’s Talking Essay, Research Paper Look who’s talkingThere is always something terribly nostalgic about the sight of Christopher Hitchens – The Hitch – on one of his periodic forays to London. You would think that 20 years living in the States would have smoothed him down, tidied him up, but no – he still dresses like a scruff and talks like a toff, he still chain smokes and drinks far too much, he still orders vast meals and fails to eat them.
’s Talking Essay, Research Paper
Look who’s talkingThere is always something terribly nostalgic about the sight of Christopher Hitchens – The Hitch – on one of his periodic forays to London. You would think that 20 years living in the States would have smoothed him down, tidied him up, but no – he still dresses like a scruff and talks like a toff, he still chain smokes and drinks far too much, he still orders vast meals and fails to eat them. He is one of the few remaining practitioners of the five-hour, two-bottle lunch. I know because I shared one with him. The waiters were laying tables for dinner by the time we left – but by then they were in thrall to his charm.He charms everyone, that’s why it’s so funny finding him, in Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001), claiming that: ‘The concept of loneliness and exile and self-sufficiency continually bucks me up.’ If he seriously thinks of himself as a lonely outsider, he must be well detached from reality. His best friends are Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, James Fenton, Salman Rushdie and Francis Wheen; his ex-girlfriends include Anna Wintour – this is not the stuff of pariah-dom. In fact it is hard to imagine any social circle in which he would be unwelcome – possibly some dim Cheshire golf club or Freemasons’ lodge, but, even there, give him half an hour talking…Talking – preferably arguing – is what he does compulsively, brilliantly, all the time. Martin Amis recalls that when he went out to Cyprus to be best man at Hitchens’ first wedding in 1980, he would spend his mornings lazing by the pool, whereas The Hitch would appear mid-morning in a suit and go straight to the bar to find someone to argue with. He won’t allow anything to interfere with a good argument; that’s why he sits down to meals and then never eats them. He admits that, ‘Between talking and eating it would be a hard day in hell before I would eat rather than talk.’He must surely be one of the greatest conversationalists of our age. His only rival among people I’ve met or interviewed is Gore Vidal, and Vidal has jokingly appointed Hitchens his successor. Both of them are wits as opposed to raconteurs – ie stimulants rather than soporifics. Both of them talk as they write – or write as they talk, I’m never sure which comes first – in long, glistening, polished sentences, often with the jokes dropped casually in parentheses. They often adopt each other’s mots. Was it Gore or Hitch who first said, ‘I am a stranger to all forms of modesty, including the false’ or who advised other writers always to keep their high horses tethered conveniently within reach?Hitchens was in London this time to talk in an Orange Word debate with his friend Francis Wheen. Wheen asked me beforehand if I could try to keep him sober, or at least deliver him to the theatre sober-ish at six. He said last time Hitch did a debate he was rude to the audience. I relayed this news to Hitchens as he ordered the first of his three pre-prandial double malt whiskys at opening time in the French pub. ‘Oh balls. I’m beginning to get very bored with the way people go on about my drinking. The fact that at the last debate I was rude to a member of the audience was nothing to do with the booze. A gentleman is never rude except on purpose – I can honestly be nasty sober, believe you me. I could not do what I do, and teach a class, and never miss a deadline, never be late for anything if I was a lush, OK? I would really love to read a piece that said, “He is not a lush.” That would be fabulous, it would be a first, I could show it to people and say, “Look!”‘OK, OK – Christopher Hitchens is not a lush. And in fact the tapes of our lunch could be offered as proof: you can hear my questions getting increasingly slurred, boring and repetitious, while his answers remain perfectly lucid, coherent and courteous. So, all I can say is that he does drink an awful lot but it doesn’t seem to affect him in the slightest. It certainly hasn’t stopped him being one of the most prolific, as well as brilliant, journalists of our time. He writes regular columns for The Nation (an American left-wing weekly) and Vanity Fair; he writes long articles for both the New York and the London Review of Books; he has published 10 books, of which the two most recent are Unacknowledged Legislation (2000) on literature and Letters to a Young Contrarian (2001) on politics; he gives speeches, lectures and debates, and teaches one term a year at the New School for Social Research, in New York. He also travels the world to report on foreign affairs and tries to visit at least one ‘difficult’ country a year, often at his own expense. He has been shot at in Sarajevo and jailed in Czechoslovakia. Even now, at 52, when he could decently retire to armchair punditry, he still likes to ‘get the smell of a place’ before he writes about it.He describes himself as an essayist and a ‘contrarian’, which is the term he prefers to dissident, or its patronising alternatives, maverick or loose cannon. In his