated were a rare treat to read. Almost everything he published was unputdownable. He lambasted figures from Jesus to George III to Mao to Stalin to Henry Kissinger to Princess Diana and Mother Theresa. In his countless articles he seemed to vindicate Henry Bulwer-Lytton’s maxim: the pen is mightier than the sword.
It was said of C Hitchens on one book’s dust jacket blurb, ‘there is simply no one else like him in Anglo-American letters’. Towards the end of his life Christopher H had acquired an enormous following. Though an avowed leftist he was held a remarkable allure for right wingers such as your humble servant. He became known as Hitch as his father had been. Indeed, he wrote a memoir entitled ‘Hitch 22’ a tongue in cheek allusion to Catch 22.
Hitch was acerbic, eloquent, oracular and forever frightfully farouche. His inattention to his appearance spoke volumes about his authenticity. He was candid enough to call himself a nicotine addict. If the truth be told he was also a functioning alcoholic.
The allure of Hitchens’ writing and his speechmaking was his uncanny ability to encapsulate things so succinctly. His phrasemaking was often aphoristic. His prognostications so often proved prophetic. As his dear friend Richard Dawkins said, Hitchens had a range of reference the like of which Dawkins had never seen; and Dawkins lived in Oxford. Hitch’s articulacy and verve was seldom equalled and never surpassed. He had an extraordinary knack of laying bare the bones of politicians or writer in but a few sentences.
Bon vivant is the epithet so often applied to Hitch. It was richly merited. By his 50s he was a voluptuary getting along on whiskey and ciggies. This hedonist certainly drank life to the lees. He was a model to us all. He was later to quip that if he had known he would live so long then he would have taken better care of himself. But what is the point in dying in perfect health? One might as well enjoy one’s body.
Socialist though he proclaimed himself to be until his mid-40s, Hitch always chose to avoid living in a socialist country. He had acquired a taste for luxury. This was one of many contradictions and hypocrisies to the man.
It is to my lasting regret that I never met Christopher Hitchens. I only came to know his oeuvre in 2008 when I read God is not great. In this tome he expatiated on the Wednesbury irrationality of all major religions and by implication the minor ones too. This infidel produced perhaps the best-selling antireligious tract of all time. The blasphemer must have got death threats for it.
Despite Hitch’s very decided views he was also fair minded. He would give credit where it was due to his foes.
Christopher was a reprobate perhaps because he believed he had but a solitary life. He was not going to squander it in self-denial.
Through Hitchens I learnt so many words. Loam, crepuscular, epicene, preachments and unwisdom were just a few of those he added to my lexis. His command of the language was masterful.
Why does Hitch still matter? Some of his messages are just as pertinent today as they were in his lifetime. That is to be lamented. The perpetual struggle between the Enlightenment and the forces of unreason goes on. Tyranny raises its ugly head. Unfreedom is as mighty as ever before. Therefore, it is as well to remind ourselves what civilised values are. We must pledge ourselves to unsleeping vigilance against those who would compromise away liberty.
Christopher Eric Hitchens was born at Portsmouth, United Kingdom in 1949. He was the son of a Royal Naval officer. His status was middle middle middle class. On his mother’s side Christopher had Hebraic ascendants but he did not know that till he was almost 40. The Hitchens family went through the motions of Anglicanism. They were what might be flippantly called C and E: Christmas and Easter. His father was a Conservative voter; and his mother was a sentimental Labour type. His diminutive, serious-minded and austere father was dutiful and uninspiring. Christopher had a closer bond with his mother. Her gaiety and free spiritedness appealed to him.
The family soon moved to what was then the British colony of Malta. Here Christopher’s only sibling Peter was born. Peter was to make his name as a reactionary, prudish and pecksniffian journalist. It might seem that two more different men were never sprung from the same womb. But you would be wrong. They were both passionate provocateurs. Peter seemed to take after his father in severity, sartorial conventionality and judgementalism. Peter even sought to be commissioned in the Royal Navy: a chip off the old block. Hitchens minor was rejected on the grounds of ophthalmological deficiencies. Peter was for a time a red hot Trotsykist – not a Trotskyist as he would be quick to correct you.
The huge Royal Navy was there to keep the sea lanes of Pax Britannica open. But the empire was running out of colonies and cash. The two were related. As the empire was transmogrified into the Commonwealth the Royal Navy faced swingeing cuts.
The Hitchens family were posted to North Britain and later South Britain. Soon Hitchens pere left the Royal Navy to become a prep school bursar. It was the sort of dull post that suited a man of minor authority who suffered from an outsized sense of propriety and self-importance.
Christopher attended prep school. He shone academically. He had always taken the liveliest interest in current affairs. Why were French paratroopers in Algiers about to fly to Paris to launch a coup d’etat?
Hitch came to believe that the British Empire was wicked. The sooner it and all empires broke up so much the better.
The Leys School in Cambridge was selected for Christopher’s secondary schooling. It is called the Leys because of the Anglo-Saxon word ‘lea’ as in field. It sits hard by the River Cam in what used to be a flood meadow. This was one of the only posh Methodist schools around. Christopher was elated to be living in Cambridge. There he made two decisions that were to define his life. He identified as a Labour supporter and he shunned all religion.
