The mother of three – mild -mannered, tall, greying Louise Brooks bob – is wondering whether she should really be telling me all this: about how she met her husband when they were both Trotskyite students at York University in the early Seventies; how they lived together before getting married in 1983; how they moved here, to this leafy suburb of Oxford, 15 years ago when their first child was born and she decided to give up her job as a solicitor; how they first became disillusioned with socialism after an ill-mannered IRA-supporter threatened to push her husband’s teeth down his throat at a Labour Party meeting. Is it wise? Perhaps not, but something’s got to kill the time. It’s a sticky hot day. No breeze. I am sitting nursing a lime cordial. Eve Ross Hitchens – she kept her maiden name as a middle name – is standing, rocking her three-month-old baby in her arms. We both check our watches surreptitiously. So far, her husband, the right-wing pundit Peter Hitchens, has been gone an hour – the Telegraph’s photographer took him off in search of a hillside with views over Oxford.
I crack my knuckles. Mrs Hitchens offers me another lime juice. We smile politely at each other and incline our wrists slightly to check the time, again. I try to imagine what it must be like being married to Peter Hitchens. He could hate for Britain. He hates Tony Blair. He hates John Major. He hates television. On his twice-weekly programme on Talk Radio, and in the pages of the Daily Express, where he has worked since 1977, Peter Hitchens never tires of conveying his hatred of the single currency and the promotion of homosexuality and single mothers. He wants to bring back hanging – as well as the firm hand of the Establishment, Anglican values and a sense of pride in British history. Above all, he believes the victory of the liberal progressive Left in the Sixties left Britain in a moral vacuum – and that the only way we as a society can get ourselves out of it is by recognising the importance of the family. Which is sort of what John Major used to say. And Tony Blair still does.
Just imagine being married to Peter Hitchens, then. Imagine having your marriage held up as the socio-political ideal. How does Eve cope? ‘I don’t like to dwell on it too much,’ she says with an apprehensive smile. ‘I feel a bit superstitious about it actually – in case our marriage suddenly falls apart. But you have to understand that my husband only says these things because he cares very passionately about them.’
The passion is not immediately apparent as Peter Hitchens returns – phew – and sits down on the sofa opposite. Nor is the expected severity. He seems calm, relaxed and, if anything, jovial. He has a toothy, boyish smile. And he lolls a bit, rather than sitting ramrod-backed. In conversation he doesn’t rant so much as express himself articulately with polite assertion in a tone only occasionally bordering on the indignant.
There is something quite intense about his manner and appearance, though – the bristling Jack Russell, testing the air for a rabbit or a rat. He has a short back and sides, big intense eyes and big intense eyebrows to match. He wears a blue, open-neck shirt but no tie – which is surprising, given his belief that the rot set in when gentlemen stopped wearing them, at all times, even weekends.
We are having one of those enjoyable exchanges about the good old days that only people too young to remember them can have. Things were a damn sight better then. In the days before the country went to the dogs. Oh yes. ‘If we had managed to combine the prosperity we have now with the moral structure and security and restraint and good behaviour which were commonplace 40 years ago, we would be much better off,’ Hitchens concludes in a rich, measured, World Service baritone. ‘People could think for themselves then. A lot of young people today are living dismal lives because their lives are empty of meaning and moral purpose…’ And so on.
I nod. He’s very persuasive. But so he should be. This, after all, is the theme of the book he has just written. The Abolition of Britain, published this week, is a full-length indictment of modern Britain and the profound changes which threaten its existence. It says so on the back cover. I might add that it is also carefully researched, thought-provoking and really rather lyrical. But there are some wrinkles. Surely the majority of the population must have been just as blandly conformist and unquestioning 40 years ago as they are today, certainly in the way they dressed and behaved? Hitchens folds his arms, shakes his head and sighs.
‘To imagine there was nothing wrong then would be absurd,’ he says. ‘Of course. Half the changes that happened in the Sixties happened because people were discontented. But they came up almost invariably with the wrong solutions. Comprehensive schools were not the answer to grammar schools. There was a completely unjustified loss of nerve by the ruling elite, a loss of confidence and pride. We had a very successful, peaceful, prosperous and civilised society, which quite a lot of other countries want to emulate.’
Hitchens looks as though he’s trying to suppress a smile as he says this, and it makes you wonder whether he can really be as angry as he wants you to believe he is. Doesn’t he ever catch himself slipping into character? ‘Yes of course. You are bound to. But it doesn’t mean you are being phoney. The willingness of people to accept the destruction of their own culture without complaint makes me genuinely angry. Not enough people realise something precious is being lost.’