twenties, he was a signed-up Trotskyite – he remembers cold Saturday mornings selling Socialist Worker in Kilburn, and fretful days on picket lines. He joined the International Socialist Party when it was just five men and a dog, and felt vindicated by the Paris evenements of 1968. He says everyone should have that feeling, just once in their lives, of being right. He remained a socialist even after his move to the States in 1980 and right through to the collapse of communism in 1989.But now he no longer calls himself a socialist – though he says he still misses it like an amputated limb – his politics henceforth must be ‘à la carte’. Bill Clinton cured him of any belief that you should concentrate on issues and ignore personalities, ‘because Clinton could change his mind on any issue, but he couldn’t change the fact that he was a scumbag’. Clinton was one of his regular targets in the 90s, as was Kissinger – but he also fired fusillades at Mother Teresa and Princess Diana. But recently he has amazed everyone – left, right, centre – by coming out firmly in support of Bush’s war on terrorism. This means that for the first time in his life he is in the unfamiliar position of swimming with the tide. But on the other hand it hasn’t made him revise his first impression of Dubya – ‘Eyes so close together he could use a monocle, abnormally unintelligent, could barely read at all, “rescued from the booze by Jesus” – and if there’s one sentence that would piss me off more than any other, that’s it. But one can look on the bright side and say it proves that anyone can be president.’Is this a sign that he’s moving rightwards? Could he end up like Paul Johnson, or indeed like his brother Peter Hitchens, who used to be an international socialist and now writes hang ‘em flog ‘em columns for the Mail on Sunday? ‘Well, I don’t mind if people think that I am moving rightwards. It’s an accusation that would once have stung me more than it does now. But as to ending up like Paul Johnson – no, I’m incapable of doing that. The profile of the defector, the turncoat, is that they repudiate everything they’ve ever done. I don’t do that. When I look back on what I did for the left, I’m in a small way quite proud of some of it – I only wish I’d done more.’His best friend Martin Amis believes The Hitch’s big turning point came in the late- 80s when: ‘He had a full-scale midlife crisis, involving divorce, death of parent, etc. And I think that the collapse of the Soviet Union, the end of socialism, was for him a maturing event. As a result, his prose really became, I think, freer. Because, up till then, I felt, he was always putting his fists up to protect the left and that constrained him.’It is interesting that Martin Amis links Hitch’s personal midlife crisis and political crisis in this way, given that he, Christopher Hitchens and Peter Hitchens his brother, all warned me against trying to ‘psychologise’ Hitchens’ politics. They said, in effect, ‘Don’t try to make out that he became a leftie because he had an unhappy childhood or something.’ As if I would be so crude! Anyway, he had a perfectly conventional childhood – though it had its undercurrents, as we shall see.Surprisingly – given how much he writes – Christopher Hitchens has written only one autobiographical piece, the title essay of Prepared for the Worst (1988). It is self-revealing as far as it goes, but it covers only one small aspect of his life, the discovery of his Jewishness when he was 38. It happened when his brother Peter took his new bride to meet their maternal grandmother, Dodo, who was then in her nineties, and Dodo said, ‘She’s Jewish, isn’t she?’ and then announced: ‘Well, I’ve got something to tell you. So are you.’ She said that her real surname was Levin, not Lynn, and that her ancestors were Blumenthals from Poland.Christopher was thrilled when Peter told him. By then he was living in Washington and most of his friends were Jewish. Moreover, he felt that he had somehow known all along. He remembers an odd dream in which he was on the deck of a ship and a group of men approached him and said they needed a 10th man to make up a minyan (Jewish prayer group) and he calmly strolled across the deck and joined them. He insists that he is Jewish – because Jewish descent goes through the mother – though Peter Hitchens, who has traced the family tree, says they are only one 32nd Jewish. But wasn’t it odd of his mother not to tell him – or even tell his father? ‘I’m practically certain I know her motivation. Dodo had had quite a thin time in the hat business and encountered some prejudice. She looked Jewish, whereas my mother didn’t. And I’m sure she didn’t want me to go through any of that – her plan for me was that I was to be an English gentleman – you can judge for yourself how well that worked out!’I'd say it worked out pretty well. Superficially, Hitchens is almost a parody of an English gentleman: you know he went to public school as soon as he opens his mouth. But he was the first Hitchens to do so. His father came from quite a poor family but worked his way up through the naval ranks, ‘had a good war’ and ended up a commander. Martin Amis remembers Commander Hitchens as ‘impressive, barrel-chested, white poloneck jersey, very much the ex-naval man, with his pipe’. But after the war, he retired on a small pension and became a school bursar. Christopher admired him, but also felt sorry for him: ‘He had been very brave indeed in the war. His ship sank the Scharnhorst. I