18 December 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens died on 15 December at the age of 62. So much has been written in the last few days by people who knew him, (for example Ian McEwan, [but not yet it seems] Martin Amis, and Simon Schama and, of course, his brother, Peter,) that there is not much left for the rest of us to say. When I was reading his memoir, Hitch-22, I found, rather to my surprise, that we seemed to have a few things in common. One was obvious, also we were both born in the late 1940s and had 1950s boyhoods, and went to not dissimilar sorts of school. But not much after that, as is to be expected in the land of CP Snow’s 'two cultures'*. And the small point that he was exceptionally talented.

Most of us in now our sixties didn’t go on the ‘political journey’ which David Aaronovitch in the Times (£) describes Hitchens as having made – obviously from the ‘Left’, the word appearing 10 times in the article, but where to? Surely not to the ‘Right’, which isn’t mentioned. It seems more like a journey from Trotskyism to Neo-conservatism, but how many neocons are atheists?

Hitchens was a very elegant writer, but I stumbled on one sentence in Hitch-22 when he was describing an interview not long after Oxford for a traineeship at the BBC:
I wasn’t stupid enough not to realise that he wouldn’t have asked that question if he didn’t already know the answer to it.
which I reckon to be a quadruple negative, and not to be attempted by novices!

Hitchens’ death seems to have induced a ‘Diana moment’ among the literary intelligentsia in London and on the East Coast (judging from here). But probably not a global one like Steve Jobs’ passing at the age of 56 in October. In Paris Le Figaro covered Hitchens’ death briefly, describing him as a “polémiste réputé dans le monde anglo-saxon”. The political intelligentsia in London had had their Diana moment in November when New Labour’s polling expert Philip Gould died at the age of 61.

Our expectations of life expectancy are now such that any death under 70 seems to induce a sense of loss. Not least because of the things that these three men in particular might have done if they had worked for another 10 years or more. Gould could well have influenced the outcome of the next general election in the UK. Both Hitchens and Gould died as a consequence of the relatively rare cancer of the oesophagus, associated with tobacco smoking and heavy alcohol use.

* For a recent view of this, see ‘CP Snow’s Two Cultures Revisited’, the 2009 CP Snow Lecture given by Professor Lisa Jardine (Jacob Bronowski’s daughter) downloadable here.


A thoughtful piece about Hitchens by David Goodhart has now appeared on the Prospect Magazine website.
(Personal hobbyhorse: the US, not the UK, had babyboomers.) 


On 20 April 2012 a memorial service for Christopher Hitchens was held in New York. Martin Amis delivered the eulogy which Vanity Fair (to which Hitchens was a contributing editor) has made available.


Martin Amis in an interview with Joseph Weisburg of Slate on 29 August offered “reflections on the life and passing of his dear friend, Christopher Hitchens.”

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