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Christopher Hitchens Observed

Christopher Hitchens in a November 2010 interview with RFE/RL
Christopher Hitchens in a November 2010 interview with RFE/RL
Eulogies of Christopher Hitchens poured from the press both before and after his recent death from cancer. His extraordinary courage on the edge of Eternity; his lack of self-pity over an illness he had earned fair and square by his chain-smoking; his wit, clarity, and unyielding firmness in debate -- all these earned him admiration, sympathy, and even love from millions of people who had never met him. They ranged across the spectrum from radical atheists who saw him as their champion to evangelical Christians praying for his conversion; from left-wing Palestinians grateful for his long support for statehood to neoconservatives equally grateful for his endorsement of the Iraq War; from...well, it's a long and contradictory list. (So, too, is the list of his enemies.)

Journalists, especially the drinking kind, felt a special admiration for his ability to write a reliably decent article in a brief break between glasses -- and for his proud record of never missing a deadline. His final article on G.K. Chesterton, just published by "The Atlantic," was dictated only hours before his death.

So it requires a slight feat of memory to recall a time when Christopher wasn't the celebrity "Hitch" but an unknown, young, ambitious and aspiring journalist just down from Oxford. But there was such a time and, as reporters like to say, I was there.

Sometime in the early 1970s, Frank Johnson, later editor of the British "Spectator" but then a young parliamentary correspondent, came into my room in "The Daily Telegraph" and began waxing enthusiastic about a newcomer to Fleet Street, one Christopher Hitchens, with whom he had dined just the previous night.

Christopher wasn't entirely unknown even then. He had cut quite a dash at Oxford, as his memoir "Hitch-22" recounts, by combining sandwich lunches on the picket line with formal dinner at the most reactionary high tables. One Oxford contemporary dismissed him as a salon revolutionary with the words: "Never seen in black tie at the Oxford Union, never seen outside it in anything else." "Private Eye" magazine had picked up this caricature of him and introduced it to a wider metropolitan audience under the rather feeble pseudonym "Christopher Robin."

So I had heard of Christopher, but not exactly favorably.

Frank, however, was entranced. After a good dinner the previous night, he and Christopher had wandered for hours around London debating politics and literature. Toward the end, they had stopped for supper at a fish-and-chip shop where Hitchens had loudly denounced the working classes in an exaggerated upper-class accent in order, said an amused but nervous Frank, to sharpen class contradictions and advance the revolution.

I was less impressed than Frank by this because I recognized it as the Pappenhacker gambit. In Evelyn Waugh's "Scoop," Pappenhacker is a journalist who is seen being inexcusably rude to a waiter. His conduct is explained by Mr. Salter of the rival paper, the "Daily Beast":

"He's always like that to waiters. You see he's a communist. Most of the staff at the Twopence are -- they're University men, you see. Pappenhacker says that every time you are polite to a proletarian you are helping to bolster up the capitalist system. He's very clever of course, but he gets rather unpopular."

Christopher himself loved Waugh. He quoted the Pappenhacker passage above in a 2005 "Vanity Fair" article. So he was presumably amusing himself in playing the revolutionary, but he was partly serious too.

Until his famous change of mind over the Iraq War, Christopher's politics were resolutely left-wing, belonging to a school that Frank once defined as "country-house Trotskyism." (He was describing the ideology of the "Tatler" magazine, then edited by Tina Brown, who is now running the Daily Beast -- in the real world, that is, and in a small world too.)

At that time, however, the generation of '68ers was beginning to make itself and its politics felt on Fleet Street. I knew that I was immovably on the other side of the barricades.

So when Frank told me about his evening out, I suspiciously pigeonholed Christopher as the distilled spirit of 1968. That didn't prevent me from being charmed by him when the three of us met later, or of enjoying debates with him both private and formal, or even of developing a friendship that was real and sustained but not very close. But I nursed my suspicion of him as an inveterate enemy of the traditional in everything from politics to morality -- until a small incident one evening in the late 1970s.