When it was founded, the Methodist Church had been accused of irreligion by the Church of England. Therefore, a Methodist foundation had more sympathy for the underdog than one would have founded in an Anglican school. Every Sunday a Methodist minister from a gritty proletarian parish would preach to the boys. Through this they came to know something of the lives of the underprivileged. The Leys was not as purblindly pro-establishment as its Anglican equivalents. In the mid 19th century, the Methodist Conference had decided to found a school for affluent Methodists in either Oxford or Cambridge. Eventually the choice fell on Cambridge.
In the 1960s racial bigotry was not uncommon in the United Kingdom. Apartheid was going strong in South Africa. Some Tories vociferated for it. It was a time when outspoken racial bigotry could even be an advantage in British politics. Hitch was totally opposed to ethnic prejudice in all its manifestations. He detested colour prejudice. He recognised that anti-Semitism is so often comorbid with other psychosocial delinquencies. Its pathology is common to so many anti-enlightenment and anti-intellectual movements. Those who espouse this egregiously damnable worldview are those who are cognitively subnormal and easy prey for conspiracy theorists.
A voracious reader from his earliest boyhood, educated himself. He drank deep of George Orwell. Orwell was to become a role model for him. Happily, their lifespans overlapped – just! Orwell died the year after Hitchens was born. The parallels between them are striking. Both were children of the empire. Orwell was born in a colony (India) though Hitchens was not but Hitchens’ father had been posted as far away as the Chinese port of Wei Hai Wei and Hitch later spent two years of his toddlerhood in Malta. Both grew up in middle class families with financial difficulties. Both of them attended independent boarding schools. They both joined the Labour Party and both made their names as writers. Both recognised the USSR for the oppressive hellhole it was.
Christopher was later to become enamoured of Orwell. He even wrote a book on him Why Orwell matters. It is perhaps Hitchens’ most unimpressive books, replete with banalities. It is hackneyed. There is little in it about Orwell that had not been said before.
At school Hitch signed up for every left-wing view going. He opposed the white man’s war in Indochina. He abominated apartheid and sought an end to white mastery in the rest of Africa.
Hitch was clearly and anti-establishmentarian. That did not mean he did not wish to benefit from the finest education going. He set his sites on Oxford. In the meantime, he was awkward for the school authorities.
The young Christopher had a late growth spurt. He was also a failure at sport but excelled academically. Such a combination means that he was not universally liked.
Dabbling in homosexuality almost got Christopher expelled. This was just after homosexual acts had been decriminalised. His father was not scandalised. Having been a naval officer he knew what young men deprived of female society got up to. Presumably, he hoped his son would grow out of this Ganymede behaviour as soon as he had access to the fair sex. If so; then he was not to be disappointed.
In 1967 Christopher went up to Balliol College, Oxford. This is arguably the oldest college in Oxford University. For a century is had been among the most illustrious college in the university. In the late 19th century Benjamin Jowett had made it mass produce colonial governors. There was a well known piece of doggerel about him;
Here come I, my name is Jowett.
All there is to know I know it.
I am Master of this College,
What I don’t know isn’t knowledge!
There was even a hymn composed entitled: For Balliol men now in Africa. In the early 20th century is specialised in Liberal and Labour politicians. By a happy coincidence Balliol was also the college of Richard Dawkins who was later to become a close friend of Hitchens. Dawkins had ‘gone down’, in Oxford parlance, from Balliol a few years before Hitchens ‘went up.’
At Oxford, Christopher read Philosophy, Politics and Economics. For a budding politician or journalist, it was the subject to read. PPE, or modern greats as some called it, was designed to train people for leadership.
Christopher thrived at Oxford. Revolution was in the air and so was cannabis. He was never overly fond of drugs, but he smoked cigarettes like a chimney. He also acquired a taste for liquor. He threw himself into the Labour Club with his characteristic panache. He was forever participating in protests. He embraced the anti-apartheid cause and that of decolonisation. He was proud to say he was soixante-huitard even before 1968.
Hitchens family finances were not flush. Therefore, his father could extend him only a meagre allowance. Many undergraduates were in the same boat. Not everyone was from a wealthy household. Nonetheless, Oxford seems to have been elysian for him.
Though primarily straight, Christopher claimed to have bedded two men who later served in Thatcher’s cabinet. Possibilities have been identified. None have confirmed that they did it with him. There were not that many men who overlapped with him at Oxford and went on to be cabinet ministers under Thatcher. It was conjectured that one of those he has a horizontal encounter with was Hon William Waldegrave. The Provost of Eton crimsons at the very suggestion and embarrassedly denies it.
After Varsity, Hitch outgrew homosexuality inasmuch as his waistline did. Her later became so unappetising that only females would do it with him.
In the summer 1968 Hitchens went to Cuba. He was volunteering to work on the harvest there. He wanted to see if Castro had created a genuinely socialist society. Hitchens was a Trotskyite and despised the USSR as a degenerated socialist state. He loathed authoritarianism of whatever colour. Hitchens had decidedly mixed feelings about Castro. He still regarded it as preferable to the banana republicanism that prevailed in most of Latin America.
When Hitch was coming back from Cuba he found out about the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. He was horrified that Moscow was snuffing out even the limited freedom permitted by Alexander Dubcek.
Mindless conformity was later on anathema to Hitch. However, in the 1960s his views seem to have been a checklist of leftist shibboleths.
