16 Dec 2011

Christopher Hitchens, writer and polemicist, dies

Christopher Hitchens, whose writings have illuminated political debate in Britain and the US for three decades, has died aged 62. Jonathan Rugman looks back on his life.

Graydon Carter, editor of Vanity Fair, where Mr Hitchens was a contributing editor, paid tribute on the magazine’s website.

“Christopher Hitchens was a wit, a charmer and a troublemaker, and to those who knew him well, he was a gift from, dare I say, God,” he wrote.

“He died today at the MD Anderson Cancer Centre, in Houston, after a punishing battle with oesophageal cancer, the same disease that killed his father.”

He said Mr Hitchens would be remembered for his “elevated but inclusive humour” and a “staggering, almost punishing memory that held up under the most liquid of late-night conditions”.

“At the end, Hitchens was more engaged, relentless, hilarious, observant, and intelligent than just about everyone else, just as he had been for the last four decades.”

The writer had written in the June 2011 issue of the magazine: “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends.”

Read more: Meetings with the remarkable Christopher Hitchens

Left to right

In a cruel twist, Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with the cancer that killed him, as he prepared to promote Hitch-22, his autobiography.

Cruel, too, that a writer with such a distinctive voice, in every sense, should succumb to cancer of the oesophagus – the consequence, perhaps, of years of smoking and drinking.

At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr Walker’s amber restorative. Christopher Hitchens

The image of a hard-living scribe was something the British-born but US-naturalised Hitchens appeared to revel in. In Hitch-22, he alludes on more than one occasion – and at length – to his cigarette and alcohol habits.

Describing his working day, he writes: “At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water… At luncheon, perhaps half a bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk, and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal… Nightcaps depend on how well the day went.”

Scottish politician George Galloway, who clashed with Hitchens on more than one occasion (see video below), made play of the writer’s predilections when the two met at a Senate hearing on the war in Iraq. “You’re a bloated, drink-sodden former Trotskyist lunatic,” the former Respect MP informed him. “Your hands are shaking. You badly need another drink.”

Friends and enemies

But to focus on Hitchens’ lifestyle is to ignore his skill as a writer, activist and polemicist. His Trotskyist affiliations dated back to his time at Oxford University, where he joined the International Socialists and acquired a reputation as a political firebrand.

To be accused of fakery by Michael Foot is like being sold hair tonic by a man as bald as an egg. Christopher Hitchens

After university he worked at the New Statesman, encountering, among others, Martin Amis, with whom he formed a lifelong friendship. A New Statesman tribute to Hitchens on the magazine’s website today gives some idea of the man’s range and voice, as well as the enmity he could provoke.

Hitchens’ response, for example, to criticism of him by Labour’s Michael Foot is to note that “to be accused of fakery by him (Michael Foot) is like being sold hair tonic by a man as bald as an egg.”

He was also vociferous during the 1970s in his opposition to the Vietnam war and, in particular, to Henry Kissinger, whom he has excoriates in his autobiography as, among other things, “indescribably loathesome”. In 2001 Hitchens published The Trial of Henry Kissinger, identifying the former US secretary of state as a war criminal.

‘Great voice against God’

In 1981, two years after the suicide of his mother in Athens, Hitchens left the UK for good, moving to the United States. By the time he acquired US citizenship 26 years later, he had established a reputation as the most articulate, aggressive and provocative spokesman for country’s liberal intelligensia.

Great voice against cant, against hypocrisy… against all tyrants, including God. Richard Dawkins on Christopher Hitchens

That reputation was compromised when, in the wake of the 11 September 2001 attacks in the United States, Hitchens embraced a more inverventionist US foreign policy. His subsequent support for the 2003 Iraq war and forced removal of Saddam Hussein – justified, he said, because of Saddam’s treatment of the Kurds – pushed him into temporary alliance with American neo-conservatives.

An outspoken atheist, he took on former prime minister Tony Blair in a televised debate last year in Toronto, Canada, linking God to a “celestial dictatorship, a kind of divine North Korea”. Hitchens’ book, God Is Not Great, placed him alongside Richard Dawkins in the forefront of “new atheism”.

On his website this morning, Dawkins wrote of Hitchens: “Great voice against cant, against hypocrisy, against obscurantism and pretension, against all tyrants, including God.”

‘He knows the truth now’

Among the tributes for Christopher Hitchens this morning, author and friend Salman Rushdie tweeted: “Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops.”

Speaking on the BBC’s Today programme, writer Ian McEwan said: “Right at the very end, when he was feeble, when his cancer overwhelmed him, he insisted on a desk by his window. There he was, a man with only a few days to live, turning out 3,000 words to meet a deadline.”

American pastor Rick Warren, who delivered the invocation at President Barack Obama’s inauguration, wrote: “My friend Christopher Hitchens has died. I loved and prayed for him constantly, and grieve his loss. He knows the truth now.”