Published on 16 Dec 2011 Sections ,

Meetings with the remarkable Christopher Hitchens

I first met Christopher Hitchens when he was driving a jeep across northern Iraq 20 years ago and stopped to offer me a lift. He talked for hours, about anything and everything, and the time whizzed by as we negotiated precarious mountain passes.

I first met Christopher Hitchens when he was driving a jeep across northern Iraq 20 years ago and stopped to offer me a lift. He talked for hours, about anything and everything, and the time whizzed by as we negotiated precarious mountain passes.

Thankfully he hadn’t had a drink. On the back seat of the jeep was a copy of a book by a minor Bloomsbury novelist – the man known to his friends as “Hitch” was staggeringly well-read – and I seem to remember that we stopped along the banks of the River Zab for a summertime swim in our underpants.

He was writing for National Geographic and researching a book on Iraq’s Kurds, about how Saddam Hussein had gassed them, alternately murdering them and making up with them for years.

It was his passionate interest in the Kurds which meant that his support for the invasion of Iraq in 2003 was almost a given. I’m tempted to write that this was the most controversial stance he ever took, but then again there were so many that it may not have been. What I do remember is that aside from taking the Kurds under his substantial wing, he also looked after me. Incurably gregarious, he loved the company of fellow journalists, whether it was in the wilds of Iraqi Kurdistan or over dinner in Washington DC.

I once made the faux pas of calling him “Chris”.  “Topher,” he responded acidly. It was a mistake never to be repeated. He was kind and waspish in equal measure, reserving his hatred for what he called thugs and bullies, and whatever he believed, he would argue for passionately, often into the small hours of the morning.

Fast forward to May 2005, and I happened to be sitting in a Senate committee room in Washington one morning when Christopher rolled in. It was about 11 in the morning and one of Washington’s best known advocates for George Bush’s foreign policy was clearly the worse for wear. He had come to watch George Galloway MP respond to allegations that he had personally profited from his friendship with Saddam Hussein. A verbal fist fight between the Britons abroad was clearly in the offing, but not one that Christopher in his current state was likely to win.

“You’re a bloated, drink-sodden former Trotskyist lunatic,” Mr Galloway informed him. “Your hands are shaking. You badly need another drink.”  My cameraman was rolling on the entire exchange. The Americans around us couldn’t believe it, Washington’s usually staid southern civility had been well and truly punctured and I for one felt proud to be British.

Hitchens sloped off pretty quickly afterwards, but the two met again later that year to debate the rights and wrongs of the Iraq war before a public audience in New York.

This time, Christopher was sober. The crux of his argument was that the Iraq war had rid the world of an evil dictator, and that it was nonsense to suggest that western intervention had created the al-Qaeda monster. It is a bit rich, he said, to suggest that “these killers and sadists and nihilists wouldn’t be this way if we weren’t so mean to them”.

Galloway was on much better form. He described Hitchens as “something unique in natural history. The first ever metamorphosis from a butterfly back into a slug.”

“You did write like an angel,” he continued,  “but you now work for the devil, and damn you and all your works.”

Afterwards, Hitch seemed unbothered by the outcome of what the press billed as the “Grapple in the Big Apple” and the “Rumble in the New York Jungle.” An orderly queue of admirers had formed to buy his latest book. And down in neo-Conservative Washington, Godless Hitch’s star was bizarrely rising as a valuable recruit to the Bush cause.

I bumped into Hitch again at a party in the British ambassador’s residence during the Bush years. A White House advisor, Mary Matalin, came up to him and kissed him on both cheeks. “We are so proud of you!” she said.

Had the man who once dismissed George Bush Jr  as “abnormally unintelligent” and “amazingly inarticulate”  really undergone a metamorphosis? He would argue that it was the left which had changed and betrayed a basic cause – the plight of Iraq’s persecuted people.

We were sharing a cab the last time I saw him. We had argued over Iraq, and he was heading home to his flat after a lavish dinner at which he was so entertaining that nobody wanted to ask him to contribute to the restaurant bill.

“You are a hopeless liberal!” he said as he slammed the cab door. It didn’t feel like a rebuke, more a friendly difference of opinion, and perhaps the older Christopher Hitchens recognising in my words the arguments he might have made himself a long time ago.

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