My sister, Margaret, was in London on business. So I invited her to a restaurant party at which Christopher was another guest. One of the ways in which 1968 changed life was that swearing, including the F-word, became more acceptable socially. Christopher in full flight was employing it vigorously when Margaret suddenly said, "I really don't think you should use language like that in the presence of ladies."

Christopher was not the only man at the table to look first surprised, then shocked, and finally, mercifully shame-faced. After the briefest of pauses, he apologized handsomely and with apparent sincerity. For the rest of the evening he minded his manners very closely. I realized, only dimly at the time, that inside the revolutionary there was a traditionalist struggling to be let out.

This traditionalist was most evident in his literary and historical essays (to be found in "Unacknowledged Legislators" and in the just published complete collection, "Arguably.") His essays -- including ones on writers whose politics he disliked, such as Dr. Johnson, Waugh, P.G. Wodehouse, Philip Larkin, and Edmund Burke -- are not flawless. But they demonstrate love and knowledge of their subjects, a willingness to subordinate political to literary judgments, and a firm attachment to scholarly standards across the board. He recognized and loved the best even against his prejudices.

But back in the 1970s -- and for a decade or two after -- it was the revolutionary who dominated. His leftist politics led Christopher into many adventures in the frontline of war reporting (see his interview a year ago with RFE/RL), into many debates with Frank and with me -- and into some follies more serious than the fish-and-chip shop escapade. He was a kind of left-neutralist in the Cold War. He was soft on Middle East terrorism at times. His denunciatory book on Mother Teresa was memorably savaged by the Canadian critic, David Warren, as lacking any serious evidence for its ludicrous/monstrous charges. Likewise his denunciations of Henry Kissinger as a war criminal. And his 1980s campaign book for the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece was shown by the historian Noel Malcolm to have been plagiarized wholesale from a 19th-century scholar.

Many of these follies he explicitly renounced when he turned against the left over the Iraq War. He attacked the left's refusal to resist political evil when it came from an anti-Western direction. He renounced any belief in socialism -- not so difficult when the end of the Cold War revealed the Soviet bloc to be an economic wasteland but an unqualified retraction nonetheless. And, in his glowingly affectionate review of George MacDonald Fraser's final Flashman novel, Christopher came within a saber's edge of excusing the British Empire.

He never became a man of the right -- he remained a pugnacious left-liberal -- but he abandoned the actually existing left. Only in his continued atheism -- if that's the right word for defiance of a God in whom you profess disbelief -- did Christopher cling to his antinomian radicalism to the end. (The next world is beyond the scope of this column -- but, for what it's worth, I find it hard to believe that God would punish a sincere opponent who acted from motives very distant from pride.)

The mystery of Christopher's split personality was, I think, revealed in "Hitch-22." Most of its reviews understandably concentrated on his account of how his beautiful and greatly loved mother had run off with an ex-clergyman with whom she had then ended her life in a joint suicide. That tragedy, occurring in his early 20s, certainly marked Christopher as it would any son. Later chapters, however, relate how Christopher over time came to appreciate the solid, sober, and decent virtues of his father -- "the Commander" -- a not-very-successful naval officer of conventional conservative views who had stood by unfashionable values betrayed by his political "betters" and had suffered uncomplainingly for this loyalty.

Not coincidentally perhaps, Christopher also admits that he had been born into -- and shaped by -- the last generation of old England. For much of his journalistic career, he had embraced causes and ideas inimical to that distant country. That England had been badly and unfairly managed in various ways; he did not apologize for opposing them. But it had its virtues and, now that it was vanishing, he knew he would miss it -- that England of the stiff upper lip, the long gray ships of his father's Royal Navy (ennobled by its campaign against slavery), the elevation of fairness as a national virtue (even if often slighted in practice), the instilling of high educational standards, free and open debate on all topics and, not least, chivalry toward the fair sex.

John O'Sullivan was an adviser to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and, until recently, the executive editor of RFE/RL. His book, "The President, the Pope, and the Prime Minister," has been published in seven languages. The views expressed in this article are the author's own.

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