Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011)
So Hitch shuffled off this mortal coil — & I half-expect a full report on his own death to appear in the next issue of Vanity Fair under his by-line. I don’t wish him happy trails as, like him, I do not believe in an afterlife. This life is all there is & the only thing that will survive are memories in the heads & hearts of those who knew us, and beyond that maybe a few pages of writing — if we are lucky. The one book of his I didn’t read to the end was his numero uno US bestseller, God is Not Great, for the simple reason that I agreed with him ab initio as the non-existence of God — & the concomitant fact that religion is core to all totalitarianism, just as all totalitarianisms have religion at their core — has been self-evident for me since I was 14, the same year Hemingway, my last teenage idol, committed suicide (though that, in turn, had nothing to do with my realization that there was no God).
I met Hitchens only a couple times in the late seventies when we were both writing for the New Statesman — he for the front- & back-, me only for the back-pages (I wrote a short-lived “Letter from Paris” for the NS, while trying to convince them, with no succes, to let me review experimental poets such as Allen Fisher or Jerry Rothenberg’s Technicians of the Sacred) . I remember a couple of boozy lunches & it may have been he who told me the (tall?) story of the trenchcoat on the porte-manteau in the NS offices that had supposedly belonged to H.G. Wells. I do remember liking him, but not his friends. (In fact the only other person at the NS I had a real liking for was the 1979-1980 editor of the back-pages — the lit & art pages, that is — David Caute, a man whose book on Frantz Fanon I liked very much back then, having just returned from three years in Algeria.) The problem for me was that the cultural intellectuals — book critics, etc. — writing for those back pages could & would interchangeably write for the left-leaning New Statesman or the rightwing Spectator, with some strange sense that “culture” was somehow beyond & above politics, or something altogether other — so that one could in fact belong to the IS (International Socialist, an intelligent Trotzkist mouvence of those days) while in literary matters being completely out-of-date, anti-modernist, even reactionary (I remember a discussion with James Fenton, another old Hitchens chum, a few years later at a festival in Toronto, with Fenton defending the oldest & stalest of British poetry against any & all US modernisms). As my old friend & teacher Eric Mottram would say, they were “a sorry reactionary lot” in the main, a snotty OxCam elite with many of those around Hitch allied to the old Movement as spearheaded by Amis père, whose son Martin would be one of Hitchens closest life-long friends. Though Christopher Hitchens was of a different stripe, wider, more open, more internationalist, more more.
Which is also why I can understand the Hitch’s move to the United States in the next decade — a move I too had been contemplating since the end of the Labour government under Jim Callaghan (a period in English politics Hitchens had called “Weimar without the sex”) & accomplished a couple years after him. We only talked once more: over the phone when I called in on some Washington D.C. radioprogram he was on to discuss a detail of some political menu du jour I have utterly forgotten — though I remember his sharp intelligence & humor on that occasion too. I kept however reading him, in the small to middling doses his journalism first in The Nation & later in Vanity Fair allowed one to, doses I in fact prefer to the big book collections. I did & do profoundly disagree with his stance on the Iraq war even if my loathing of Saddam’s regime was as profound as his. But no matter the disagreement on specific subjects, my esteem for his intelligence, his quick wits, his incredible range of information & the way he was able to mesh political analysis with literary culture, and of course for the fabulous ease with which he wrote (the time it took me to pen these three paragraphs would have been enough for the Hitch to compose a full-length article for VF). The closest I come to circumscribing what I see him as is to call him a Voltairian moralist. And while Johnny Walker Black label isn’t a whisky I enjoy, I’ll raise a glass (or two) of Jameson’s to him at 5 p.m. tonight.