Obituaries are a way of life in this country. Every newspaper carries at least one, if not several each day, varying in subject from those at the centre of policy making, to heroes of the two world wars that have been burnt on our collective conscience, aristocrats, and the seemingly ordinary. Even the PE teacher who berated Margaret Thatcher over the sinking of the Belgrano was recently granted a note in the Daily Telegraph.
In Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens remarked that one of his many literary friends announced to another quite gleefully over breakfast that he had been asked to write another’s obituary for the Times, which famously stockpiles its memorials just in case. The other stayed quiet, fully aware that he had already submitted his tormentor’s obituary some weeks before.
I delve into the unglamorous mechanics of how these words reach our retinas because the medium of writing could not be more important to my subject. How and what Christopher Hitchens wrote was the very measure of him, as almost all his friends and acquaintances acknowledge, and how his death at the relatively untimely age of sixty-two occasioned so many obituaries distinguishes him from each melancholy rememberance. Almost everyone is remembered, somehow, but few people are really celebrated.
Hitchens was hardly anything if not a writer, and a writer’s writer at that. He saved his most approving words and his most genial conversation for other writers, frequently offering a drink to young hacks in his adopted hometown of Washington, taking long boozy lunches with the Bloomsbury set in the 1980s and 1990s (the word games were legendary).
Politics, and politicians were distinctly on the other side – people to be watched and critiqued. The Clintons were his particular bete noir – he found Bill questionable in his approach to women and campaign monies, Hilary a compulsive liar and a coward for the way she sacrificed a meaningful intervention in the Balkans for a health care reform that was never achieved. Henry Kissinger he never could stand and wished to bring to trial. Such is the way of the professional journalist.
Ideas were also important, and marked the difference between Hitchens and the Gonzo school of journalism, which he claimed not to care a great deal for. Hunter S. Thompson could drink similar amounts and attacked Richard Nixon with words as savage as Hitchens ever deployed, but his journalism was fundamentally theatrical and more passionate than rational. Hitchens could hate and poor scorn over a person simply because of their beliefs, hence his critique of Mother Theresa, the woman whose resistance to female emancipation merely entrenched policy.
Hitchens’ tendancy to demolish words that could be used to describe him makes it difficult to pin him down. He considered ‘neo-conservative’ a misonomer, pointing out that he was rarely conservative, and ‘liberal’ wishy-washy. His lack of interest in political economy made his socialism a practical non-starter, despite his early Trotskyism. In a recent interview, Hitchens, trying to synthesise his militant atheism and support of the War on Terror admitted “I have one consistency, which is against the totalitarian… the enemy who tries to get inside your head.”
In time, I rather hope that the ‘Hitch Slap,’ the frequently-employed and entertaining verbal putdown, takes a back seat to the calm and considered way that Hitchens went about his business. Taking eighteen months to die is a miserable and unromantic misfortune, but to do so with courage is the best that can be asked of a man. Hitchens did that, as indeed he had been courageous and ignorant of self-pity for most of his life.
This was a man who collected his mother’s body after her self-murder and channelled the tragedy into his fury at the state of Greece and later Cyprus, who chose to tour his book God Is Not Great not amongst Britain’s middle-class intellectuals, but in America’s Bible Belt, and who not only defended the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq but practically agitated for them in a way that was sure to have an affect on his liveihood.
Being called a ‘drink-soaked, former Trotskyist popinjay by George Galloway probably rescued Hitchens from ignominy at one point, but a shrewd marshalling of the facts, a brilliant sense of when to press home the advantage and a not insignificant ego meant that of the many challengers who hoped to best him, and finally convince him of his mistake, few if any went home satisfied.
Had Hitchens lived in some other place, at some other time, his influence could have been radically different. Born an Arab, he may have rotted in a Saudi jail, or been the chief protagonist of the Arab Spring. Active during the French Revolution, he would surely have cavorted with Danton and may have made the equation against Robspierre swing the other way.
An upper-middle class Brit, in a country that resembled ‘Weimar without the sex,’ Hitchens was no revolutionary, but always challenging nonetheless. An American citizen for much of his life, he wrote in his biography that ‘the only revolution retaining any verve was the American one.’ This may have made little difference in Egypt, Syria or in Putin’s Russia, but Hitchens’ writing was a corrective to the hypocrisy in American foreign policy that welcomed any ‘son of a bitch, so long as he was our son of a bitch.’ Such a statment would now be virtually unthinkable.
Testimonies from politicians seem strangely out of place, given Hitchens’ anti-political background. Nonetheless, the debate with Tony Blair in Toronto not so long ago was a watershed in polite, well-informed debate between the religious and the atheistic, and the former Prime Minister played a genuine, well-meaning tribute. Few would believe that the leader of the Liberal Democrats, Nick Clegg, had previously interned for Hitchens, but there too was an influence.
There will be many imitators, mostly inferior in language or courage. Johann Hari is one journalist who failed to reach the heights of his hero, and others will smell power or sense themselves to be on unsafe ground and retreat. Yet that ferocious love of liberty will also be coupled with a more generous soul in less gifted individuals and will make the political impulse relevant and vital for another generation at least.