When I interviewed Christopher Hitchens at his home in Washington in February, the discussion – sadly, inevitably – turned to the subject of mortality. He and a friend, he said, contemplating their demise, had mused that there would come a day when the newspapers would come out and they wouldn’t be there to read them. “And on that day, I’ve realised recently,” he went on, “I’ll probably be in the newspapers, or quite a lot of them. And etiquette being what it is, generally speaking, rather nice things being said about me.” He shrugged. “Just typical that will be the edition I miss.”
As a journalist, polemicist, author and indefatigable man of letters, Hitchens devoured the written word as much as he exulted in it, and he would be enjoying the obituaries and tributes in today’s newspapers, dwelling on his fiercely brilliant intellect, the grace and elegance of his language, his combative nature and his raffish charm. Hitchens took a characteristically robust approach to eulogy and remembrance. He could be generous in his praise – he once lionised Professor Freddy Ayer as “a tireless and justly celebrated fornicator”; but brutal in his condemnation: within hours of the televangelist Jerry Falwell’s passing, Hitchens was fixing him as an “ugly little charlatan”, adding that “if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox”.
In a career spanning more than 40 years, Hitchens had a view on pretty much every subject under the sun, from the war in Iraq to the pleasures of oral sex. And it is odd to reflect that he should have achieved his greatest recognition and notoriety in the last years of his life for his contempt for religious belief and, more melancholically, for the courageous manner in which he faced up to his illness and impending death. Until the publication in 2007 of his book God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, Hitchens had been, in the words of a late friend, the author Susan Sontag, “a sovereign figure in the small world of those who tilled the field of ideas” – but largely unknown outside it.
God Is Not Great changed all, making him a champion of the New Atheism, alongside such celebrated non-believers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the American neuroscientist. His growing public status as God’s fiercest critic would lend a particular poignancy to his struggle with the cancer of the oesophagus that would take his life.
When I met Hitchens, he was in the midst of the genome sequencing treatment which, it was hoped, would cure his cancer. The plan had been to film a conversation to be shown at the Hay Festival, where he was a perennial favourite, but which he was too ill to attend. He greeted me at the door of his apartment with profuse apologies. He felt terrible, he said, and not up to being interviewed on camera. I took that as my cue to leave, but he insisted that I stay.
Over the next five hours – and still more the following day – fortified by cups of tea and glasses of whiskey, he held forth on everything, from politics to literature, to Bob Dylan and “the Bhagwan” Rajneesh. He was gossipy, indiscreet and scabrously funny about his enemies (step forward Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton). It was one of the most entertaining – and challenging – conversations I have ever had the privilege to enjoy. Even on the doorstep of death, he was a colossal force for life. I have not met anybody with such a well-furnished mind – nor such a well-stocked drinks cabinet: he had a prodigious appetite for alcohol, and a happy facility for being able to function under the influence, if not always in the aftermath. Large sections of his memoir Hitch-22 describe him staggering from one hangover to the next.
He also, famously, enjoyed a fight. He was passionate about intellectual freedom and contemptuous of any orthodoxy or ''ism’’. He was often described as a contrarian – a description he disowned; he was disputatious, but never, it seemed, for the sake of it. His opinions were always drawn from a deep well of conviction – although you sensed that the more people scandalised by those opinions, the greater the pleasure he took in holding them. He was an equal opportunity provocateur.
He was also enormously charming and likeable. It seems striking that many of his adversaries in his public debates on religion should have ended up as his friends. Among them was Francis Collins, an evangelical Christian, and the former director of the National Human Genome Research Institute, which pioneered the treatment Hitchens was receiving. (I wasn’t sure, I said to Hitchens, whether that constituted irony. “Take your time…,” he replied equably.)
Any suggestion that his illness might have occasioned second thoughts about the existence of God – either as a dispenser of divine justice or of infinite mercy – was met with short shrift. If such a thing were to happen, he said, it would be because his illness had rendered him demented. He seemed discomfited by the fact that his illness had become a battleground on which the forces of belief and non-belief had come to wage war: well-meaning Christians praying for him, and doubters who had come to see him as some kind of champion of non-belief in extremis. “That makes me a bit alarmed,” he confessed, “to be the repository of other people’s hope.”
His attitude to people praying for him could be described as a mixture of polite gratitude and a determined refusal to let it sway his opinions. But he had no patience for bedside evangelists. “They’re allowed to roam the wards,” he said, his voice rising in indignation. “They tried it on me.” He had been thinking that he, Dawkins and Harris might set up a secular equivalent of hospital visitors. “We’d go round – 'Hope you don’t mind, you said you were Catholic? Only three weeks to live? Well, listen, you don’t have to live them as a mental slave, you know; you could have three weeks of freedom from fear of the priest. Don’t be a mug all your life…’. I don’t think it would be considered in very good taste.”
I said that I didn’t think it would be a kindness, either.
“I think it would,” he replied. “Absolutely.”
He could marshal every rational argument against religious belief and deliver it with a lethal mixture of irony and venom, but what he lacked in this regard at least was empathy. When it came to any discussion about the consolations or the empowering strengths of belief, as Hitchens admitted, he simply didn’t ''get it’’.
When I asked whether he felt he’d been a good person, he gave a dismissive shrug: “Not particularly.” For that definition to apply, he said, the world expects a good deal of selflessness. “And while no one scores very high on that, I score lower than most.” He had seen his adult life partly as a sustained act of compensation or redress for the boredom and limitations of his stiflingly conventional, middle-class childhood.
