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. His is one of the four horsemen of the anti-religious cause.
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.
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 vitale 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 Benjamin Franklin and the liberation of Iraq. He wrote sundry articles on all sorts of issues. That gives you an indication of the breadth of the mans talents and the catholicity of his interests.
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 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.
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.
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. 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 born of 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.
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. The Leys was not as purblindly pro-establishment as its Anglican equivalents.
In the 1960s racial bigotry was not uncommon in the United Kingdom. Hitch was totally opposed to ethnic prejudice. 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.
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.
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 even a hymn composed entitled: For Balliol men now in Africa. In the early 20th century is specialised in Liberal and Labour politicians.
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.
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.
In 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 sex times. She committed suicide. Christopher was forever plagued by the thought that if she had got through to him she would not have been part of that suicide pact. He flew to Greece to identify his mother’s carcass. He recalled having to cross the palm of a priest 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.
Later on, 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.
Hitch married a Greek in a Greek Orthodox Church. That might seem hypocritical for an evangelising atheist. The union was blessed with progeny.
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.
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 1980 Hitch said he was bored of London. He had friends there such as James Fenton but for him the United States beckoned. In 1981 he packed his bags for Washington.
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.
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.
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.
In the late 1980s Hitch’s first marriage broke up. He married Carol Blue. They later had a daughter.
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. 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?
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.’
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Iraq did not turn into a perfect democracy. Much went wrong under the American occupiers.
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.
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.
After over a quarter of a century in the United States, Hitch became an American citizen. 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.
As 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 often the grave.
In 2008 Hitch published God is not great. 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.
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.
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 2009 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.
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.
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.
As his strength waned Hitch’s friends in London organised a farewell ceremony to him. Thousands gathered to hear Stephen Fry, Richard Dawkins, 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.
In December 2011 Hitch was in a hospital in Texas. Cancer finally got the better of him. Bizarrely, his last words were, ‘’capitalism, downfall.’’
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 tombre roared forth his views with admirable eclat.
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.
The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Duran.