Christopher Hitchens

This interview was conducted in May 2010. A revised, updated and condensed version was published by Cherwell in January 2011. This can be found here.

I’m halfway through climbing clumsily into an idling taxi, due to take myself and Christopher Hitchens from Oxford to Heathrow, when the man himself stops me mid-clamber with an urgent, ‘Hang on.’ I extract myself from the car and turn to find him standing in the middle of the pavement, casually lighting a cigarette. This is a little surprising, as although, for most of his career, heavy-duty smoking has been as integral a part of Hitchens’ public persona as his unrelenting imbibing of alcohol, three years ago he finally claimed to have kicked the lifelong habit. I decide to confront him, and summon my most judgmental voice to say, ‘I thought you’d quit,’ but he appears utterly unfazed. Instead he pauses to take a long and evidently soothing drag of nicotine, before replying in that unmistakable mellifluous and well-spoken voice of his, ‘I have.’ He smiles briefly, looking surprisingly like a mischievous child, before letting smoke curl from his lips.

On reflection, this contradiction is entirely typical of the 61-year-old journalist and polemicist; his life has been full of them, from his double life at Oxford, where he protested as a Trotskyite during the day before donning his dinner jacket to dine with the Warden of All Souls College that same evening, to arguing loudly and persuasively for George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion (or, as he insists on calling it, ‘liberation’) of Iraq, despite being opposed to Bush Sr.’s intervention in Kuwait twelve years earlier. He’s even become a citizen of the United States, yet retained his UK citizenship and his cut-glass accent. Yet while such an apparent salmagundi of political beliefs and social activities may seem blatantly hypocritical, Hitchens would never accept this criticism. He maintains that it is he who has remained true to liberalism and the principles of the left by supporting the United States’ involvement in Iraq and unambiguously opposing Muslim terrorists (or ‘Islamofascists’, to use his term), and laments what he perceives as the unforgiveable cowardice of his former comrades in failing to stand up for the democracy and free speech that they have enjoyed with a false sense of security all their lives. For Hitchens, free speech, secularism and democracy are by no means automatic privileges in life, and over the past two decades he has found himself increasingly committed to defending their existence.

The style of Christopher Hitchens (‘never Chris’, he insists – even devoting an entire chapter of his recent memoir, Hitch 22, to explain his reasons for this stubborn preference), both when speaking and writing, is one of unfailing eloquence – his vocabulary is astonishingly diverse and, it seems, inexhaustible – yet is frequently followed by a healthy measure of abrupt, unfiltered scorn, all the more effective for its bluntness. His targets are as diverse as his lexicon, having memorably condemned Ronald Reagan as ‘a cruel and stupid lizard’, Mother Teresa as a ‘thieving Albanian dwarf’ and Michael Moore (though by Hitchens’ own admission an easy target) as ‘one of the great sagging blimps of our sorry, mediocre, celeb-rotten culture.’ He does not, to flog a dead cliché, suffer fools gladly.

With this in mind, it was with a great deal of trepidation that I prepared for this impromptu interview (the result of an off-the-cuff request of mine whilst he signed my books the evening before). I became acutely and horribly aware of myself when waiting in the hotel lobby – would I embarrass myself? Would I be on the receiving end of some damning yet perfectly phrased dismissal? Did he even remember inviting me? (I’m fairly sure he’d been drinking that evening.) Yet in the end, it was none of the above. While unshakeably intellectually confident, he is by no means arrogant, and certainly not rude. Indeed, he was quietly polite to the hotel receptionist and, when requesting a bottle of water from the taxi driver, appeared even meek. His public persona – somewhat out of his control, created as it seems to have been in part by the media – is rather at odds with his private one. Thus, instead of being greeted by the arrogant, drunken polemicist of legend, the figure before me, gratefully shrouded in cigarette smoke, is quite the opposite: stout, quiet and, I suspected, a little hung over. He also bears an eerie resemblance, as many others have noted, to Timothy Spall.

However, by the time the car is over Magdalen Bridge, this has changed completely. Not that he no longer looks like Timothy Spall – it’s still uncanny – but rather that he’s already talking about the Catholic Church, one of his many current obsessions. Hitchens is now most famous as perhaps the world’s second most notorious atheist, following the 2007 release of his bestselling God Is Not Great (or, as he quite deliberately refers to it in the memoir, god Is Not Great; its subtitle then helpfully makes his position even clearer: How Religion Poisons Everything. For all the attacks launched at him, he can’t be accused of mincing words). With the Pope’s impending visit in September, he intends to see Joseph Ratzinger arrested in the wake of the continuing revelations of paedophilia within the Catholic Church. The campaign has attracted the support of the world’s most famous atheist and Hitchens’ close friend, Richard Dawkins, and as such has since been reported as having something of an atheist agenda. Yet for Hitchens it’s nothing of the kind, instead being driven by humanitarian concerns, and, when he begins talking about it, his eyes seem to light up behind his sunglasses and one can detect genuine excitement in his voice. This is a man who loves a good fight.