In finals Hitch took a third class degree. This was awarded to perhaps the bottom 10% of undergraduates. This was a scandalously poor result from someone so erudite. Perhaps he was too busy with his activism. It was as though the whole of the remainder of his life he strove to live down his mediocre degree class. Perhaps that is why he larded his work with Latinisms. Was he laying it on a bit thick?
Upon graduating Hitchens landed a job as a trainee BBC producer. He went down to London. In those days one could live well on such a salary. Rents were cheap as chips.
Before long Hitch was making waves in journalism. He did not tarry long as the BBC. He joined the New Statesmen. This far left weekly had short but penetrating articles about politics in the UK and abroad. He was often sent overseas on assignment. In the 70s he wrote an astonishingly flattering piece about Iraq under the Ba’athists. Part of this was he took an instant liking to his government minder there. This hard drinking homosexual introduced himself as the Iraqi Oscar Wilde.
Clive James was the TV reviewer of the decade. The Australian Cambridge graduate came to be a friend of Hitchens. They bonded over their Marxist worldview and satirical take on society.
By the 70s Hitchens was in the International Socialists. This Trotskyist outfit spurned both the US and Soviet models. It derided both capitalism and Soviet style communism as morally bankrupt imperialisms. He had left wing views on every issue and was pro-abortion.
The key word in the Internationalist Socialists was the first one. Hitch was very cosmopolitan. He was later to downplay and eventually reject socialism and all ideologies. It was as his guru Paine said: my country is the world, and my religion is to do good.
Trotskyism was perhaps the worst thing about Christopher Hitchens. Trotsky was a mass murder just as bad as Stalin. The only difference is that Stalin jostled Trotsky aside in the 1920s. The Red Army under Trotsky committed many, many large-scale atrocities just like its foes. Trotsky commanded the troops at Kronstadt. Here fellow socialists, the sailors of the Red Navy, had mutinied over the oppression of the Bolsheviks. Leon Trotsky believed in executing hostages. He had no compunction about slaying civilians. He was violently intolerant and a total anti-democratic. Hitch never chose to live in a communist state because he was a bon viveur. Communist lands are airless. He would have had no scope for free expression there. It is noisome that he idolised Trotsky who published a book entitled, In defence of terror.
Hitch was bolshie in both politics and persona. His diatribes were eminently readable, but his manner was off putting to some. Nonetheless he was clubbable. Christopher was the life and soul of the party. He never said no to a drink. He was as engaging in person as he was upon the page.
Hitch tried to examine the Arab-Israeli Conflict dispassionately. As he saw it, he had no axe to grind other than he inculpated the United Kingdom for occasioning the conflict. As he did not know of his Jewish ancestors and ancestresses at the time his claim to complete objectivity can be taken at face value. When he later discovered his Hebraic heritage, he said it would not make on whit of difference to his judgment. He came to know Edward Said and co-authored a book with him on the plight of the Palestinian nation.
The marriage of Hitchens’ parents foundered. They believed in keeping up appearances. They did not divorce. They appeared as a couple when social occasions demanded it.
Hitch’s disdain was religion deepened when his mother took up with a defrocked Anglican priest. It got worse. The couple became votaries of a conman, sorry, guru. In the 60s and 70s fashionable people had a weakness for Indian spiritualism. This made them easy marks for an Indian who pretended to proffer some profundities in exchange for hard cash. Maharishi Yogi was the soi disant ‘perfect master.’ He was indeed perfect at mastering the art of convincing the gullible to hand over their money. This Chaucerian chancer was a type that Hitch was to meet in every religion. At G K Chesterton said, when people cease to believe in religion they do not believe in nothing: they believe in anything.
The romance between Hitchens’ mother and her paramour gang awry. They went to Athens. For some reason folie a deux occurred. Christopher later discovered his mother had tried to call him six times.
Christopher Hitchens found out that a woman with the surname Hitchens had been found dead in an Athenian hotel room. Hitchens is a highly unusual surname. Christopher was asked to go to Greece to see if the corpse was his mother.
It turned out that Hitch’s mother had committed suicide. It was an event so traumatising that 40 years later he would not reveal the content of the suicide note that she had written to him. Christopher was forever plagued by the thought that if she had got through to him by phone as she tried to do, she would not have been part of that suicide pact. He flew to Greece to identify his mother’s cadaver. He recalled having to cross a priest’s palm with silver to have her interred in sacred ground. Obsequies were performed for his mother Yvonne despite her having explicitly shunned the Christian faith and embraced faux Hinduism whilst living in sin with a man of the cloth. The high moral principle of not burying a self-destroyer in consecrated ground could be circumvented for a little hard currency. You might think that the Church has low moral standards. On the contrary: $50 is a very high moral standard. ‘Twas ever thus.
Despite Hitch’s sorrowful introduction to Greece, it was a land that he was to fall in love with. He visited many times and indeed wed a Greece. He reviled the colonels’ junta. Many of its Greek leftist friends were its victims. Hitch was furious but unsurprised that the US backed the military dictatorship saying that the cradle of democracy was unfit for democracy.
Later he visited Cyprus. It inspired him to write a history of the troubled island. He lamented how the home of Aphrodite had been a victim of colonial machinations several times over. He said that Archbishop Makarios was the only priest whom he ever took to.
Hitch married a Greek Cypriot in a Greek Orthodox Church. That might seem hypocritical for an evangelising atheist. The union was blessed with progeny. He was so philhellene that his firstborn was named Alexander. It pleased Hitch no end that his son spoke modern Greek and was a classicist. Hitch was so fixated with the classics that it is significant that his two daughters also had names relating to the Classical Mediterranean: Sophia (‘wisdom’ in Greek) and Antonia (a Latin name).
