As news arrived early on Friday morning of the untimely end of Christopher Hitchens, commentators, friends and admirers rushed forward at an extraordinary pace to offer their tributes and memories. While their quality (and levels of affection) vary, what does not is the huge admiration and respect that this great journalist inspired in everyone he encountered. The sheer volume of personal anecdotes and essays that have flooded the internet reflects this. Hitchens had an astounding ability to express his mind so clearly that upon reading him – and especially upon meeting him – you couldn’t help but feel you knew him intimately.
Though frequently described as a ‘public intellectual’, he was as far as one can imagine from the superficial or pompous implications of such a term. As thousands of words pour out from across the world in tribute, it is becoming increasingly clear that here was a man of great generosity, encouraging and engaging with everyone around him, regardless of their status or lack thereof. He relished people almost as much as he relished the page.
Personally, I met him only once, to interview him for Cherwell in May 2010. As with every other story circulating from the people who knew him, he was unfailingly polite, engaged and attentive. This level of courtesy and engagement was made all the more impressive by the fact that the interview itself was an impromptu affair conducted in the back of a taxi, the result of a nervously garbled request from me at his book-signing the night before. As his flight-time approached, he casually predicted several events that at the time seemed highly unlikely, including Ed Miliband’s ascent to the Labour leadership and Sarah Palin’s withdrawal from the presidential race. He was, as ever, dazzlingly interesting (his memoir relates his mother’s assertion that the “one unforgivable sin is to be boring”), despite what I thought, from looking at him, that he must have had a heavy night.
In fact, this was mere weeks before his diagnosis, and though I had no awareness of the malignant cells silently attacking him from within somewhere between his shoulders and his chin, it was impossible not to notice that he didn’t look well. He certainly looked far worse than a man who’d only recently turned sixty. He smoked one cigarette just before entering the taxi, and immediately lit up several more upon exiting; I told him that I thought he had quit, but he merely shrugged and said, “I have.”
As the taxi travelled quickly out of Oxford, we were soon surrounded by traditional looking countryside, and it doesn’t seem too sentimental to recall the Hitch observing this English greenery with affection. I asked if, being an American citizen now, he returned to these parts much, and he left a pause while still looking out at the fields. “Not as often as I’d like.” Of course, neither of us knew that I was accompanying him in his final moments on British soil. After we arrived at Heathrow, he topped up his nicotine levels and invited me to accompany him as far as security would allow, and the conversation was only stopped by airport officialdom. There was no reason to think that it might not continue on his next visit to his country of birth – a visit that, of course, never happened.
Following his cancer diagnosis, I emailed him to express my sympathies and send him the finished article, and (as seems to be the case with everyone who contacted him) he sent a prompt reply:
“I was just beginning to suspect that I might be unwell on that trip, though I had no idea how much danger I was in. You are very generous to describe my conduct as courageous: I don’t have many options and the exit marked cowardice doesn’t seem very clearly-marked in any case, even should I wish to take it. I think the word courage is to be reserved for people who guard polling-places for women in Afghanistan, say, rather than those who come to see what they already knew, which is that the word inevitable means what it says.
“That said, I have some brilliant and resourceful physicians who have given me good reason to hang on, and also made the whole misery a lot less fucking boring than it might otherwise have been.”
Regardless of what he might have thought, courage is undoubtedly the best word for the Hitch, as his brother Peter wrote on Friday: “Courage is deliberately taking a known risk, sometimes physical, sometimes to your livelihood, because you think it is too important not to. My brother possessed this virtue to the very end, and if I often disagreed with the purposes for which he used it, I never doubted the quality or ceased to admire it.”
Finally, amongst all the tributes that have poured out this weekend, it is necessary to correct what I believe to be certain falsehoods: he was not a contrarian; he never gave an opinion on subjects he knew little about (such as climate change, or healthcare), advising me, “where you’re not sure what you’re talking about, you’re well advised to shut the fuck up”; and, despite Nick Clegg’s fawning tribute to him, the Deputy Prime Minister may be disappointed to learn that, as an intern for Hitchens, he made little impression: “I don’t remember him very well. I remember better Eddy Miliband [also an intern at The Nation].”
The rest, I leave to those who really knew him; the tributes of Ian McEwan, James Fenton and Christopher Buckley are particularly impressive, and reflect the admiration and deep affection that he inspired in all he met. Hitchens was an intellectual titan, but also a kind and honourable man. His flame was brighter than most, and was extinguished all too soon.