However, although reluctant to undercut his optimism, I ask him if his ambition to see the Pope arrested is in any way realistic, but he is quick to acknowledge the scale of the challenge: ‘They’re not stupid – well, they’re fairly cunning, at any rate. They anticipated the attack by already claiming… as we thought they would, sovereign immunity for the Vatican. In other words, he has the privileges of a head of state. How this is, I think, a very unwise move on their part, because it reminds people that the Vatican City… is a creation of Mussolini, in very sordid circumstances in the 1930s. And I think it rather shows their desperation.’ I point out that the Vatican’s claim to sovereign immunity is recognised by international community, but, unsurprisingly, he’s already looked into it. ‘The State Department in Washington, I asked them the other day, ‘Why do you not do your annual human rights report on the Vatican City?’ It’s a mandate for the State Department to give a summary, a report to Congress, on all countries with which we deal. They said, ‘Because we don’t recognise them.’… So, they only have observer status with the United Nations… Well ok, you can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to claim to be a state, then now we’ll have a State Department report on your human rights activities. Which would certainly include government sponsored, or government concealed, abuse of children. In the meantime, we’re going to take you to the European Court of Human Rights to test the immunity claim, which may well not be upheld, and to the International Criminal Court, which is entitled, if you are a state or not, to consider any policy directed against children by a government.’

When discussing what he knows about, it is difficult to overstate the depth of knowledge Hitchens displays and the convincingness of his arguments, although a great deal of the latter is down to his distinctive voice. Despite living in the USA for several decades, he has not lost his upper-class English tones (they have, if anything, become more pronounced) and his opponents in debates often sound clumsy or even stupid by comparison. As Richard Dawkins has advised, ‘If you are… invited to debate with Christopher Hitchens, decline.’ The night before, he engaged in a debate on religion in the Sheldonian Theatre against Professor John Haldane, and his performance was typically persuasive. However, I am surprised to find that he does not agree, and instead displays an unanticipated moment of self-criticism when I ask if he thinks the debate went well. He pauses for an almost uncomfortable length of time, before replying, ‘Not particularly.’ There is another pause, but then the self-criticism ends: ‘I mean, I thought that [Professor Haldane]… was simply evasive. I’ve no better idea what he really thinks than I did at dinner… [He spoke] in a tone that I always find very slightly sinister – in other words, no alteration in the pitch of the voice. He was almost mesmerically unmodulated, flat, and somehow in a way designed to be uninterruptible. A little bit too fast, a little bit too glib.’ Whatever one might say about Hitchens’ style, it is by no accounts ‘too fast’. He rarely speaks without being utterly sure of what he means to say, and will pause until he can articulate his thoughts to his complete satisfaction. More importantly, he only articulates thoughts worth uttering, and certainly doesn’t tolerate – or indulge in, for that matter – inconclusive if diplomatic statements for their own sake. Returning to Haldane, he scorns just such inoffensive neutrality: ‘All he said was, ‘Well, one might touch on this point, and then maybe we ought to share a few views on this,’ but he never quite got round to saying what they were going to be.’

As Hitchens pulls apart the inoffensive and dry style of last night’s opponent, a theme rapidly emerges: only speak up if you’ve got something worth saying, and even then you’d better phrase it in the best damn way possible. Yet most important for him is to know what you’re talking about – he has nothing but contempt for the opinionated ignorance of others, and is quick to offer some succinct advice: ‘Where you’re not sure what you’re talking about, you’re well advised to shut the fuck up.’ He’s protective of the English language, and has little time for its waste or misuse. He also reserves similar disdain for the state of the arts and the media today, proudly divulging that he rarely watches television: ‘It has to be a real crisis if I’m prepared to turn it on. It’s way down the other end of the house. I might not even have one if it wasn’t for DVDs.’ Films are avoided in a similar manner, as Hitchens laments how they’re no longer made for people like him. ‘I’m the wrong demographic, as they say. I’m the wrong age, for one thing. Most films are made to formulae for people much younger than me. And then I think most films depend for their sense of humour upon things that I don’t find particularly funny. And most films are vehicles for individual stars. And most of them don’t care at all about suspension of disbelief, so they’ll irritate you quite early on by making a character do something suicidally implausible. At which point it spoils the thing, and I think, ‘Well, no, he wouldn’t have done that, don’t be stupid.’ It’s just a shortcut to make it work. I can’t remember the last time I went to the cinema without feeling insulted or annoyed.’ I wait cautiously, and then, believing this rather unexpected rant to be over, begin another question when I am immediately interrupted by a loud and exasperated exclamation of ‘Avatar! I couldn’t believe it…’ For once, he seems lost for words. ‘Sometimes I don’t get things at all, and I think, ‘Well, maybe I’m becoming a curmudgeon.’ It’s what Clive James called the Barry Manilow effect – when you see Barry Manilow and you think, ‘There are people who want to hear this, and they want more of it.’ Clearly there’s something I’ve missed.’