The first marriage of Hitchens must have ended badly. He wrote nary a word about it in his autobiography.
In the early 1970s Hitchens came to know Martin Amis. This was his closest friendship. Martin said it was like an unconsummated marriage or a love ‘whose month was ever May.’ Hitch was already enthralled by Kingsley Amis – the father of Martin. By befriending Martin, Hitch gained access to the father. Kingsley’s novels One Fat Englishman seemed to describe the character that Hitch later turned into. In one of Martin’s novels, Hitch was featured as a character.
The poet James Fenton was a dear friend of Christopher. It was a friendship that lasted a lifetime.
In the last couple of years of W H Auden’s life, Christopher came to know the celebrated poet. Christopher recalled that Auden – who was gay – took a shine to Kingsley’ Amis’ ‘’lovely young son’’ as Auden called him.
On an early visit to America, Hitch met Pelham Grenville Woodhouse. Like Stephen Fry, Hitch was an avid fan of P G Woodhouse the author of the Bertie Wooster series of novellas. Fry indeed had corresponded with Woodhouse whilst a schoolboy. As Woodhouse died in 1975, Fry never got to meet the great man.
Christopher spent time in Northern Ireland in the 1970s. The Troubles were erupting. Hitch befriended Eamonn McCann in Derry. He rapidly came to the conclusion that the UK should jettison Northern Ireland despite the settled will of a high majority of the people there to remain within the United Kingdom. Hitch believed that the Six Counties should fuse with the Republic of Ireland. It was staggering that a secularist should want a secular province to be forced to unite with a quasi-theocracy. As a socialist he should not have wanted to deprive the people of Northern Ireland of the welfare they received as British citizens.
Despite his sympathy for Irish nationalism, Hitch had no allusions about the brutality of the IRA. He came quite close to being shot by them despite them knowing him to be a journalist.
By the late 70s Hitch was disillusioned with Labour. The British Army in Northern Ireland had abused terrorist suspects under a Labour Government. Therefore, Hitch wondered if the Tories would be better. The mistreatment of suspects is not to be condoned. However, this must be kept in perspective. It is by no means the worst thing that happened in the Troubles.
In the 70s Hitch vociferated for the cause of black nationalism in South Africa and Zimbabwe. He later remarked that Mugabe subsequently turned into everything that Mugabe’s enemies had accused him of being. So often Hitch summarised the situation so succinctly.
By the late 1970s he was well known on Fleet Street. Being a journalist was much better paid then than it is now.
On one occasion Hitch had his bottom publicly spanked with a rolled-up newspaper by Margaret Thatcher. She chided him as a ‘naughty boy’ and gave ‘a roll of the hip.’ Hitch could hardly believe it himself but had witnesses to the incident.
By 1980 Hitch said he was bored of London. Grub Street held little more allure for him. He had friends there such as James Fenton but for him the United States beckoned. In 1981 he packed his bags for Washington. He was to spend almost half his life in the United States.
Strangely for a socialist, America was the promised land. He saw it as the birthplace of revolution. As an anti-monarchist and an egalitarian, he saw it as the land of opportunity. Free speech and secularism appealed to him enormously. He was glad to get away from old grey England. It was jaded, staid, stale and grandmotherly.
Hitch had a green card. He wrote for numerous publications. He often penned pieces for the Atlantic and Vanity Fair. He became a friend of Michael Moore.
Christopher fulfilled some of the criteria for a stage Englishman. This Englishman abroad had a pukka accent, had attended Oxford, had a certain pomposity to him and could be charm itself when he wanted to. On the other hand, he always managed to look and sound as though he had only just rolled out of bed. His acerbic nature, hard left views, anti-monarchism and high functioning alcoholism were not among the stereotypes that Americans expected to see in an upper middle class Englishman.
Thomas Paine was an icon for Hitch. He later wrote a book on this man. Hitch desired to ‘live to some purpose’ as Paine had said of himself. In this Hitch succeeded many times over.
Over his 30 years in the United States, Hitch acquired some Americanisms. However, his accent scarcely attenuated.
In the USA, Hitch enjoyed a much higher salary than he had earned in the UK. He treated himself a lot. He was a literal champagne socialist.
In the USA, Hitch was aghast at Reaganism. The war on crime and the war on drugs were unparalleled acts of imprudence, folly, profligacy and injustice. Reagan’s immoral and illegal support for the most rapacious plutocrats in Central America filled Hitch with righteous wrath. Hitch was staggered that Reagan would assist narco-terrorists whilst denouncing drug use as inherently evil. Yet Reagan got away with it all.
Reagan invaded Grenada. The British Government did not warn the Grenadians despite Grenada being ruled by Elizabeth II. Hitch thought that this underscored the wickedness of US policy, the cravenness of the British and uselessness of the monarchy. Despite this flagrant act of illegal aggression, the US got away with it Scot free.
In Washington DC Hitch befriend Sidney Blumenthal. The journalist was an active Democrat. Years later they had a falling out when Hitch revealed remarks that Blumenthal had allegedly said in a private conversation. Blumenthal was by then working for President Clinton. The Clinton Administration had striven to besmirch the reputation of Monica Lewinsky with whom the president had had an extramarital sexual relationship. What Blumenthal had allegedly said in private totally contradicted his public pronouncements on la Lewinsky.
