Mar 11, 2014
Peter Stothard on Christopher Hitchens
Posted on May 27, 2010
Vietnam is the last war described in “Hitch-22” where Hitchens was not himself present. In those early days he merely joined every demonstration he could reach against the British Labour government’s support for the “hideous” President Lyndon Johnson. Probably the first evening that I ever saw him myself (this is the appropriate time, I think, to declare that we have become closer friends since) was when in 1970 he organized the shouting of “Murderer!” and the hanging of a noose in the face of the then Labour foreign secretary, Michael Stewart, at the Oxford Union. He was the star of Balliol College, a nest of Marxists as those of us at Trinity next door liked to see it. He was an actor in the student protests of the age while I merely watched from the stalls, and only even then when the fracas was likely to be especially watchable or when I couldn’t get out of the way. The night of the noose was in the first of those categories although, once inside the Union’s Victorian hall on that occasion, it was not that easy to get out of trouble’s way either.
As soon as the geographical restrictions of Oxford were over, our author began a career of journalism and public commentary that left the “secondhand” far behind. Getting close to the action became a necessity, talking directly to the actors, applying an Oxford empiricism to the application of all political ideals, especially Balliol’s and his own. Thus readers of “Hitch-22” will find themselves in Belfast and Bosnia and Buenos Aires and Babylon, not always at the height of a horror story (he is not a TV anchor or a big-foot newsman) but at times when the key actors can be found, can be asked the questions they would rather not be asked and subjected to all the searching they can normally avoid. The author’s ideal for himself is to judge by the stare straightest into the face. Whether the targets are some of Britain and North America’s overrated intellectuals, the “academics of Oz,” or some of the nastiest South American torture specialists that most would never want to meet, he much prefers bad arguments to be directly heard before they are exposed and abused.
Whence did this character come? There is no point in a book of this kind unless that question is addressed. One insistent theme—from the very start and, since this is an autobiography, it is the very start—is the search for some sort of point in living a life at all, let alone writing about it. For Hitchens’ father, affectionately if distantly nicknamed “the Commander,” the end of the Second World War was more or less the end of purpose, a time of service in the Royal Navy crowned by his part at Christmas 1943 in the sinking of the Scharnhorst, “a better day’s work than any I have ever done,” as his son concedes. His paternal aunt, Ena, landed in Normandy as a nurse after D-Day, and continued all the way to Germany, “another excellent day’s work.” Fighting Fascism in its various forms is seen as an absolutely secure purpose for life, even if identifying it is easier at some times than at others. After the war the Commander’s “Tory sensibility” took over, the kind that his son came permanently to oppose, a defeatism based on the sad experience that Britain had been defeated even as it won its war; and that future wars, even for the Falkland Islands, which he had known and visited in his naval days were no longer worth the trouble. The son disagreed with his father on the Falklands issue in 1982 as on so much else, supporting Margaret Thatcher’s ambitions over Gen. Galtieri’s, even as so many of his sometime British comrades chose the other side.
For Hitchens’ mother, Yvonne, life was a more personal defeat, a story of dull home life after the exotica of the navy’s foreign postings, small setbacks in her desire for some small freedoms (each one movingly portrayed by her son) and finally a shared suicide beside a clinically depressed lover in an Athens hotel room, photographed by the Greek police for evidence, visited by her son in an investigative homage. He is avowedly and movingly his mother’s son. She was “the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari, the offer of wine or champagne instead of beer, the laugh in the face of bores and purse-mouths and skinflints, the insurance against bigots and prudes.” She was also partly Jewish, and keen to hide that fact, having “wanted to ‘pass’ as English after noticing some slight unpleasantness being visited on my grandmother who, in the 1930s, toiled in the millinery business.” This was a concealment that caused some trouble between them at the time of the 1973 conflict between Israel and its neighbors, “what some call the Yom Kippur War and some the Ramadan War.” On this the final subject that they shared on the telephone, that of her moving to Israel and “taking someone else’s bleeding holy land on top of her other troubles,” he writes that “I would give a very great deal to be able to start that conversation over again.”
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