have not done as good a day’s work as that in my life – I have never sunk a Nazi battleship. But ever since then it had been sliding downhill, small jobs, keeping the books – he was an accountant, basically. And he’d been brought up in the slump and employment, austerity, then a war, then a fair bit more austerity and a long struggle to bring up the kids – he never had a chance for much joie de vivre.’Christopher sensed early on that his parents were ill-matched: his mother Yvonne was pretty, sociable, vivacious; his father reserved. He believes they only stayed together for the sake of the children and he wishes they hadn’t. When he was about seven, he remembers sitting on the stairs in his pyjamas hearing his parents arguing about his education – his father saying they couldn’t afford to send him to private school, his mother saying they must: ‘If there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it.’ Soon afterwards he was sent away to boarding school, which suited him fine – he was glad to get away from home. He flourished at prep school and then at the Leys, Cambridge. His obvious talent in the debating society led to suggestions that he might become a lawyer, but he remembers reading a piece by James Cameron that said being a journalist allowed you to ’swim in every ocean and make love in every continent’ and he decided that was the job for him. He read PPE at Balliol and shared digs with poet James Fenton. He braved taunts of ‘champagne socialist’ to attend parties at All Souls, wearing the dinner jacket his mother had given him as his going-to-Oxford present. His degree was a disappointment – a third – but it didn’t matter because he had already won a travelling scholarship to America. Soon after he returned, Fenton wangled him a job on the New Statesman.But there were two very strange and unsettling postscripts to his childhood. The second chronologically was the discovery of his Jewishness. But the first – which he has never written about – was his mother’s suicide. While he was at Oxford he became aware that his parents had quietly separated – he saw his mother walking down the high street with a man carrying her shopping bags, and afterwards she told him she was living with this man and what did he think? He made encouraging noises – he wanted his mother to be happy – but didn’t pay much attention.In 1973 he had a phone call from his father asking if he knew where his mother was, because her passport was missing. He said he didn’t. A few days later he was in bed with a new girlfriend when the phone rang and it was an old girlfriend asking if he was all right. He said yes, fine. Because, she said, there was a story in The Times that a woman with his mother’s name had been murdered by her lover in a hotel in Athens. ‘So I went out and got the paper and there it was.’ He contacted the police and then flew out to Athens to identify the body – he was taken to the hotel room where it happened. The police at first believed it was murder, because there was blood everywhere. But then they found a suicide note addressed to Christopher, saying, in effect, ‘You will understand one day.’ Apparently, the couple had made a suicide pact and had both taken pills, but the man had also slit his throat and wrists. Hitchens believes that his mother had come to her senses at some stage and tried to ring for help, but there was no response. After a long police inquiry, he buried the bodies in Athens and brought the effects home. He had to take the man’s effects to his family – an ex-wife and daughter – ‘and they weren’t particularly pleased to see me’. He found out later that the lover was a defrocked priest with a history of manic depression. He believes that he must have talked his mother into the suicide pact. ‘She probably thought things were getting sordid – he wasn’t able to hold a job down, she couldn’t go back, she was probably about the age I am now and perhaps there was that – she’d been very pretty – and things were never going to get any better, so why go through with it? She might not have been that hard to persuade, but I know that she did try to save herself because I have the photographs still. So that was sort of the end of family life really.’Martin Amis wrote him a sympathetic letter and that was the start of their friendship. Hitch says: ‘You only really need one friend, who is your counterpart, who knows everything about you, and that’s Martin. Martin is the one that I love, who means everything to me.’ Amis, in turn, says he loves Hitch because, ‘He’s incredibly funny, and he instructs as he delights.’ He also says The Hitch is an incomparably good friend – ‘Having him for a friend during bad times is like having 100 friends – he’d do anything for you.’ They consoled each other through their respective divorces and mid-life crises and loss of their fathers; Amis was best man at Hitchens’s first wedding and Hitch at Amis’s second; Hitch (the atheist) is godfather to Amis’s son, Jacob.Hitchens always envied Amis’s closeness to his family – he regards his own family as finished. He rarely sees his younger brother Peter; in fact the standing joke for years was that Christopher and Peter Hitchens were really the same person, because they were never photographed together and their voices sounded identical on the phone. Peter is a Christian reactionary and advocate of ‘family values’, who fulminates in the Mail on Sunday about homosexuality, divorce, single mothers, sexual permissiveness, pornography – all the usual targets.Peter seems fonder of Christopher than Christopher of him. Christopher told me that if he and his wife Carol were killed, he knows that Peter would look after their daughter, Antonia – whereas he would not do the same for Peter’s children. ‘I can’t be a hypocrite about it. I’m sure he would, but I wouldn’t.’ And anyway, Peter would want his children to be brought up as Christians. This, Christopher claims, is the really important difference between them – ‘Politically, the differences are trivial, but I have a bigger difference between myself and anyone who believes in any religion than I do on any other subject. I don’t trust anyone who believes in religion. So we don’t agree.’Hitchens claims to believe in Einstein’s injunction to ‘remember your humanity and forget the rest’. But once in a while he throws up these steel barricades marked ‘principles’ or ‘not being a hypocrite’ behind which he can behave with truly Trotskyite ruthlessness. This was most apparent when he attacked – some would say betrayed – his old friend Sidney Blumenthal in 1999. Blumenthal worked for the White House and testified in the Lewinsky hearings that he had never tried to smear Lewinsky as a stalker. Hitchens said not so; he remembered a lunch in which Blumenthal had done precisely that, and he went and signed an affidavit to that effect. In theory he could have sent Blumenthal to prison for perjury: it was a sharp end to a long friendship. Some of Hitchens’s friends were so shocked they dropped him. He says he doesn’t know precise figures, but: ‘There are people I realise I haven’t heard from and there may be many more I haven’t guessed at. For example, when I was at Hay last year, I recognised Richard Ford on the lawn so I just drifted over to say hi. And he ignored me, grimly. So I don’t know how many – but, I hope, a lot. Put it this way: I don’t want it to be over, I’m afraid of it blowing over. Because I should have pulled the chain on him [Blumenthal] much earlier than I did – there was a long period when I was a hypocrite, when I thought I could still think of him as a friend.’ In fact, the Blumenthal affair was strikingly reminiscent of Martin Amis’s sudden termination of his friendship with Julian Barnes. Perhaps that is why they over-sentimentalise their own friendship.When I pressed Martin Amis to name Hitchens’s faults, he said: ‘Let me think. He’s quite tough, you know, steely. He perhaps is a bit rough in argument sometimes, rougher than I would be. And he’ll give a waiter or a cab driver a pasting (if they were disobliging), in a way that I wouldn’t. He’s physically brave, too.’ Hitchens would be happy with this verdict: he admires toughness. He sometimes regrets that he is the first male Hitchens not to have been in the armed services and thinks maybe that is why he seeks out dangerous places like Beirut or Belfast or Bosnia.’I remember once, it would have been about 1978, I wrote a long piece from Beirut for the New Statesman and my father rang me up – he used to pretend he didn’t read the New Statesman, but I later found he used to give a subscription as a Christmas present to his friends – and said, “Read your piece on Beirut. I thought it was very good.” I said, ‘Well thank you!’ because I didn’t get much of that – nor did I miss it, or want it, or I didn’t know that I did, anyway. Then he said, rather gruffly, “I also thought it was rather brave of you to go there,” and hung up the phone. I had never expected to hear anything like that from him, because he’d been in Arctic Convoys. I’d always thought I’d rather disappointed him by not being good at cricket or rugger. So it was an amazing unsought compliment. But then I thought to myself, “Maybe that’s what I have been secretly wanting, to have that validation.”‘Right at the end of Letters to a Young Contrarian, Hitchens confesses to ‘a slight sense of imposture’ and quotes James Cameron, saying that every time he sat at his typewriter he thought, ‘Today is the day they are going to find me out.’ Find him out as what, though? What is the imposture? Believe me, I was looking for it – some chink between words and actions that I could burrow into and say, Aha! But, actually, the more I looked, the more impressed I was by his sincerity. He does plough quite a lonely furrow; he does keep banging on about thankless subjects like Cyprus or Northern Ireland; he does make frequent and dangerous trips to uncomfortable countries, not just newsworthy war zones, but nasty, dreary hell-holes like North Korea. It’s true he writes for money – for Vanity Fair – but he also writes for no-hoper leftie reviews and small publishers simply because he wants to get the stuff out.Perhaps his sense of imposture is the one all writers have – that they care more about writing than they do about their subject. This is something non-writers can never imagine, because they always think of writing as a chore. But Hitchens is never happier than when writing: ‘Some people feel that they have to write – it’s not a choice, or a preference, it’s a determination. I’ve been very lucky – that’s the thing I can’t get over – that I can make my living from doing the only thing I like and the only thing I can do. Writing is recreational for me, I’m unhappy when I’m not doing it.’ A pleasure for him, then, and a pleasure for his readers. If that’s his idea of imposture, I think we can forgive him.· Letters to a Young Contrarian by Christopher Hitchens is published by Perseus Press