By the 1980s Hitch identified with Labour again. Many Trotskyites did which caused the party no end of ructions. He lamented that Mrs Thatcher was letting the United States use the UK as an aircraft carrier. It was as though George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 was coming true. The United Kingdom was no more than Air Strip One.
In 1982 Argentina invaded the Falklands. Leftists in the UK said that the Argentines were welcome to it. Britain should not engage in yet another colonial farce. Hitch was almost alone on the left in rejecting this analysis. He wanted the islands to be saved for democracy. He also believed that defeating Argentina would do that country a favour. The Military dictatorship would fall and freedom would be restored. His lonely voice on the left proved to be prophetic. By curious irony his father was one of the few Tories who was dead against the liberation of the Falklands.
Princess Diana was the secular saint of the 1980s. Hitch knew she was decent to AIDS victims. However, he still thought the monarchy was anachronistic and harmful. He wrote a book against it. He said the monarchy was Britain’s favourite fetish. He denounced it as reactionary and inegalitarian.
In the 1980s Hitch became increasingly cognizant of the growing menace of Islamism. Hitch disbelieved and disrespected all religions. However, he recognised that an antediluvian form of Islam was egregiously pernicious. He had seen the Middle East regress centuries in just a decade. That was because of Islamic fundamentalism funded by Saudi petrodollars. The retrograde and obscurantist Wahabi ideology was particularly puritanical and violently intolerant. This viciously anti-feminist, homophobic creed was disseminated throughout the Mohammedan world. Islamist states permitted slavery in all but formal designation.
Salman Rushdie was a dear friend of Hitch. In 1989 Rushdie published his satirical novel The Satanic Verses. This sendup of Islam did not play well in Dar al Islam. Rushdie is a British Indian. The Mumbai born author was raised a nominal Muslim. The publication of his novel was greeted wrathfully throughout the Muslim world. There were protests in the United Kingdom. Mohammedans demanded that the book be prohibited for offending their faith. Disgracefully, some Labour MPs joined in this effort to end free expression.
Some Tories said that Rushdie was endangering lucrative contracts with Muslim countries. They were irked that a brown man should impair relations with the brown world. Some muttered that Rushdie was not really British and was only in the UK on sufferance.
Hitch sprang to the defence of his friend. Of course, Rushdie had the untrammelled right to publish whatsoever he pleased. There must be no compromise on free expression. This was one issue in which he was an absolutist.
In the late 1980s Hitch’s first marriage broke up. He married Carol Blue. They later had a daughter.
Hitch was incredibly well travelled. He was in Moscow for a while where his brother later worked. He had been to everywhere from Argentina to Zimbabwe. He had been to Sri Lanka, Australia, Poland, and just about anywhere else you care to mention.
When the Romanian Revolution broke out Hitch was there to see it. He applauded the overthrow of Ceausescu.
The Iraqi annexation of Kuwait was greeted by most leftists with indifference. One Ishmaelite dictatorship swallows another. Iraq was at least secular. However, Hitchens was fully aware of the genocide that the Ba’athists in Iraq had perpetrated against the Kurds. The only way to stop this forever was to oust the Ba’athist tyrant Saddam Hussein. Hitch had no time for the absolute monarchy of Kuwait. He also reviled George Bush senior. Nonetheless, he threw his weight behind the mission to liberate Kuwait hoping this would then bring down Saddam. It was an unpopular position on the left. For many leftists, the USA could do no right.
Perhaps oddly for a leftist, Hitch jubilated the dissolution of the USSR. He considered it a perversion of the socialist idyll. He believed in multiparty democracy. He felt odium for autocracy. Further, he said that the end of the Cold War came as a blessed relief. The world was no longer living in the shadow of a mushroom could. Until that time the Third World War would have erupted at any time.
By the 1990s Hitch no longer believed as he once had done as a Marxist that global capitalism was about to collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. Despite being a socialist he founded economics tedious. He was an acquisitive capitalist in his way. He was certainly a champagne socialist. He did not stint in treating himself to the finer things in life. In that wise he was totally hypocritical. His compassion for the needy never extended to giving them a groat.
In 1992 Hitch took a grave dislike to William Jefferson Clinton and his wife Hillary ‘Rodham’ Clinton. It was a loathing that never left him. As C Hitchens elucidated, his detestation of this gruesome twosome was not political. He did not find their political opinions so objectionable. What got his goat was their insincerity and posturing. Here were two people who would do anything to grub for votes. When Clinton was Governor of Arkansas, he broke of his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination to fly home to Little Rock so he could sign the death warrant of a mentally subnormal black man named Ricky Ray Rector. There was no need for Clinton to return to his state to do this. He could have signed the order and had it sent. But he wanted to maximise publicity for this act. Clinton reasoned that mercilessness would play well with the electorate. He would not allow himself to be outflanked on the right when it came to crime as Michael Dukakis has been in 1988. Rickie Ray Rector was executed despite having the mind of a toddler.
The suspicion that Bill Clinton was a rapist never left C Hitchens. His horror at the immorality of the Clintons lost Hitch friends on the left. People would ask Hitch whether he would prefer the notoriously dim-witted Dan Quayle as president? Hitchens reprobated people who lowered themselves to using this forced choice as a reason to forgive the unrepentant Clinton for a plethora of transgressions.
