One in the eye for ferrety bureaucrats

Nick Cohen on Hitchens.

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.”


  1. Nentuaby says

    Nor would he have been loved, for addicts are too selfish to love.

    There are a lot of cogent points to be made about this. Points about understanding mental illness as physical illness instead of some sort of deliberate character flaw. Points JT Eberhard has made pretty well recently. But I’m too incoherant after reading that bullshit to make them, so I’ll just respond with a quote of my own.

    Fuck you. Fuck you, fuck you, FUCK YOU.

    –An addict’s son

  2. says

    Hmm. Sorry about scraping your sensibilities, Nentuaby. (Really.) But being too selfish to love can also be seen as part of a physical illness, surely. And having had some experience with addicts myself (as has almost everyone, I think), it seems to me it’s just a factual observation. When it’s a war between the kid’s welfare and the bottle or the pills or both…the kid loses.

  3. says

    Nick Higham, a ferrety cultural bureaucrat who has never written a sentence anyone has remembered. He assured the nation that Hitchens was an “alcoholic”.

    I’m pretty sure that Nick Higham has been so very fortunate in his life never to have had a close relationship with an alcoholic.

    I didn’t agree with Hitchens on a lot of topics, but one thing is clear: He cared deeply and passionately for a lot of things.
    Alcoholics don’t.

  4. lamacher says

    Hitch was an ‘alcoholic’ in the same sense as was Churchill, and even with the defects both displayed, the world was far better off with them than without them. Such will not be said of the ‘ferrety cultural bureaucrat’.

  5. John the Drunkard says

    I have already commented under the note on Wheen.

    The line “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.”
    Is naive to the point of insanity.

    As a ‘true’ alcoholic, much-loved and with some real accomplishments, I am honored to be included in the same category as Hitchens–if indeed he qualified.

    Goofy religious, pop-psych, and woo-woo definitions of alcoholism need to be dismissed with the contempt they deserve.

    Intellectual, artistic, and even physical heroism are commonplace among drunks, along with an unhinged capacity for work. Not everyone lives long enough to start missing deadlines. The warranty on my drinking ran out in my early 20s, it was only at 32 that I found my way to the other (non-drinking) side of the condition. It seems that Hitch never hit the wall with his drinking (at least in any public way) more power to him.

  6. Nentuaby says

    Addicts don’t suddenly stop caring about everything else. The disorder– sufficiently progressed– will eventually kill your ability to engage in your passions, but it does not somehow magically excise them.

    To say that it is impossible to love an addict- or for an addict to love- is just… ‘Incredibly offensive’ seems inadequate to me, but it will have to do. And stupid; of course you can. It’s difficult, but of course you can! To go on from there and claim that even the converse is true, that you can tell somebody DOESN’T have a problem because they DO have passion, is just unutterable nonsense.

    The meme that addiction is selfishness, in particular, is deeply damaging. It drove my mother to (failed, thankfully) suicide. People who ought to know better– were paid to know better, for fuck’s sake– kept telling her that she would walk away from the addiction if she loved her children. But you can’t just walk away from fucking addiction– that’s why we fucking call it addiction! The perceived conflict between her addiction and her love for us was so great that until we could finally get her into PROPER treatment (not easy– there are a lot of badly broken programs out there to trap you) the best way she could see forward was to die.

    Three months ago, when the addiction reached its worst, I held her in my arms– noticing how tiny and fragile addiction has made her– as she sobbed in self-recriminating despair. I helped her through the shaking and fever brought on by literal, physical need for the drug and brought her to the hospital after the physical symptoms of withdrawal nearly killed her.

    As I visited her every day in the inpatient treatment program I watched how, even in her blackest hours of despair, she did everything she could to look after those patients who were even worse off. When she came home from that, the first thing she did was make a mess of my kitchen trying to bake me a batch of cookies. She failed, because she didn’t have the mental or physical capacity to complete the task at that time. But I know that she tried, and why she tried, and how hard she tried.

  7. dirigible says

    My ex-partner of fifteen years died of an overdose six months ago. I don’t find what either Nick or OB said “offensive”. Addiction eclipses love. It can also instrumentalize it. Beware the latter.

  8. Svlad Cjelli says

    Oh, good. As long as you still love something, relax and have another, you’re not really addicted.

  9. says

    I’ve been there too, Nentuaby. That was my childhood and especially my adolescence. It shredded me – and the addict, which is what shredded me by far the most. (There was a custody issue when I was 15 – not in the courts, but debated among the relevant adults – but it was basically my choice. For a time I made the choice not to live with the addict. The cruelty of that choice ripped me to shreds.) What I said wasn’t about blame; it was just the facts. The addiction got in the way of love and what goes with it.

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