Katha Pollitt on Hitchens

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). [Read more…]

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. [Read more…]

Ian McEwan on Hitchens

In the Guardian/Books, as is appropriate. The Guardian has its flaws but it does hella good book journalism.

When I arrived from the airport on my last visit, he saw sticking out of my luggage a small book. He held out his hand for it – Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, a subterranean history of the city. Then we began a 10-minute celebration of its author. We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything. Only then did we say hello. He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn’t hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he’d finished it.

He could have written a review, but he was due to turn in a long piece on Chesterton. And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it, they raised it to the condition of a good university library.

I love that last sentence. It puts books and journalism and ideas together, and then makes them all equivalent to a good university library. One of the things I love about Hitchens is his massive erudition and his skill at deploying it, which few if any academics can match.

Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton. Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review.

His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame”. Right to the end.

Superhuman effort.



Wheen on Hitchens

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.


More on Hitchens, in no particular order.

Michael Weiss at the Telegraph

The last few days had been, for those of us who knew he hadn’t much time left, a strange bundle of suffering commingled with the joy of recollection. We got to relive what endeared him to us from the start: the hilarious tabletalk, the Borgesian library of political and literary arcana that he kept inside his head, and the writing. Of course the writing, particularly the put-downs that never let their subjects get back up again: “No one has a higher opinion of Alexander Haig than I do, and I think he is a homicidal buffoon,” “a herd of antis in search of a climax,” “not only a bore, but the cause of boredom in others.” [Read more…]

Hitchens the writer

Another repost, this time of a repost – metametapost. I wrote it in 2002 or early 2003 when B&W was new, and reposted it last year, on

July 1, 2010

I wrote this about eight years ago for “In the Library.” It hints at why I hope Christopher Hitchens stays around.

Christopher Hitchens is a standing reproach to people who write the odd essay now and then. He is like some sort of crazed writing machine, 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, going on television and overbearing even noisy Chris Matthews’ efforts to interrupt him, and irritating people. And what’s even more painful is that this torrent of prose is nothing like the torrents of people like Joyce Carol Oates or Iris Murdoch, badly written in proportion to the torrentiality – no, this is a torrent of learned, witty, informed and informative, searching, impassioned history on the hoof. If Hitchens is a journalist then so were Gibbon and Thucydides.

Unacknowledged Legislation is a collection of essays on writers in the public sphere, as the subtitle has it. The essays are many things, but one of the most noticeable is that they are unexpected. The essay on Philip Larkin for example entirely declines the opportunity to express easy outrage, and instead digs much, much deeper. The one on Martha Nussbaum’s Poetic Justice wonders why she didn’t mention Mill’s autobiography and then at the fact that she seems unaware of the element of caricature in Dickens’ Hard Times. ‘When the utilitarian teacher M’Choakumchild – perhaps a clue there? – tells Sissy Jupe etc.’ Hitchens misses nothing.

Christopher Hitchens, Unacknowledged Legislation, Verso: 2000.

The Hitch

Update: a couple more. I didn’t include Salman Rushdie’s because it was more personal, but I see it’s also on Twitter where anyone can see it, so –

Goodbye, my beloved friend.  A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011.

And Richard Dawkins –

Christopher Hitchens, finest orator of our time, fellow horseman, valiant fighter against all tyrants including God.

My thoughts exactly.

Francis Wheen at Facebook –

BBC radio news at 7am reports the death of Christopher Hitchens, “an alcoholic”. How I wish Christopher was still here to challenge imbecile reporter Nick Higham over this lie. His epitaph, he once told me, should be “He never missed a deadline”. Farewell, dear old fruit.

Nick Cohen ditto –

The editor is letting me write about the Hitch. The fact that I had a gun to his head at the time is neither here nor there.

Also, a few minutes earlier –

Anyone who wishes to raise a glass of whisky in memory of an absent comrade can join Padraig Reidy and me at 5.30 at the King’s Head Islington.

That’s two hours from now, you have plenty of time.

Martin Robb ditto –

Now it’s up to the rest of us to stay on the case of Galloway and all the other friends of tyrants.

And on the case of the ultimate tyrant, Colonel God.