Friends of Hitchens are remembering him for our benefit.
Francis Wheen is. First there’s the unfathomably rude awakening –
Waking yesterday morning to the news of Christopher Hitchens’s death, I was gratified to hear it given second place in the Today programme’s 7am bulletin. The gratification ended moments later when the BBC reporter described him as a journalist, an atheist “and an alcoholic”.
“No he bloody wasn’t!” I yelled at the radio.
He also reported that stupidity at Facebook (and named the reporter). Nick Cohen said “I’ll do him.” I hope he does.
On to the better stuff.
He was a heavy drinker (“No argument about that,” he would say with a throaty chuckle on those rare occasions when we found something about which even he couldn’t take a contrarian view), but also a prodigiously energetic worker whose focus, as he observed the world and its follies, was never blurred. Even when he reached for another late-night whisky, his perception remained unerringly sober.
This is not an adjective that has often been applied to the Hitch. His sobriety was perhaps disguised by the frisky playfulness of his language, the extravagance of his invective, the fearlessness of his risk-taking. Except for incest and folk-dancing, he’d try almost anything once, from being waterboarded to undergoing a Brazilian wax. Sometimes one felt that he had known everybody, read everything, been everywhere…
One did indeed; that’s almost exactly what I said about him nearly a decade ago:
…he seems to average three or four longish essays a day, along with reading everything ever written and remembering all of it, knowing everyone worth knowing on most continents, visiting war zones and trouble spots around the globe…
He wasn’t what you’d call excessively deferential, Wheen points out.
Unlike our own raucous and disputatious hacks, US commentators tend to be judicious pipe-suckers who take themselves (and their “insider” status) exceedingly seriously: not for nothing is the New York Times known as the Gray Lady. Over breakfast every morning, Christopher would glance at the NYT’s front page to check that it still carried the smug motto “All the news that’s fit to print” – and to check that it still irritated him. “If I can still exclaim, under my breath, why do they insult me and what do they take me for and what the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be,” he wrote, “then at least I know I still have a pulse.”
You can use that final phrase for a lot of things. What the hell is it supposed to mean unless it’s as obviously complacent and conceited and censorious as it seems to be?
Part of our inheritance, that is.