Saturday, December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens

Time that is intolerant
Of the brave and the innocent,
And indifferent in a week
To a beautiful physique,

Worships language and forgives
Everyone by whom it lives;
Pardons cowardice, conceit,
Lays its honours at their feet.

Time that with this strange excuse
Pardoned Kipling and his views,
And will pardon Paul Claudel,
Pardons him for writing well.

These lines from Auden's poem In Memory of W B Yeats could also apply to Christopher Hitchens. He was infuriating, politically inconsistent, an intellectual bully boy, and a great harbourer of grudges but above all else he was a wonderful lively writer.

I'm in the middle of his recent book of essays (Arguably) and as usual with Hitchens finding it entertaining and annoying in equal measures. i used to admire unconditionally his colourful writing and his political polemics but found myself going off him in recent years. His tiresome backing of G.W. Bush and the Iraq invasion long after the rest of the world had seen it for the debacle it was diminished his standing in most reasonable peoples' eyes. Before that there was his shameful involvement in the Monica Lewinsky affair. He gave evidence against Clinton to a Senate committee - siding with the monstrous Kenneth Starr. What was it with him and Clinton? The sustained vehemence of his attacks suggested something personal - maybe a Washington social slight. When writing on other subjects he would frequently drag in an unflattering allusion to Clinton. Most peculiar. I also found his uncritical admiration of Martin Amis a bit mawkish. No one's that perfect - a lot of what he writes about him, especially in Hitch 22, comes perilously close to gushing. Amis's view of Hitchens fell far short of adoration. He saw the talent for rhetoric and disputation but also saw the flexible principles and the tendency to take things personally.

And yet he wrote beautifully and sympathetically about Philip Larkin and other literary figures such as Betjamin, Waugh (lost on me) and George Orwell.

i saw him at the Gate Theatre a few years ago - around the time God is not Great was published. He was doing PR for his book and the event was a debate with God botherer John Waters, chaired by Brenda Power. It rapidly descended into a one man show. Power was plainly in thrall to Hitchens and gave him free rein. Waters was strangely muted and never got a blow in. To avoid embarrassment at a palpable mismatch Power moved quickly to a Q and A session. This descended into farce as Hitchen's response to any awkward question was "fuck off, next question". Charming stuff. Maybe he'd had a long lunch.

You have to admire the way he dealt with his final illness - filing what will be a posthumous article for Vanity Fair in which he challenges Nietzsche's dictum that whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger. Not his best but certainly his bravest.