Come off it, I find myself saying, things can’t be as bad as all that. ‘Oh but they are. Terrible, terrible. What will I be nostalgic about in 20 years’ time? Having glass in my window rather than corrugated iron? I think we are in a state of total social disintegration. People in the south-east who never visit their own country, who never see, as I have seen, a northern housing estate, just aren’t aware of how far things have gone.’
According to William Burroughs – homosexual, heroin-addict, conservative – a paranoid person is someone who knows what is going on. I take a deep breath. It is time to mention the ‘p’ word. ‘Paranoid?’ Hitchens says. ‘Me? I object to the use of psychiatric terms in politics. You could say that it’s a good thing that there are people like me who worry more than other people – who are more… you could say paranoid, you could say obsessive, I would say, “more sensitive to what is going on around them”.’
Hitchens knows that people might laugh at him. ‘But I don’t mind. It’s a defence. I remember when I was in the Industrial Correspondents’ Group I didn’t go along, well, to put it politely, fellow-travelling with the Left. I decided to cultivate the right wing of the Engineering Union instead. This was considered an act of great eccentricity and the word “bonkers” was used. People called me bonkers. Well, OK. Tough. Just because I’m not running with the pack. Journalists are pack animals. And they are fantastically incurious as well. They know what they want to find and they find it, and once you step outside that pack you can expect to be called names.’
Which of course is exactly what he wants because, for all his commitment to his beliefs, Hitchens recognises that he is partly driven by a spirit of competitiveness, a pure love of argument. ‘I suppose so, yes. I don’t like losing. And often in an argument I feel confident I can come out on top. I’m not trying to destroy the other person, just their argument. Some people enjoy drinking or driving very fast, some enjoy arguing. It is just as exhilarating.’
But when I suggest that he sometimes exaggerates his case to win an argument, I am given a glimpse of his darker, more bullying side. He glowers at me and asks that I give him some examples. Well, I say, comparing the liberal revolution in Britain to the Cultural Revolution in China. It is just too extreme. Much as they might have secretly liked to, the Labour Party has never paraded right-wing professors wearing dunce’s hats. They have never committed human rights abuses or censored the right-wing press or imprisoned, exiled or executed dissidents.
‘Is it too extreme a comparison?’ Hitchens asks. ‘How old are you, 34? Well I am 47 and I grew up in a Britain that has completely disappeared today. That is to say my father was a British naval officer and then he worked in private schools – places where the country retained a lot of its pre-revolutionary characteristics. So I am older in experience than I am in years. I know an England that people in their sixties would have known. And it has changed utterly. And the revolutionaries have been quite vicious in the way that they have excluded those that haven’t agreed with them. They don’t kill, they don’t reduce to penury or chuck into cesspits, they just exclude. You don’t read Kierkegaard do you?’
Er . . .
‘No, neither do I. But he said the most effective revolutions are those that strip the essence but leave everything standing.’
Presumably Hitchens must have found out what he knows about Kierkegaard as a student studying philosophy and politics. ‘Pah! I read Trotsky at university. I spent most of my time going up to Scarborough to run a cell of Trotskyite workers in a coach station, that and selling the Socialist Worker at the docks.’
A Burmese cat ambles in and curls itself around my leg. The baby has started crying upstairs. There is no television in the sitting-room. There is, though, a framed Solidarity poster on the wall and a display of antique, East-European currencies. In the same display case there is an arrangement of press passes showing Peter Hitchens down the ages: from young, bearded and idealistic to middle-aged, clean-shaven and… idealistic. They chronicle all the Reagan-Gorbachev summits. They also chart the five years Hitchens spent first as Moscow correspondent then Washington correspondent. There is also a photograph of his father, Commander Eric Hitchens, in uniform. It was taken in 1927.
Until an eye defect prevented him, Peter Hitchens had hoped to be a navy officer, too. Becoming a Trotskyite activist instead seems to have been an extreme alternative. But he doesn’t identify this as an act of rebellion against his father. ‘No. It was much more a feeling that I had been brought up for a world that no longer existed. That all the impulses that would have gone into a normal English patriotism and Anglican belief suddenly found they had no home to go to. I was seeking another loyalty.’