Later on, Hitch skewered the Clintons with a book entitled Nobody left to life to: the triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton. He rejected as false the notion that because the Republicans were bad it was wrong to tell the truth about Clinton.
Hitch was not universally liked among the Washington press corps. Some journos in DC called him Christopher Snitchens. Furthermore, a piece on him was published entitled ‘Brit Twit.’ The other hacks disliked him sometimes out of envy. He was also one to rub some people up the wrong way. His manner was often self-important, moralising, stilted and even haughty.
Despite his fascination with the United States there was much about the land of the free that he despised. He thought the war on drugs was asinine and cruel. He abominated the religious right. Hitch remained a socialist but was less and less voluble on that issue as time went on.
In the mid-1990s Hitch visited the former Yugoslavia on assignment. He spoke up for the cause of the Bosniaks. He thought that religion was the root of the conflict. He set his face against Russia’s pro-Serb policy. Hitch believed that the West should intervene to save Sarajevo. This was a very unfashionable view at the time. He was irate that the US and UK refused to intervene fully.
It was over the Yugoslav issue that Hitch fell out with Noam Chomsky. Up until this point, he had applauded many of Chomsky’s musings. Chomsky was so eager to eviscerate the United States that he became a cheerleader for Serbs who ethnically cleansed other groups.
Though Hitch was glad that the USSR fell he was worried that the Orthodox Church was resuming its position of censor. He described it as sinister.
Anti-totalitarianism was key to Hitchens’ worldview. That was to define the rest of his life.
Christopher described himself as a nicotine addict. He was contumelious of the Republican presidential candidate Bob Dole for denying the irrefutable fact that smoking is bad for you.
In 1995 Hitch presented a documentary in which he took aim at someone to whom public opinion had accorded far too much exaltation. His target was Mother Theresa. He sought to de-canonise her before she had even died. As he remarked himself ‘who else would have the bad taste’ even to attempt such a task. His debunking of her saintly image was refreshing and confrontational like almost everything he did. He assumed the mantle of advocatus diabolus. When the Albanian nun died, and her correspondence was published it indicated that Hitch had been closer to the mark than anyone could have imagined. The woman herself had grave doubts about her faith. Moreover, she had encouraged Princess Diana to divorce despite this flying in the face of Catholic dogma. She preached a very different gospel to the lower orders.
The book about Mother Theresa was entitled The Missionary Position. He argued that her preachments increased suffering and poverty. Her unswerving opposition to contraception meant that countless millions were born into griding penury every year.
By the late 1990s Hitch was so widely recognised as a writer that he was offered a visiting professorship. This is richly ironic in view of his poor academic performance.
In the 1990s Hitch came across a sentence by the Irish politician and diplomat Dr Conor Cruise O’Brien. In it, the late Cruise O’Brien – a former Irish Labour Party politician – said that he was really a liberal and not a socialist because of the things he cherished most. That crystallised it for Hitch. He realised that he had become a liberal rather than a socialist.
When Hitch had been a socialist, despite his much-vaunted compassion for the needy he never gave them so much as an old English groat. It was far more important to put alcohol down his gullet. Even when he was a socialist, he sent his children to fee paying schools. Giving up privilege was for other people to do. He was a huge fan or Orwell and Hitch plainly believed that some animals were more equal than others.
One of Hitch’s pet hates was Henry Kissinger. As human rights legislation became more entrenched and tyrants found themselves on trial, Hitch longed for the day he would see Dr Kissinger in the dock. However, he regarded it as particularly improbable. As he could not legally arraign the former US Secretary of State he decided to do so in literary form. His book the Trial of Henry Kissinger sets out the mountain of irrefragable evidence that Kissinger broke US and international criminal law on a gargantuan scale.
By a curious irony one of the occasions on which Kissinger’s legendary diplomacy slipped was when he was photographed staring at Princess Diana’s decolletage at a dinner party. The princess was another target of Hitch.
Tony Blair was someone who Hitch praised to the moon. Blair had brought Labour back into government. Both were Europhiles. Blair reached the peak of his stock with Hitch when Blair liberated Iraq. The two later shared podia to debate religion. Hitch adulated Blair’s ‘panache’ in Blair’s ‘People’s Princess’ oration. It was odd that Hitch the soi-disant Trotskyist should embrace Blair who took the socialism out of the Labour Party.
In the 1990s Hitch sounded the alarm on the growing menace of Al Qa’eda. People preferred to believe they could ignore this problem and it would go away. Hitch called out Saudi Arabia for backing much Islamist terrorism. Much of the US establishment was in denial about what their supposed ally was doing.
The War on Terror
9/11 threw things into sharp relief. As Hitch said: on one said there was everything he loved and on the other was everything he hated. It was a straightforward battle between good and evil. Civilisation was lined up against barbarism. There could be no middle way.
The liberation of Afghanistan was fulsomely supported by Hitch. He travelled thither. It was uncomfortable for him to recognise that some of the Taliban had been Western allies in the 1980s. Nevertheless, he rejoiced in the death of Talibs.
Odium is much underrated as Hitch said. It can get you out of bed in the morning. His hatred of religious mania was his driving force.
