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Thinking with the blood transfusion: Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

Hitch 22

Hitch 22

Christopher Hitchens has, at various times, laid into `Mother Teresa'(making him “the only living person to have represented the Devil pro bono”); Henry Kissinger (whose possible prosecution for his complicity in the Chilean bloodbath Hitchens announced: “So, comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, we shall be able to say that tomorrow-September 11th 2001-will long be remembered as a landmark day in the struggle for human rights.”); Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. He has a reputation as the last of the great boozy hacks, with a talent for polemic and a wide reading which do credit to his Oxford education.

During and after his time at Oxford, Hitchens, (`the Hitch’) made a first reputation as a journalist, working for publications in London while also continuing his student activism with the International Socialists. As a journalist, he visited some of the revolutions of 1968 and after: Cuba, during the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, destroyed some illusions, but Portugal finished them off and confirmed him in his view that “democracy and pluralism were good things in themselves, and ends in themselves at that, rather than means to another end.”

By this time, Hitchens formed part of a group which included Martin Amis (who gets a chapter to himself), James Fenton (likewise) and other writers and opinionates who gathered for lunch once a week, developing a reputation as a book-reviewing Mafia, who held literary London in their thrall. Hitchens talks, sketchily, of his romantic life (his wives are almost unmentioned in the book), of the seduction of two young male Tories who later became government ministers, of Margaret Thatcher spanking him with a rolled-up document and mouthing `naughty boy’ at him over her shoulder as she wiggled her hips Hitchens-wards. (It does not aid my composure that Margaret Thatcher has been played on screen by Lindsay Duncan.)

The first, maybe only, great love, though, is books: Hitchens chooses How green was my valley, a coming of age story set in a Welsh mining area, as the book that changed his life:

… there was a world as remote from my own as the moon, or Joseph Conrad’s Congo….First of all, its inhabitants worked mostly under the ground, like the Morlocks in H. G. Wells. Secondly, they spoke a non-English language at home … Third, they thought of going on strike as an act of unselfish solidarity and emancipation … Fourth-though I do not know why I am placing this last on my list-they conceived of education and learning as the avenues to a better life, for their fellows as well as themselves, and not as an expensively bought means of declaring themselves superior to others less fortunate.

In various ways, much of the book is about education. Hitchens remembers his mother telling his father that their son was to go to a private school because `if there is going to be an upper class in this country,then Christopher is going to be in it.’ Passing through `public’ schools, his `meal ticket for a decent university: that undiscovered country to which no Hitchens had yet traveled’, he dodged involuntary homosexuality and the worst sadism of the masters, on the way to Oxford. His education there (PPE) was a combination of the degree on which he was enrolled, the entertaining of visiting politicians and intellectuals, and the picketing of car plants as part of his activism, where he learnt some practical politics.

The making of the man is the interest of the book. Hitchens’ work is well enough known but the time and place that made him are long gone. The circumstances of his mother’s suicide left a mark which still shows; his father, a retired Royal Navy commander, embittered by his treatment by the Senior Service, has Hitchens’ respect. His parents seem, in their way, to have been decent people trapped in a certain world. Hitchens found his way out through education, as they intended he would; this might explain his confusion at placing education `last on my list’.

The second great love is America. He writes of the early visits when he hitched and bussed around the country, when it was exciting, the country of the Civil Rights struggle and the 1968 conventions, and the protests against the war on Vietnam. He moved there permanently in the 1980s; he came to feel increasingly American, especially after the World Trade Center attacks, and took up citizenship in 2006. He is usually in the first rank of those denouncing `anti-Americanism’ and defended `intervention’ in Yugoslavia, Afghanistan and Iraq (the second time).

Hitchens is now best known for his polemics in defence of the Englightment, that is, for attacks on religion and for support of military imposition of human rights in backward countries. In retrospect, it can look as if his life would always lead to this point, but it was not obvious at the time. The abandonment of his previous positions, though not, he would claim, principles, is presented as part of one long march through the constitution. It could have been different but who cares? Hitchens is well-enough known that the politics will come as no surprise and it is no shock to discover that he started on the left and now has friends on the right.

The interest is in the early life: Hitchens is of the same generation, and the same political background, as Tariq Ali, say, and took part in many of the same campaigns. In some ways, the question is not why is he on the right, but why was he ever on the left? The story of how the son of a conservative, anti-American naval officer became one of the best known Trotskyists in Britain, and then an American citizen out of solidarity with his adopted home, is worth reading. Hitchens has elsewhere referred to Kipling’s line about `thinking with the blood’, and there is a touch of it here, whether the blood of the father who sank a German ship during the war (`a better day’s work than I have ever done’) or the transfused blood of America. Hitchens seems to have taken on the qualities of both his parents, and the book has something of the air of a reconciliation with both.

Hitch-22: A memoir, Christopher Hitchens, ISBN 978-1-84354-921-5

4 comments on “Thinking with the blood transfusion: Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens

  1. Jackie
    July 31, 2010

    Hitchens has become very irritating in the last decade. While I haven’t read this book, yet, I do see him on talk shows frequently & of course, he’s quite garrulous on them. His drastic switch from the left to very conservative right wing politics is something I view with suspicion. (Dennis Miller has done the same thing, but is a more lightweight voice than Hitchens.) When someone does that, I’m astonished at how they can completely abandon the views they’ve always had, as if they weren’t thinking straight & it was all just a big mistake. To me, that’s not someone who is really committed to either side, so they earn distrust.
    Hitchens has also seemed to be a bit too full of himself and a book like this would only accent that aspect of his personality. I wonder if his popularity stems from the fact that he’s very, very opinionated & not afraid to state them in an articulate way?

  2. Christine
    August 1, 2010

    I’m always interested in reading what people have to say if they say it well, even if I disagree with them or question their sincerity. I’m curious to read this because it might help explain where some his more extreme views come from. But I get the sense from this review that the book doesn’t attempt to (or at least doesn’t succeed in) reconciling the origin of the man with the evolution of his views.

  3. Moira
    August 1, 2010

    He’s quite a character … intriguing and aggravating all at the same time, very much like his brother, but in different ways – and coming from what appears to be a completely different direction. They’re only a couple of years apart age-wise, aren’t they?

    This seems to be our week for reviews of books by one half of a sibling feud … first Margaret Drabble and now Christopher Hitchens.

  4. 時計 ブランド
    October 5, 2013

    オークリー 芸能人

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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