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Remembering Christopher Hitchens

16 December 2011

1:13 PM

16 December 2011

1:13 PM

Just one of Christopher Hitchens’ talents would have been enough for most people.
In him those talents — like his passions — all melded into each other: as speaker, writer and thinker. Yet he was more than the sum even of these considerable parts, for he possessed
another talent that was even rarer — a talent for making us, his readers, want to be better people. He used his abilities not to close down questions and ideas, but to open them up. In the
process he made you, the reader, aware that you needed to do more, engage more, think more and know more. Writers often feel a need to impress their readers. Christopher made his readers want to
impress the writer.

I remember the exact moment I first heard his name. It was the summer of 2000. My first book had come out and I was walking across the main quad of my college in Oxford. From the door of his
lodgings the College President ran out, waving a copy of the New York Review of Books. He seemed to be shouting something. ‘Christopher Hitchens has just been nice about you in the New York
Review,’ he said. Being an undergraduate, I had pretty-much stopped reading and gave something a little too near a shrug to bear recalling. The President actually shook me by the shoulders
while spelling it out: ‘Christopher Hitchens is never nice about anybody. He has just been nice about you.’ I remember thinking that I should look into this.

I swiftly discovered what a humbling compliment (though not so rare as alleged) a good word from Christopher was. Reading his books, essays and articles I realised, like everyone who read him (and
a magnificently large number they became in recent years) that I had found the gold-standard not only in terms of writing, but in wider human terms. For more than one generation of readers, he set
the bar on how to write and what to write, and — to an extent not yet appreciated — formed the attitudes of a generation. This was the case long before his book-length going-over of
God.


We got in touch, became friends and began to meet for lunch or dinner when I was in Washington or he in London. Even before today, eating and — more pertinently — drinking with
Christopher was the stuff of legend. Most of Christopher’s vast numbers of friends have their own equivalents of the following story, but I may as well report how it occurred with me.

The first time we met in person, Christopher was stopping off in London on his way back from the Hay festival. After some negotiation we found a London restaurant willing to feed and water us,
notifying them in advance that we would be there into the afternoon. We started with scotches, Christopher wisely warning me off my habit of asking for ‘house’ scotch (‘They will
pour it from a bucket behind the bar’). Books, which had brought us together, formed our common history, and they, as well as politics, were the subjects always on the table. But, as in his
writing, Christopher ranged among them freely and — again as with his writing — provoked in you a desire to be funnier or more incisive than you had ever been. In person, as on the
page, he made you want to be better. Not his least trait was his gargantuan memory, which allowed him to reel off Waugh, Wodehouse and other prose as well as whole pages of poetry. Late in the
afternoon, and long after the food had been forgotten, I walked Christopher back to his hotel. He had a column to write, we said our farewells and I swayed off happily into the early evening.

When I woke I learned an important lesson. I had lost the rest of the day, but Christopher had not. The following day I would read the typically brilliant column he had written while I was asleep
on my couch. More sobering still, when I awoke Newsnight was on the television — and there was Christopher. You couldn’t say he looked like a man who hadn’t lunched, but he
certainly didn’t sound or think like such a man. I watched his observations flow as easily on the screen as they had earlier at the table. It was a useful lesson: drink-for-drink you may just
keep up with him, but no other human could be as tireless or capable in the aftermath. Christopher’s capacity for drink has been much commented on in recent years, but it was a by-product of
his greater capacity, which was his capacity for, indeed genius at, friendship.

Only once did I feel a blast of his laser-beam rage. We were in London and I mentioned something I had heard Henry Kissinger say at a breakfast I had been at that morning. I only mentioned the bad
doctor not (for obvious reasons) because I wanted to name-drop, but because I wanted to relay to Christopher something Kissinger had said about Iraq (this in about 2005) that I thought Christopher
might agree with. The warning-signs were there from the outset. Christopher seemed to cast-over when I uttered the name. With every word of what seemed an ever less insightful insight Christopher
darkened further. When I got to the end he said, furiously but precisely, ‘We didn’t need Kissinger [literally spat out] to tell us that.’ It was a momentary taster of that
devastating rage that so many opponents of Christopher’s had encountered over the years. He was a master on the page. But on stage he perhaps excelled even further. As a mutual friend
observed some years ago: ‘There is only one real rule in public speaking: never speak to an audience with, before or after Christopher Hitchens.’

A couple of days before Christopher’s diagnosis we spent a day together at Hay. I was reading the memoir that he was promoting, Hitch-22, the opening chapters of which are among the
most moving ever written. At the end of a long day he dropped me at my hotel. In the morning he would fly to the US. His schedule was always extreme but for the first time it seemed to be taking a
physical toll. If we will keep on wishing that we had had another couple of decades of him, we will also have to concede that he lived his life exactly how he wished, burning bright and burning
hard. That included working himself right up until the end for the things he believed in, the things he wished to fight for and – which was the same – the things he loved. As I waved
him off that night I remember registering the thought that the day would come when we would have to live without Christopher. Now that day has arrived. It will be hardest of all for his wife,
Carol, and for his brilliant children of whom he was so very – and justifiably – proud. But it is also something that, in an incomparably smaller way, the rest of us will have to manage
too.

We have lost our sharpest wit, one of our finest writers and one of our best minds. There are no false consolations to be had. Only the truth that from now on, instead of knowing what Christopher
thinks, we will have to consider what he would have thought. We will, in other words, have to think for ourselves. If we manage it then, in large part, it will be thanks to Christopher and the
incomparable example – in life and work – that he provided.


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