I’ve been hoping Katha would write something, because I knew she would have informed reservations. I remember her exchange with Hitchens when he left The Nation. I’ve been a fan of both of them for a long time, so their differences interest me.
Katha suggests that “he was possibly the least troubled with self-doubt of all the writers on earth” and that he didn’t wonder enough how he got from one position to another, radically different one. I think that’s a fair point, and yet…well I’m ambivalent, as I am about so many things, which is why, unlike Hitchens, I spend so much time staring blankly into space instead of being productive.
So many people have praised Christopher so effusively, I want to complicate the picture even at the risk of seeming churlish. His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying, often toward people who were way out of his league—elderly guests on the Nation cruise, interns (especially female interns).
That, on the other hand, gives me genuine pause. I don’t admire that quality, and I do know he had it. The CBC’s The National showed him doing it in its obit on Friday. He was talking to a reporter in Kensington Gardens, saying something disobliging about a memorial to Diana Spencer, and an off-camera male voice interrupted to protest, saying indignantly “you shouldn’t be in this garden.” Hitchens responded fast and ferociously, all but shouting, “Who the hell are you?” and then adding, “I’m sure you’re as stupid as you look.” That’s no good. Yes what the guy said was both silly and bossy (and servile underneath), but the response was overkill.
So far, most of the eulogies of Christopher have come from men, and there’s a reason for that. He moved in a masculine world, and for someone who prided himself on his wide-ranging interests, he had virtually no interest in women’s writing or women’s lives or perspectives. I never got the impression from anything he wrote about women that he had bothered to do the most basic kinds of reading and thinking, let alone interviewing or reporting—the sort of workup he would do before writing about, say, G.K. Chesterton, or Scientology or Kurdistan…
It wasn’t just the position itself, it was his lordly condescending assumption that he could sort this whole thing out for the ladies in 1,000 words that probably took him twenty minutes to write.
But, Katha sums up,
as a vivid presence Christopher will be long remembered. A lot of writers, especially political writers, are rather boring as people, and some of the best writers are the most boring of all—they’re saving themselves for the desk. Christopher was the opposite—an adventurer, a talker, a bon vivant, a tireless burner of both ends of the candle. He made a lot of enemies, but probably more friends. He made life more interesting for thousands and thousands of people and posed big questions for them—about justice, politics, religion, human folly. Of how many journalists can that be said?
Firm but fair, I think.