Christopher Hitchens, literary critic, journalist and polemicist died from oesophageal cancer on Thursday 15th December, aged 62, sparking a widespread outpouring of grief and mourning.
The author, particularly well known in later years for his bestseller God is not Great (2007), often starkly divided opinion. However, his death united many critics in praising both his intellectual vigour and his courage in facing death.
Born in 1949, he matriculated at Balliol College in 1967, graduating in 1970 with a third-class degree in PPE. One contemporary of his, Richard Heller (Balliol PPE 1966), remembered a Balliol JCR that was “shared at night between politics and poker”. As a poker player Heller often ignored the political section “which tended to be dreary and derivative as various Marxist sects asserted their unique right to provide a vanguard leadership to the revolution in Oxford University”.
However, “one voice from the political section could make the poker players look up from their cards”, that of the young Chris Hitchens (as he styled himself then), “he was ironic, he was funny, he could mock himself as well as his opponents”. Even though they belonged to the two separate sections of the late night Balliol JCR, Heller was “glad that I witnessed the early training of the finest polemic writer since Orwell“.
Hitchens was certainly a memorable figure, as Balliol Master Sir Drummond Bone, who was a member of the MCR while Hitchens was in the JCR, can confirm. He told Cherwell that despite the separation “I knew who he was even then – who didn’t?”
Hitchens also managed to maintain a strong relationship with Balliol in his later years, through the ‘Pathfinders’ scheme, in which ex-finalists travel around America, liaising with a network of old Balliolites. Although he had given up hosting the students a few years ago, he remained ever-committed and personable.
Greig Lamont, who left Balliol in June 2011, had asked Hitchens for assistance in relation to some potential work in Iraq, “I emailed from the west coast, out of the blue, whilst he was laid up in Washington post-op. He replied within hours with nothing but help, suggestions and a list of people I should get in contact with”. Lamont also felt “greatly touched by the warmth (he always ended his emails ‘fraternally’ or ‘love Hitch’) with which he greeted a stranger’s request for help and advice”.
Current students also mourned his loss. Jonathan Scott a 3rd year Balliol student, praised him as an intellectually inspiring individual “partly because he’s obviously very clever, and had an incredible turn of phrase, but mostly because nothing was sacred to him”. He also pointed to Hitchens’ intellectual consistency, especially regarding his decision to support the Iraq war, often seen as a turning point for many of his former friends on the left. He stated that “in hindsight, he can perhaps be accused of errors of fact or of prediction, but probably not inconsistency of principle”.
Anirudh Mathur, a first year PPE student, also agreed on the issue of Iraq, saying it was “important to distinguish that he was one of the most vocal critics of how the war was actually carried out, even if he was a liberal interventionist”.
Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer in June 2010, announcing it publicly in a piece for Vanity Fair entitled ’Topic of Cancer’. His approach to death was much the same as his approach to life, referring to the cancer as “something so predictable and banal that it bores even me”. Hitchens died at a cancer hospice in Houston, Texas and leaves behind his wife, three children, many friends and countless admirers.