Living, as he does, in the USA, I suggest that he is exposed to the worst kinds of television instead. The inexplicable and faintly disturbing rise in popularity of Fox News’ Glenn Beck, for example, must be both frustrating and baffling for him. Hitchens sighs and looks out of the window. ‘You know, when I was much more on the left in a conventional sense than I am now, I used to watch William Buckley (making an exception to my general non-TV policy), and I thought ‘Firing Line’ [a long-running US conservative political talk show] was really quite excellent. I didn’t like Buckley, and I hated his opinions and views, but he was a really good thinker and – well, a better debater than thinker, though pretty good – and I could see why he had his appeal.’ He turns and looks directly in my eyes, before uttering, in monosyllabic, urgent stabs, ‘I do not get the appeal of Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck. I cannot see how anyone would find it impressive. It’s again the Barry Manilow problem… What I always feel is that I could, if I had to, at the Oxford Union take any side of the chamber, and give it a persuasive enough shot that no-one would know I didn’t really believe it. And I think one ought to be able to do that… But I couldn’t give you a description of what the thought processes of Limbaugh and Beck are.’ He begins to warm to his theme, and the volume increases as he exclaims, ‘It just seems to be a stream of consciousness, a babble, and very inarticulate. How does a guy as clumsy as Limbaugh get a job as a radio host? I suppose inarticulate people like to hear one of their number on the radio. There’s a famous story, and it’s true: Nixon nominated to the Supreme Court a guy called Carswell, who he really wanted because he was quite southern and reactionary – it was part of his southern strategy – and it was on those grounds that a lot of people opposed him. He was also not much of a lawyer, he didn’t have a very good record. And when he came before the Senate Judiciary Committee for nomination, he was attacked by some of the lofty liberals, who said, ‘Well actually, your record is fairly mediocre.’ The word kept coming up. And Senator Hruska, a Polish guy and a Republican, intervened to say, ‘Look, a lot of Americans are extremely mediocre. They should have someone on the Supreme Court too.’ I thought it was very, very touching, a sweet thought.’ He laughs before concluding, ‘Except maybe not. Maybe the Supreme Court should have excellent people.’

His mention of the Oxford Union leads me to ask about his experience at Balliol – was it, as one might expect, taken up mostly by politics? ‘I’m afraid it was, yeah. It seemed like a good idea at the time. Well, actually it was better than that. I mean, at the time, with the smartest people getting stuck into it, it really did seem as if the whole world was undergoing a process of revolution – in Indochina, in France, in Czechoslovakia, in Africa and Latin America, conspicuously – and that one had a chance to take part in it. And this made the study of PPE, say, seem slightly banal.’ (He graduated with a 3rd.) ‘I don’t ridicule it in retrospect, though it is quite hard to think oneself back into the feeling that all this was going to be swept away.’ Is he disillusioned with his involvement in revolutionary movements that, by and large, came to nothing? ‘Not really. I mean, to have had a chance to have, to experience, the feeling that one was living in a revolutionary moment is something that I wish everyone would have. But very few people do. It doesn’t happen ever more than once in a generation, and usually not as often as that. In fact, what it was, I now realise – and I guess I had a couple of premonitions of it at the time – was that it was more the end of something than the beginning. Actually what it was was the last efflorescence of a red flag type mass movement, rather than the beginning or revival of one.’

It was in his student days that Hitchens first began to travel extensively to war-torn countries and places that were of interest to him, including an eye-opening trip to Cuba. In this way, he discovered the way in which first-hand experience might shape the accuracy and authenticity of his arguments and, subsequently, his reporting as a journalist. One of his more impressive boasts is that he has travelled to each of the three countries that constituted Bush’s ‘Axis of Evil’. ‘I’m the only one to have done that. I’m the only writer, at any rate, to go to North Korea, Iran and Iraq. I’m sure I’d know if there was another one. And I don’t think there would be a diplomat who would have had all three postings because they’re not very congruent. Probably some arms dealer or terrorist has managed to do all three.’ Out of these, it is, perhaps unsurprisingly, North Korea which he found the most shocking. ‘It must be one of the worst places – I’m sure it really is the worst place – in the world. There are two horrible ways of being totally immiserated: one is to live under an absolute dictatorship that doesn’t allow any private life, and the other is to live in a place where effectively there’s no state at all, like, say, the Congo. Amazingly in North Korea now they’ve managed to bring off both. Because there’s no food and there’s no work. There only is just a shell of a police state. It doesn’t do anything for you except keep you under constant surveillance.’