The adage runs that you can take a man out of the far left but you cannot take the far left out of a man. Hitchens had abandoned Trotskyism’s objectives yet some it stayed with him attitudinally. He was still an iconoclast. He seemed to believe in the Trotskyist maxim: the worse the better. The more wars the better. He relished confrontation. His worldview was sometimes Manichean. He lauded America’s righteous war for democracy. He turned Nelson’s eye to America’s collusion with tyrannies from Saudi Arabia to Uzbekistan in its pursuit of the Taliban and Al Qa’eda.
American right wingers embraced Hitch with fervour. It was rare to have a progressive writer of such stature to advocate for the war on terror with such fervour.
The axis of evil – as identified by George W Bush – was also loathed by Hitch. The regimes of North Korea, Iraq and Iran were some of the worst in the world. Hitch thought it meet to emancipate the long-suffering peoples of these nations. He had visited all three of these countries. He lambasted North Korea for having Kim Il Sung as eternal president despite his death in 1994. Hitchens’ showed off his lexis but saying that that state was a thanatocracy or a mortocracy.
When it came to the Iraq War in 2003, Hitch was a perfervid vindicator of the liberation of Iraq. This was unfashionable on the left. Hitch’s reasons for wanting Iraq to be freed were simple: to end tyranny. He wanted to Kurds to be permanently free of the threat of genocide being completed. Their homeland in northern Iraq might not always be a safe haven. The US might one day tire of providing air cover. The Turks might invade. The only long-term solution was the ouster of the Ba’athists.
The weapons of mass destruction issue did not concern Hitch overmuch. Many consider it to have been a canard. Hitch went to Iraq and visited his Kurdish friends. In speaking up for their liberation Hitch lost many of his Western friends such as Michael Moore. Many leftists were aghast with Hitchens. How could an anti-imperialist support Western intervention in Mesopotamia.
Iraq did not turn into a perfect democracy. Much went wrong under the American occupiers. Hitchens blamed this on Ba’athists remnants, Al Qaeda and the Iranians.
The US waterboarded terrorist suspects. Hitch instantly condemned this and the abuses in Abu Ghraib Prison. This did not mean that he equivocated in the war on terror. He underwent waterboarding of his own freewill to see what it was like. He held to his view that the liberation of Iraq was amply justified and had produced a better Iraq with a pertinacity bordering on closed mindedness.
Hitch endorsed George W Bush in 2004. He said he was a single-issue voter: on civilisation. Despite his many disagreements with Bush junior, Hitch said that the president was right on the central thing. That was that Al Qa’eda must be annihilated.
One of the most moving pieces that Hitch penned was meeting the family of a young American who had joined the US Army because he was inspired by Hitch’s opinion pieces on Iraq. This young man was deployed to Iraq and killed in action. Hitch’s work meant so much to the deceased that the dead soldier’s family invited the writer to be with them when the scattered the ashes of their beloved son. He was in unenviable the position that W B Yeats once composed a poem about: did his writing send a man out to fight and out meet his doom?
After over a quarter of a century in the United States, Hitch became an American citizen. He was sworn in on his birthday by the head of Homeland Security. He had always been enthralled by the US. Its idylls of equality, free expression and diversity appealed to him enormously. Yet he noted that the United States so often failed to live up to its admirable founding principles. Hitch later wrote a piece about himself entitled ‘All American.’
Christopher Hitchens had a compendious knowledge of English literature and of the history of the anglosphere. He also read up on the literature of Mediterranean Antiquity in translation. He cited Lucretius as an early atheist. He noted even the Bible states that there were freethinkers in ancient Israel. A psalm reads: the fool says in his heart there is no god.
As in the Iraq controversy, Hitch was spoiling for another fight. As he entitled one of his books he was always: Looking for trouble. He toured the United States in the company of a Christian fundamentalist pastor. Despite the gulf between them the two men formed a rapport. Thought he loathed religion he was canny enough to respect his disputants and wily and often formidable debaters. Their acuity and assiduity when it came to rhetorical sleight of hand was not to be underestimated. Their worldview had an emotional purchase on the faithful that trumped cold reason. They offered hope and he offered butc the cold and silent grave.
When it came to 2008, Hitch expressed his relief and elation that Hillary Clinton did not secure the Democratic nomination. He read Obama’s memoirs assiduously. The clarity and sincerity of Obama’s writing won Hitchens over though there was one admission of skulduggery on Obama’s behalf. Barak Obama opined that if you are going to get into politics in Chicago you need to go to a church. Relieved that Obama’s religiosity was solely a show for electoral purposes, Hitchens endorsed him. He railed against John McCain as senile.
The God Delusion was published by Professor Dawkins. Hitch was a confidante of Dawkins. Dawkins’ angle was mainly educational. He had had the chair in the public understanding of science. Christopher saw that there was money and publicity to be had from an all-out attack on faith. Therefore, he sharpened his pencil.
In 2008 Hitch published God is not great. He built on a brave and noble tradition dating back to at least Lucretius. This broadside all faiths was an enthralling book written in his characteristic lucid and lively prose. His book was effectively pro hereseus and was a bestseller.It was acclaimed by his friends Professor Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris and Stephen Fry.
Atheist did not describe Hitch. He was an anti-theist. He said it would be woeful if gods did exist. He called the notion that we were under divine superintendence ‘a spiritual North Korea.’
Although the Roman Pontiff was one of Hitch’s main targets Hitch liked to pontificate himself. Some found him increasingly arrogant and boorish. He could be condescending.
