A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
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
Cross-Atlantic cultural exchanges happen this week in Vulpes Libris.
Monday 30 June: With the new version of Roots starting Monday on US television, Jackie remembers the impact of watching the original.
Wednesday 1 July: Kate wonders about the flaws in Barbara Pym's Jane and Prudence.
Friday 3 July: Guest reviewer Susan from The History Chicks podcast and the Kansas City Star goes back to This is Where The World Ends by Amy Zhang.