In conversation he was the most intellectually generous man I have ever met. More writers than readers like to imagine are fretful and suspicious. They bite their tongues and hide their thoughts in case rival authors “steal their ideas”. Hitchens was too much of an enthusiast for life and debate to waste time being pinched and cautious; too engaged in the battle of ideas to worry about others taking his.
When you had an argument you needed to work through or a book you had to deliver, he would sit you down, fill your glass to the brim and pour out ideas, references, people you needed to talk to and writers you had to read. You would try, and fail, to keep up and hope that you could remember a quarter of what he had said by the time the inevitable hangover had worn off the morning after.
That’s a beautiful snapshot, and entirely believable, because it goes with everything we already know on the subject – Hitchens was an incomparable extemporaneous talker. I’m on record saying this well before anyone knew he was checking out; I told the New Statesman about it in 2009.
His appeal is that he’s a brilliant writer with a huge range of knowledge. I admire that kind of thing. He’s also a brilliant talker, and I admire that too. When he was at the Hay festival a few years ago, even hardened BBC presenters were admitting he was hard to beat for impromptu wit and erudition.
I thought I had said that thing about the BBC presenters somewhere at B&W, too, but I can’t find it, so maybe I didn’t (or maybe it was in a comment and doesn’t turn up in a search). I remember being impressed by it though. It was someone who is no fool himself (it was a male), maybe Andrew Marr, and he expressed the same kind of awe that I felt – “how does he do that?”
Here’s part of what I did find that I said about that Hay appearance – it was in 2005.
Hitchens certainly was busy while he was in the UK. Multiple talks at the Hay Festival, Start the Week, and finally Night Waves. Did I miss any? Did he also fill in for Melvyn Bragg on ‘In Our Time’ and do the weather report on ‘Today’? Did he open Parliament and drive the number 85 bus? Did he announce the trains at Victoria and carry a sandwich-board up and down Oxford Street and sell tickets for the Eye? Was he, like, everywhere, or only almost everywhere?
So, in short, Nick’s picture is no exaggeration, and we know this. It’s a lovely point about the generosity.
Nick goes on to repay a debt. He said he was going to, he said so on Friday; it’s good to see that he did.
Glorious conversation survives merely in memory of the listener, however, and there is the booze question that has to be addressed as well. The BBC’s obituary was delivered by its media correspondent, Nick Higham, a ferrety cultural bureaucrat who has never written a sentence anyone has remembered. He assured the nation that Hitchens was an “alcoholic”. Hitchens could certainly knock it back. But he and everyone who knew him understood his distinction between a drinker and a drunk. If he were a true alcoholic he could never have written so much, so fast and at such a high standard. Nor would he have been loved, for addicts are too selfish to love.
A ferrety cultural bureaucrat. I hope that epithet sticks to Nick Higham for some time. And it’s obviously true about the “alcoholism” – if that’s alcoholism, everybody should aspire to being an alcoholic!
I cannot overemphasise how much he loathed people who stuck to a party line and tried to tell me, you or especially him what we must think; how every kind of bureaucrat, archbishop, rabbi, ayatollah, commissar and inquisitor roused in him the urge to fight.
A better and more accurate epitaph than “an alcoholic.”