So what, I asked, did he wish he’d done more of?
He laughed. “Everything…”
At the end of our second meeting, I felt the urge to tell him that such was his fighting spirit I was sure that he would win this most critical of battles.
“It’s funny you say so,” he said. “I hope you’re a person of hidden intuition. I actually don’t feel that. I can’t tell you why. It’s almost as hard for me to imagine being around in the next 10 years as not being, strangely enough. But it’s not in my hands, fortunately.”
A few weeks later I sent an email, saying what a privilege it had been to spend time with him, and expressing my hope that things were looking up.
“No need to say anything,” he wrote back. “Have had a vile time since, but still hope for a re-match.” I feel immensely sad that it’s not to be.
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO 'THE HITCH'
On why women aren’t funny
Be your gender what it may, you will certainly have heard the following from a female friend who is enumerating the charms of a new (male) squeeze: “He’s really quite cute, and he’s kind to my friends, and he knows all kinds of stuff, and he’s so funny…” However, there is something that you absolutely never hear from a male friend who is hymning his latest (female) love interest: “She’s a real honey, has a life of her own… (interlude for attributes that are none of your business)… and, man, does she ever make ’em laugh.”
Now, why is this? Why are men, taken as a whole, funnier than women? Well, for one thing, they had damn well better be. The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex, and Mother Nature (as we laughingly call her) is not so kind to men. In fact, she equips many fellows with very little armament for the struggle. An average man has just one outside chance. He had better be able to make the lady laugh.
Making them laugh has been one of the crucial preoccupations of my life. If you can stimulate her to laughter – I am talking about that out-loud, head-back, mouth-open-to-expose-the-full-horseshoe-of-lovely-teeth, involuntary, full and deep-throated mirth; the kind that is accompanied by a shocked surprise and a slight (no, make that a loud) peal of delight – well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression. I shall not elaborate further.
On wine waiters
There are two main ways in which a restaurant can inflict bad service on a customer. The first is to keep you hanging about. (“Why are they called waiters?” inquired my son when he was about five. “It’s we who are doing all the waiting.”)
The second way is to be too intrusive, with overlong recitations of the “specials” and too many over-solicitous inquiries. A cartoon in The New Yorker once showed a couple getting ready for bed, with the husband taking a call and keeping his hand over the receiver. “It’s the maître d’ from the place we had dinner. He wants to know if everything is still all right.”
The vile practice of butting in and pouring wine without being asked is the very height of the second kind of bad manners. Not only is it a breathtaking act of rudeness, but it conveys a none-too-subtle message: hurry up and order another bottle.
On the burka
The French legislators who seek to repudiate the wearing of the veil or the burka – whether the garment covers “only” the face or the entire female body – are often described as seeking to impose a “ban”. To the contrary, they are attempting to lift a ban: a ban on the right of women to choose their own dress, a ban on the right of women to disagree with male and clerical authority, and a ban on the right of all citizens to look one another in the face. The proposed law is in the best traditions of the French republic, which declares all citizens equal before the law and – no less important – equal in the face of one another.
On the door of my bank in Washington, DC is a printed notice politely requesting me to remove any form of facial concealment before I enter the premises. The notice doesn’t bore me or weary me by explaining its reasoning. A person barging through those doors with any sort of mask would incur the right and proper presumption of guilt.
This presumption should operate in the rest of society. I would indignantly refuse to have any dealings with a nurse or doctor or teacher who hid his or her face, let alone a tax inspector or customs official.
The particular demand to consider the veil and the burka as an exemption applies only to women. And it also applies only to religious practice (and, unless we foolishly pretend otherwise, only to one religious practice). This at once tells you all you need to know. Society is being asked to abandon an immemorial tradition of equality and openness in order to gratify one faith, one faith that has a very questionable record in respect of females.
On the Bible
Until the early middle years of the 16th century, when King Henry VIII began to quarrel with Rome about the dialectics of divorce and decapitation, a short and swift route to torture and death was the attempt to print the Bible in English. It’s a long and stirring story, and its crux is the head-to-head battle between Sir Thomas More and William Tyndale (whose name in early life, I am proud to say, was William Hychyns).
For generations, [the Bible] provided a common stock of references and allusions, rivalled only by Shakespeare. A culture that does not possess this common store of image and allegory will be a perilously thin one. To seek restlessly to update it or make it “relevant” is to miss the point, like yearning for a hip-hop Shakespeare. “Man is born unto trouble as the sparks fly upward,” says the Book of Job. Want to try to improve on that for Twitter?
At my father’s funeral I chose to read an injunction from St Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” As much philosophical as spiritual, with its conditional and speculative “ifs”, and its closing advice – always italicised in my mind since first I heard it – to think and reflect on such matters: this passage was the labour of men who had wrought deeply with ideas and concepts.
On the last Harry Potter book
For some time now the novels have been attempting a kind of secular dramatisation of the battle between good and evil. The Ministry of Magic (one of Rowling’s better inventions) has been seeking to impose a version of the Nuremberg Laws on England, classifying its subjects according to blood and maintaining its own Gestapo as well as its own Azkaban gulag.
But over time and over many, many pages, this scenario fails to chill. The prejudice against bank-monopoly gobwwlins is modelled more or less on anti-Semitism, and the foul treatment of elves is meant to put us in mind of slavery, but the overall effect of this is somewhat thin and derivative, and subject to diminishing returns.