By that time Hitch was a regular on US chat shows. His thought provoking and aggressive style made him a fabulous guest. He took no prisoners. He refused to accord respect to charlatans like Reverend Jerry Falwell. The rest of America seemed to conform to what was for many a false grief for one of the most loathsome specimens in the public sphere. When Falwell died, Hitchens denounced the pastor as ‘a Chaucerian fraud’ and described the man’s ‘carcass’ being found on the bathroom floor. Hitch gave a broadside to Falwell’s memory. He rightly noted that Falwell has become a multimillionaire through preaching hatred towards other races and faiths as well as by befooling his naïve and semi-literate acolytes into handing him their hard-earned lucre. Falwell’s mostly working class stock were duped into giving him their salaries whilst he lived in opulence. It was all part of the prosperity gospel. It was a sick inversion of the message of Jesus.
When it came to debates with people of faith, Hitch did not suffer fools gladly. Religious bigotry was greeted with a fusillade from Hitchens. He came across as a conceited and confessed to vanity though not of a physical kind.
Groupies increasingly surrounded Hitchens. Perhaps this adoration went to his head. He became snootier.
Hitch’s support for the liberation of Iraq had won him admirers in the Republican Party. As Salman Rushdie said, Hitch’s anti-religious crusade (irony intended) saved him from the American right.
Salman Rushdie was awarded a knighthood by Her Majesty the Queen. Salman accepted the gong. Hitch forgave Sir Salman for accepting the knighthood. Usually Hitch despised people for accepting such honours because he hated the British system of honours. The knighthood was one in the eye for Islamism. On that ground, Hitch welcomed this recognition of his friend’s literary achievements.
In debate Hitch was a modern Quintilian. Hitch was often asked to debate on television. He debated against the British far left anti-Zionist George Galloway. Hitch dubbed Galloway ‘a publicist for the Ba’ath party.’ Galloway’s ad personam was about Hitch’s drinking. Christopher H also debated against a man whom he exalted: Tony Blair. Christopher even debated against his own brother Peter Hitchens. Peter produced a refutation of God is not great entitled The rage against God.
Hitch would slaughter and pillage his way through a debate. When someone complained that he or she was offended he would say that this was surplusage.
Despite continuing to despise Hillary Clinton, Hitch recognised that she might one day be the lesser of two evils. He said the time might come when he even he would cast his ballot in her favour.
In June 2010 Hitch had to tell his audience in his own words: non sum quam eram. He had been diagnosed with cancer of the throat. Decades of tobacco consumption had caused this. He then came out with the world’s most understated anti-smoking warning: smoking might not be advisable.
The cancer advanced to stage 4 with grim rapidity. There is no stage 5. Hitch decided to meet his fate with his typical stoicism.
In his inimitable and novel style Hitch said he would ‘do death’ actively. He went on striving for the causes to which he was committed to the very end. In equanimous and pensive mood he reflected that as a father his final duty was to get out of the way. He was the master of the metaphor saying death was like being told that the party is over or even worse: the party is still going on but you have to leave.
Hitch had every treatment there was. But soon it was apparent that his fight against cancer was the losing battle. He noted that some of his Christian nemeses gloated that it was the organ that had blasphemed so much – the throat – that had been stricken. On the other hand, he observed that some Christians held a day of prayer asking that he be healed.
The guru of the enlightenment went on a speaking tour even in his last few weeks. He took to the podium whilst his strength held.
Mortality is Hitch’s book on meeting death. He said death is nothing to be afraid of. His stoicism and equanimity as he looked eternity in the eye was awe striking. His cognizance that his dissolution was imminent did nothing to diminish his contumely or asperity towards the parties of god. One of his essays on death is entitled Nothing to be afraid of.
As his strength waned Hitch’s friends in London organised a farewell ceremony to him. It was an Intelligence Squared event. Thousands gathered to hear Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, Sean Penn, Christopher Buckley, Salman Rushdie and others pay tribute to Hitch’s magnificent and peerless contribution to the battle for free expression. Hitch joined by video link from the United States.
Christians often like to boast that the doughtiest atheists convert on their deathbeds. Hitch assured people that he would do no such thing and any such tale would be a vile slur on his good name. He was cogent almost to the very end. He faced his dissolution with philosophic detachment.
As Hitch lay dying, he lamented that he could not valorously lay down his life in a noble cause. His friends and family gathered to reminisce with him. But he also looked forward. He eschewed melancholy and self-pity.
In December 2011 Hitch was in a hospital in Texas. Cancer finally got the better of him. Bizarrely, his last words were, ‘’capitalism, downfall.’’ His boon companion, Salman Rushdie, tweeted with admirable pith, ‘’A great voice has fallen silent.’’
No obsequy was held. Therefore, there could be no proper valediction for him. I feel it was wrong of him to deprive his countless fans of a chance to reach closure.
It was a pity that Christopher did not live two days longer to hear that one of the people he reviled most had died. That was the North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Il.
Christopher Hitchens is a flawed hero. I certainly do not concur with his views on all issues. But the man had manifold virtues and virtuosities. Hitch’s oeuvre has clarity and pace. It is never banal nor are his phrases ever trite. His stentorian timbre roared forth his views with admirable eclat. He shall be remembered as an orator and a polemicist.
I heartily recommend so many of his tomes. Why Orwell Matters is one of them.
I wish to read the complete works of Hitchens. His name shall be known for centuries.
As we are under sustained assault from the forces of irrationality and deceit, we need a Hitch now more than ever.