How do you begin to write a review of the memoir of one of the most revered and despised polemicists of the late 20th and early 21st centuries? Lazily, I’m sure Christopher Hitchens would have observed. How, then, does one begin a review of this most personal of accounts, of the history of post-war Western culture and politics? Well I will start by disclaiming that I found it at once illuminating and reassuring – at times, a vindication – of many of my own deepest held beliefs, while at the same time challenging and thoroughly educating: I have been left with countless additions to my vocabulary, the pulchritudinous nature of which were utterly climacteric in their introduction (sorry!), and a list of authors, poems, musicians and manifestos to pursue, much to the likely dismay of my already groaning bookshelf*.
The beginning (unless you’re Kurt Vonnegut or perhaps Martin Amis) is invariably a strong position from which to start. Earlier in the year, however, I chose to start at the end with Hitchens’ slender final memoir, Mortality. As Jenny Diski sadly and recently noted, a cancer diary is the epitome of a solemn prospect, but Hitch approached his with such verve I felt obliged to probe further and picked up a copy of his earlier and full memoir, Hitch-22. The rewritten foreword of the older book also encompassed his diagnosis and acknowledged how such an event could alter the context of even such a recently finished piece.
His personal history and early relationship with his family was relatively standard fare and did feel as though the author was passing time in waiting to get to the Real Story of Hitch. Painfully rendered reminiscences of his parents notwithstanding, there seemed a lack of insight into his family relationships; notable particularly in their absence until late in the book were the limited mentions of his brother, Peter (albeit this scarcity is somewhat balanced by the author’s affectionate tones when he does eventually get around to the subject of his sibling). His formative years in school and university, his vices and activism and the circles in which he moved with such grace and ease, then, were the real narrative of his early adult life and hinted towards his future dealings with heads of state and leaders of militia alike (not least his Bloomsbury cohorts), and where his raconteur spirit first streams from the page. Based on the interactions he describes with striking factory workers, university dons and academic and political heavyweights during his university years, I was left in no doubt as to how he became so acclaimed, and reviled in later life. His ability to bridge the political divide from this early age – in activity if not necessarily in belief – certainly points to later deviations from the received ideal of where people of his particular political leaning were expected to appear and remain.
Along with the incidental dropping of every important political and cultural name from the majority of the past century (seemingly everyone from WH Auden to Salman Rushdie, Edward Said, Bill Clinton and Paul Wolfowitz) anecdote after tale after yarn is embellished with hilarious and prescient prose, the like of which he (almost) modestly never gives himself credit for, with his repeated dismissals of his own writing abilities. Stanzas like, “the withering away of the state being one thing, the withering away of the penis quite another” whilst uproarious also condenses into one neat sentence Hitch’s political and hedonistic leanings. Stories of the tools of sneaking amusement for the Friday literary diners of the eighties and nineties (such as the brilliant “cunt” game) and his stunning ode to the NHS, are at the same time highly considered yet thoughtful rhetorical flourishes and betray his estimations of his own ability, as being plain wrong.
I said before that some of this book is ‘reassuring’ and I think perhaps instead, that it should have been ‘affirming’. The obvious parallels of political instinct and religious belief (or lack thereof) were already well known to me, but where Hitch-22 refined my thinking on these subjects is in long meditations on Hitchens’ rejection of theism and totalitarianism and the realisation of how these strains of socio-religious politics have effected and contributed toward such a high proportion of recent historical conflict. I also find my position on international affairs to have been further informed as well, with Hitchens’ account and justification for the embracing of a war to remove Saddam Hussein and yet the acceptance that the aftermath of both Iraq wars undeniably led to the instability we continue to see today.
More and more it seems, we see viciously ambiguous grey smoke rising from bright and distinctly separatist flames across the world, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, and now in Ukraine and everywhere else that the world continues to insist on tearing itself apart, invariably for one belief or ideal, or the other. Centuries of slight and counter-slight have led to today, and a certain hereditary political history exists which informs current actions and incursions. To deny one, or the other, is to entirely miss the point: Hitch, of course, supported the second Iraq invasion in the belief that Saddam Hussein was a tyrant who, having slaughtered, tortured and imprisoned hundreds of thousands of people across the Iraqi regions, deserved to be deposed and punished. It is hard to deny, even for conflict averse individuals such as myself, that this was not a valid reason for any state that had the means to act, to do so. He warns us of it, but the tale of Lieutenant Mark Daily (deceased) of the US Army – the descriptions of the man, his beliefs in the justice of the Iraq war, how his thinking was influenced by the much older writer he’d never met and the stoic loss suffered by his parents, partner and child – is one of the most tear inducing portrayals of valour and gallantry, and as convincing a justification for intervention, that I have ever read. War can absolutely be just, and brave women and men make enormous differences to the lives of other brave women and men, in liberation from and resistance to, tyranny. I was left feeling that the costs that are being acutely felt today in the same region were still a significant counter-weight to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars (that grey smoke, again), but I also couldn’t help but feel that a world without Saddam in, is surely a better place.
Illuminating, affirming, reassuring, challenging. He’d despise me for typing such idle adjectives, but perhaps that’s why he was in such good company with the likes of Martin Amis or Gore Vidal, whether he knew it or not. I for one will miss Christopher Hitchens, but am incessantly glad to have met him, even in this smallest of ways.