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The Believer

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Christopher Hitchens, Calcutta, 2001; photograph by Sebastião Salgado

Near the end of his new book, Hitch-22, which is neither strictly a memoir nor quite a political essay but something in between, Christopher Hitchens informs the reader that he has, at long last, learned how to “think for oneself,” implying that he had failed to do so before reaching the riper side of middle age. This may not be the most dramatic way to conclude a life story. Still, thinking for oneself is always a good thing. And, he writes,

the ways in which the conclusion is arrived at may be interesting…just as it is always how people think that counts for much more than what they think.
Like many people who count “Hitch” among their friends, I have watched with a certain degree of dismay how this lifelong champion of left-wing, anti-imperialist causes, this scourge of armed American hubris, this erstwhile booster of Vietcong and Sandinistas, this ex-Trot who delighted in calling his friends and allies “comrades,” ended up as a loud drummer boy for President George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, a tub-thumper for neoconservatism, and a strident American patriot. Paul Wolfowitz, one of the prime movers behind the Iraq war, became his new comrade. Michael Chertoff, head of the Homeland Security Department under Bush, presided over his citizenship ceremony at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Ah, some will say, with a tolerant chuckle, how typical of Hitch the maverick, Hitch the contrarian: another day, another prank. It is indeed not always easy to take this consummate entertainer entirely seriously, but in this case I think one should. In fact, Hitch’s turn is not the move of a maverick. If eccentricity were all there was to it, his book would still have offered some of the amusement for which he is justly celebrated, but it would have no more relevance than that. Far from being a lone contrarian, however, Hitchens is a follower of a contemporary fashion of sorts. Quite a few former leftists, in Europe as well as the US, have joined the neo- and not so neo-conservatives in the belief that we are engaged in a war of civilizations, that September 11, 2001, is comparable to 1939, that “Islamofascism” is the Nazi threat of our time, and that our shared hour of peril will sort out the heroes from the cowards, the resisters from the collaborators.

There was nothing inherently reprehensible about supporting the violent overthrow of Saddam Hussein, who was after all one of the world’s most monstrous dictators. In this respect, Hitchens had some good company: Adam Michnik, Václav Havel, Michael Ignatieff, to name but a few. It is in the denunciation of those who failed to share his enthusiasm for armed force that Hitchens sounds a little unhinged. He believes that the US State Department was guilty of “disloyalty.” For what? For warning about the consequences of not planning for the aftermath of war? He also claims that the US was subject to a “fantastic, gigantic international campaign of defamation and slander.” He mentions the movie director Oliver Stone, the late Reverend Jerry Falwell, and Gore Vidal. International campaign?

Still, as Hitchens says, it is the “how” that should concern us, not only the “what.” And this is where the memoir is indeed of interest. George Orwell once wrote that he was born in the “lower-upper-middle class,” not grand by any means, better off and better educated than tradesmen, to be sure, but without the social cachet of people who might mix with ease in high metropolitan society. This is the class into which Hitchens was born too, but only just. His father, Commander Hitchens, was a disgruntled naval officer who had had “a good war,” but was retired against his will and reduced to making a modest living as an accountant in a rural school for boys. “The Commander” was a quiet drinker, but by no means a bon viveur—quite the contrary, it seems. His conservatism was resentful, about the end of empire, the end of naval glory, the end of any glory. “We won the war—or did we?” was a staple of his conversation with fellow alte Kämpfer in the less fashionable pubs and golf courses of the English home counties.

Hitchens professes to have much admired the Commander and his wartime exploits, such as sinking the German warship Scharnhorst in 1943: “Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done….” Perhaps the young Hitch really did think like that. It certainly informs his current enthusiasm for heroic gestures in the Middle East. But his greatest love was not expended on the Commander, but on his mother, Yvonne, who would have wished to have been a bon viveur in metropolitan society, but was stuck instead in small-town gentility with her peevish husband.

She adored her son, and he clearly adored her. The chapter on his mother is, to my mind, by far the best in the book, because his feelings for her are expressed simply, without sentimentality, and above all without the need to make a point or clinch an argument. Watching a production of The Cherry Orchard one night in Oxford, Hitchens

felt a pang of vicarious identification with the women who would never quite make it to the bright lights of the big city, and who couldn’t even count on the survival of their provincial idyll, either. Oh Yvonne, if there was any justice you should have had the opportunity to enjoy at least one of these, if not both.

If Hitch had one mission in life it was not to be like one of those women.

