Friday, July 06, 2007

Christopher Hitchens liver matches his brain

Rummaging through the international blog of Gideon Rachman in the website of the
Financial Times, I found this little mini-memoir/vignette on Hitchens. Here's Rachman:
Last night I went to the London launch party for Christopher Hitchens’ new book, God is not Great – The Case Against Religion. The book seems to have hit a nerve. It is on the New York Times best-seller list – in fact it briefly got to number one.

Hitchens was my boss (or possibly just colleague, he’s not a very managerial type) in Washington in the early 1990s. We were both working for a now defunct British newspaper called The Sunday Correspondent – nicknamed “The Despondent” because of its irreversible downward spiral. I can still remember our first lunch. I would like to say that this is because of the sparkling nature of the conversation. In fact, it is because of the frightening amount that we drank. I staggered home afterwards and fell asleep for a few hours. At 5pm I got up and called Hitchens to discover that he had gone home and written a 2,000 word essay on WH Auden.

One of the reasons that Hitchens is so alarming is his ability to talk with apparent authority about an incredible range of topics – Middle Eastern politics, American foreign policy, English literature, European history, philosophy.

People find this intimidating and Hitchens is well aware of the fact. A friend of his once claimed to me that Hitchens' main way of gaining the upper-hand in an argument was to establish what subjects his opponent knows nothing about, and then to talk exclusively about them.

He did something similar to me last night (not that we were arguing) – suddenly chucking in an obscure Latin phrase into our conversation. Then, when he saw the look of panic in my eyes, patiently translating.

For many years, Hitchens was a hero of the left. Recently, he has become a hero of the right because of his vociferous support of the Iraq war. He claims, of course, that he has been absolutely consistent in his underlying principles.

But the company he keeps has certainly changed a little. When I went to dinner with him in Washington earlier this year, I was surprised to find that the fellow guests included Grover Norquist, one of the Republican Party’s most ruthless and conservative strategists. Another guest was a prominent Iraqi politician. Then, a little after midnight, and for no apparent reason, Lord Skidelsky, the biographer of Keynes, wandered into the dining room. I didn’t hear him knock or anything, he just sort of appeared and sat down.

At this point the conversation veered off onto the subject of a biography of Oswald Mosley that Skidelsky had once written and what Isaiah Berlin had thought of it. Hitchens revealed another unusual rightwing friend, during the course of the conversation. He is a fan of some of the work of David Irving, a historian who recently served time in an Austrian prison for Holocaust denial.

Some of what Hitchens had to say on the topic struck me as slightly na├»ve. He looked at me gravely and said: “Irving came round here a couple of times, but I had to drop our social contacts after he made a shocking anti-semitic remark.” David Irving – an anti-semitic remark? Well, I never.

At about two in the morning, at the Hitchens-Skidelsky-Norquist do, I was beginning to flag. Thinking that perhaps my host might want to go to bed, I turned to him and said: “Christopher,” (I refuse to call him “Hitch”) … I’m falling asleep I better go.”

He looked at me with apparent fury and said: “Well, if that’s your efffing attitude.” Then, seeing that I was a little taken aback, he added: “No, I do understand.” But I could see he didn’t. The thought that anybody might not want to stay up all night, drinking Johnny Walker and discussing Oswald Mosley was all but incomprehensible.

His physical and intellectual stamina was rather humbling. It was even more humbling to discover a few months later that, amidst all this hard-living, Hitchens had found time to write a best-selling book.

Back when I knew him in the mid-'80s, my long conversations with Hitchens watered with Scotch would be interminable, but Christopher had yet to hit his stride on the publishing front in the US, although his work at the New Statesman kept him busy. He was one of many Brit ink-stained wretches fleeing the Thatcher revolution, which had dried up many fonts of Bolshie journalistic prestidigitation. DC was flooded with TUC/Michael Foote acolytes and other offscourings of the margins of Fleet Street who had fetched up to monitor the Reagan analogue to Thatcherism and experience a career mid-course correction in a friendly environment. I had met many during a short 82-83 sojourn with IRIS, Tony Stout's start-up which tried to wed computer technology, conservative money [Ted Heath was one of the punt-money contributors] and round-the-planet journalism to put together a sort of intelligence service for hire.

A lot of Economist Intelligence Unit vets showed up, and I met literally dozens of great Commonwealth journalists during the IRIS tour. Tony Hodges, Hitchens' friend at Oxford, stayed with us at Boca a couple of summers ago on his way to Beijing to take over the job of UNICEF chief. My wife became close with Helena Cobbens, who we arranged to introduce to Bill Quandt, whom she eventually married. Joe Fitchett of the International Herald Tribune was my boss. And eventually, through a parallel connection, we met Christopher and his Cypriot wife.

I ended up introducing Hitch to the Mondale Campaign which I was working for in the last gasp of any attempt to cash in on my own and my wife's Democratic credentials. That didn't get Christopher into the Beltway game, but his preternatural writing skills were bound to get noticed and after his marriage deteriorated, he went to the Left Coast and began to hit his stride---as we all have taken notice.

4 comments :

rick said...

Hitchens is a bright fellow and a wordsmith extraordinaire. I find it peculiar that he adheres to the p. c. version of Middle Eastern affairs, as does the illustrious Carter, that supposes history began in that part of the world in the 1940s. Do you know if he has written any thing on the matter? I am curious to find out the basis of his thinking.

dave in boca said...

Actually, Rick, after the scales fell from his eyes back around 9/11, he has been very pro-Israel and anti-Geemah Carter's anti-semitic comments, whom he has scalded verbally on many occasions. Carter hates the Israelis and their American friends because he believes they got him defeated in 1980 by getting Fat Teddy into the race & by also supporting John Anderson, both of whom cut into his voter base.

Of course, Carter is a meddlesome little fool as well, but that did lose him a lot of votes. Thank God for that!

And Hitchens reminds me of another brilliant Cornishman I met and had dinner with on two occasions---George Ball, the Undersecretary of State who came up with the idea of a blockade during the Cuban missile crisis. George also had a hollow leg and gave me a drink of Jean Monnet's cognac, given to him by the cognac salesman who started the ball rolling toward the European Union.

I was a liberal back in the day.

Diana said...

"Actually, Rick, after the scales fell from his eyes back around 9/11, he has been very pro-Israel and anti-Geemah Carter's anti-semitic comments, whom he has scalded verbally on many occasions."

Hitchens has not changed his anti-Israel attitudes one bit. Where do you get that from?

dave in boca said...

I wrote that because I recall that during last summer's war on the Lebanese border and elsewhere, CH sided with the Israelis and against Hezbollah & Hamas.

Actually, he's moved pretty far in Israel's direction, so much so that his former Nation buddies like Alex Cockburn call him: "a guy who knows perfectly well the role Israel plays in US policy but who does not scruple to flail Cindy Sheehan as a LaRouchie and anti-Semite because, maybe, she dared mention the word Israel"

Back when I knew him, CH was a buddy of Edward Said, whom I also knew slightly, & a great hater of Arik Sharon. But after 9/11, CH attacked Said on his deathbed and has expressed his deep respect for Paul Wolfowitz and other strong supporters of Israel. As with many other positions, Hitchens' stance on Israel is ambivalent, but almost 180 degrees opposite from the mid-eighties.