Once you start him on a subject he knows about (and there are many), Hitchens talks confidently and at length. He bombards me with horror stories from his experiences in North Korea, describing the ‘millions of malnourished children who have never really developed… they’re dwarves’ and noting how ‘there is one thing that keeps it going, which is people’s fear of finding out… What I wrote in my piece [for Slate:] predicts something like a mass nervous breakdown if the system implodes. People will realise that their entire lives have been just thrown away. That would be a hellish way to be liberated.’ However, it’s not long before we arrive to the topic that has increasingly dominated his life: religion. He describes the ruling system in the country as ‘a necrocracy, and the son is considered effectively as [Kim Il Sung’s] reincarnation. Well, you’re nearly there. You’re only one short of a trinity… It is a simulacrum of a religious cult.’ It is religion that seems to be the central irritant and enemy for Hitchens for most of his adult life, and can usually be found at the heart of most of the opponents he takes on. To some extent, this could be seen as inevitable, given his hatred of a lack of intellectual engagement – he severely mocks the Christian term of ‘the flock’ for the congregation, and finds the idea of faith inherently repellent. I ask whether it is an uphill battle in the USA, but he denies this, citing the recent defeat of creationists in Pennsylvania, with the landmark court case of Kitzmiller v. Dover Area School District. There are, however, greater religious threats than domestic ones that he feels must be fought.

The rise of Islamic fundamentalism was the key turning point for Hitchens. He feels most comfortable when in combat (albeit of an intellectual sort), and with his Trotskyite days behind him, this was a battle which gave him a certain focus. It has also led to a perceived shift in his ideologies from left to right, and has left him estranged from many of his liberal colleagues and peers. Nonetheless, he is unrepentant, believing the fight against ‘Islamofacism’ to be the most important of our age. He certainly has little time for those who advocate a peaceful resolution between the USA and its radical Muslim foes: ‘A lot of people wish it wasn’t true that there was a confrontation… a clash of civilisations. I say a clash about civilisation. A lot of people plainly don’t want this, they feel uneasy of the fact that the other side is, so to say, brown-skinned. It makes them queasy and they almost suspect their own motives. So they try and explain it away by means of other phenomena… They also don’t want to hear themselves say… that our civilisation is superior to theocracy. They don’t have the confidence to say that actually democratic, secular pluralism is a better way of life. They would think that was culturally arrogant. So you have to overcome, or peel away, several layers of something like masochism before you can even start.’

It is interesting to observe, though, that the date on which he embarked on this battle was not on 11 September 2001, but rather 14 February 1989. This was the day on which the Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa upon Salman Rushdie for writing The Satanic Verses, and Hitchens was one of the first to defend his friend and colleague. It was his own road to (or, perhaps more accurately, away from), Damascus. His voice once again adopts a sense of urgency as he looks me in the eye to say, ‘I realised there’s a confrontation now between… everything I hate attacking everything I love. And I thought, ‘Ok, now I know what I’m doing.’’ This combative state of being appears to provide Hitchens with a certain sense of purpose; it seems to be what drives him. To a certain extent, it is his political and intellectual battles that energise and, ultimately, define him.

Too soon, the taxi pulls up outside Heathrow, and we both get out. He is about to enter the terminal, when he pauses to indulge his nicotine addiction one last time before his flight. We continue to talk and he remains engrossing and engaging, yet up until the moment he stamps out the final cigarette, I can’t shake a feeling of concern for his health. The truth is, he now appears far older than he is, and certainly not in the kind of shape that one might choose willingly. A lifetime of heavy smoking and drinking has clearly taken a heavy toll. Since we parted ways at Heathrow, Hitchens has announced that he has oesophageal cancer and is currently undergoing intensive chemotherapy treatment. It is a shock, if not an entirely unexpected one. His lifestyle has made him who he is and has no doubt produced many of his finest speeches and articles, yet it has also put him at risk of an early demise. It’s a fate he has always been aware of, however, and he devotes the preface of Hitch-22 almost exclusively to his own looming departure. It is a moving and intelligent opening, and on its own makes the book worth buying.

In 1989, Salman Rushdie wrote of the late Bruce Chatwin, ‘What a voice we lost when his fell silent! How much he still had to say.’ It can only be hoped that he will not be making such a tribute for Christopher Hitchens any time soon, as it is clear that, though most likely self-inflicted, Hitchens’ deadly ailment is cutting down an intellect still furiously alive and in its prime. The world and the English language will be far duller in his absence.

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