Yvonne’s end owed more to Strindberg than Chekhov. She broke away from the Commander and took up with an ex-vicar of the Church of England, who had renounced his faith and replaced it with devotion, shared by Yvonne, to the Maharishi Yogi. Together they left for Greece, without saying goodbye to anyone, and were found dead sometime later in a seedy hotel in Athens. Perhaps because they felt that life had failed them, they had decided to die together. Hitchens was devastated. The account of his trip to Athens, at the grisly height of the military junta, is simple, poignant, personal, and sounds right.

This, however, is not the end of Yvonne’s story. Years later, in 1987, Hitchens’s grandmother revealed that her daughter had harbored a secret. She, grandmother Hickman, also known as “Dodo,” was Jewish. Perhaps Yvonne was afraid that this information might not have gone down well at the Commander’s golf clubs. Her son, however, was rather pleased by the news. Hitchens’s great friend Martin Amis declared: “Hitch, I find that I am a little envious of you.” Quite why having a Jewish grandmother should provoke envy is not made entirely clear. But Hitchens, following strict rabbinical rules, feels that he qualifies as “a member of the tribe.” He then revives the old-fashioned notion that Jews have special “characteristics,” which interestingly coincide with ones he accords to himself: cosmopolitanism, of the rootless kind, sensitivity to the suffering of others, devotion to secularism, even a penchant for Marxism. I’m not sure who is being flattered more: Hitch or the Jews.

Long before he was aware of having inherited Jewish characteristics, politics entered his life. Hitchens was educated at a respectable private institution, named the Leys School, in Cambridge. Politics at this establishment for the lower-upper and upper-middle classes were suitably Tory. Hitchens quite enjoyed his schooldays and gives an amusing, even appreciative account of them. It was then, however, in the mid-1960s, that the “exotic name” of Vietnam began to dominate the evening news. He was shocked by what he heard about this war, and when the British government refused to withhold support for “the amazingly coarse and thuggish-looking president who was prosecuting it,” he, Christopher Hitchens, began “to experience a furious disillusionment with ‘conventional’ politics.” He continues: “A bit young to be so cynical and so superior, you may think. My reply is that you should fucking well have been there, and felt it for yourself.”

To which one might well reply: Been where? Cambridge? And why the sudden hectoring tone? Clearly, even then, doubt would never get a look in once a cause was adopted. With his brother, Peter, who is now a rather ferocious conservative journalist of some note in England, Hitchens went off to demonstrate against the war in Trafalgar Square, donning “the universal symbol of peace” in his lapel with “its broken cross or imploring-outstretched-arm logo.” Here, too, a pattern was set. I did not know Hitchens in those days, but ever since I met him in London in the 1980s, I’ve never seen him without a badge in his lapel for one cause or another.

Protesting against the Vietnam War was not a bad thing to do, of course. But still sticking to the business of how rather than what Hitchens thinks, the peculiar tone of self-righteousness, combined with a parochial point of view, even when the causes concern faraway, even exotic countries, is distinctive. After leaving the Leys School, Hitchens enrolled as an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford. Introduced to the ideas of Leon Trotsky by his brother Peter, he joined a tiny group of revolutionaries named the International Socialists, or IS. Peter, by all accounts, was the hard man, the enforcer of the right ideological line. Hitchens was too much of a hedonist to be a truly convincing hard man. He was prone to flirtation with, among other gentlemen, a college warden with an eye for pretty boys, who would invite him to the more exclusive Oxford high tables.1

IS had about one hundred members, but, Hitchens writes, had “an influence well beyond our size.” The reason for this, it seems, was that “we were the only ones to see 1968 coming: I mean really coming.” Again the self-referential choice of words is remarkable. Not the students in Prague, Paris, Mexico City, or Tokyo, not even the Red Guards in Beijing—no, it was the members of the International Socialists at Oxford who really read the times.

A more charming (though for some readers perhaps rather cloying) byproduct of this concentration on small bands of loyal comrades is Hitchens’s near adulation of his friends, all famous in their own right. Martin Amis, James Fenton, and Salman Rushdie merit chapters of their own. So does Edward Said, but he fell out of favor after September 11, as did Gore Vidal, whose gushing blurb on the back cover of the book has been crossed out. I’m not sure whether the fondly recalled examples of Amis’s linguistic brilliance do his best friend any favors. Calling the men at a grand black-tie ball “Tuxed fucks” is mildly amusing, but a sign of “genius at this sort of thing” it surely is not. In any case, these tributes are clearly heartfelt.

  1. 1

    These flirtations elicit the odd remark that he has a special sympathy for women, because he knows “what it’s like to be the recipient of unwanted or even coercive approaches….” This, I feel, underrates the seductive appeal of the habitual charmer.

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