Nevertheless, he was a rebel at boarding school. He had a peripatetic childhood: born in Malta, prep school in Devon, schools in Chichester, Cambridge and Oxford. There were incessant rows about his appearance, especially his hair. He wasn’t sporting. And his chief problem was with school food. As a protest he would only eat breakfast. He also showed an early tendency toward pedantry. At one school, in Cambridge, he discovered that a line drawn on the school map of the town, showing the point beyond which pupils were not allowed to cross, did not reach to the top of the page – so he would cycle up to where the line stopped and cross, legally, into the town from there.
On another occasion, when he was arrested for breaking into a government fall-out shelter, there was ‘a terrible scene. My diplomatic relations with the school and my parents broke down. I finished my education here in Oxford at the College of Further Education. I put myself back by a year. Made sure I would never get into Oxbridge. It was my own fault. If I’d been my parents, I wouldn’t have let me get away with it. I must have been a severe disappointment to them then.’
Both his parents are dead now. His father died 11 years ago, his mother 25 years – just after he had graduated from York and started his first proper job on the Swindon Evening Advertiser. ‘My mother killed herself in rather distressing circumstances,’ he says bluntly. ‘I acknowledge it – I have rather distressing feelings about it – I don’t want to make a business of it here.’
His parents’ marriage had broken down after his mother, Yvonne, had had an affair with a defrocked vicar. The first report of her death was that she had been murdered in Athens. Christopher Hitchens, Peter’s elder brother by two and half years, flew down to Athens and found a suicide note addressed to him. He discovered from the hotel bill that his mother had been trying to phone him in London. Ten years later, it emerged that Yvonne was Jewish, and that she had wanted to keep this a secret from her (Protestant) family. This, of course, made the two sons Jewish, as well – and the revelation came as something of a shock to the fervently Christian Peter.
Christopher, a militant atheist, is probably the most famous and certainly the most controversial British journalist working in America. He is as left-wing as his brother is right. In their public lives the sibling rivalry between the two is on an epic scale. Indeed, the scrapping Hitchens brothers have been described as the Liam and Noel Gallagher of political thought. But, really, if you think about it, they are very alike.
Admittedly, Peter is more dapper, leaner, cleaner-cut, brittle and repressed: Christopher is more shambling, tousle-haired, jowly, flamboyant and cool. And true, Peter stands for family values and goes to church every Sunday: Christopher is pleased to be known as a drunk and a wastrel. Martin Amis says that Christopher likes the smell of cordite and, according to Jonathan Raban, he has the manner of a lazy Balliol dandy, with the killer instinct of a pit bull terrier. The same applies to Peter. They are both controversialists. They are both contrary. They are both, as they used to say in the good old days, too clever by half.
Christopher manages to appear off-the-scale liberal yet is anti-abortion, he writes books attacking not only Mother Teresa but also Bill Clinton. Not for nothing is his collection of essays called For the Sake of Argument. If he is a right-wing Leftie, his brother is a left-wing Rightie. Peter shares the killer instinct, the love of humiliating his opponents in a debate. Except that his are the views of a York University student who found one faith – Trotskyism – and like so many (Paul Johnson springs to mind), dropped it in favour of another God.
And Peter, it seems, is incapable of adopting a world view lightly or with reservation. He has to immerse himself in it utterly, fanatically. ‘If it hadn’t been for the loss of the Trotskyite system of belief, my religious faith might not have come so quickly,’ he says. ‘Once you’ve had a world view you can’t cope without one. I don’t suffer from doubts. In terms of my faith I suffer from surprise that some people don’t believe. When people ask in shock if I believe in God, I say, “Well, don’t you?”‘
Christopher has said that the ugliness of his younger brother’s hack arguments on subjects such as the need for capital punishment makes him cringe. He adds that he admires Peter’s muscular prose, but qualifies this by saying that he sounds like Denis Thatcher without the sherry and jokes. The fundamental point of conflict between the brothers, though, is over religion. ‘Yes,’ Peter Hitchens nods. ‘I think so. Everything else flows from that. His socialism is his private religion and he spends an awful lot of time arguing with God. I mean, why write a book attacking Mother Teresa? The whole reason he finds her objectionable is that she thinks death is not the end and faith is important. And if you were confident that both these things were worthless propositions, it wouldn’t worry you, would it?’
Are they both role-playing? ‘Oh yes. Canada is all about not being the United States. Being Peter Hitchens is all about not being Christopher Hitchens. Of course it is. Brothers compete. We’ve been fighting since we were children. We have private jokes and we mock each other. But just because it’s a performance, doesn’t mean the difference isn’t genuine.’
The difference may be at a deeper level, too. Christopher Hitchens has said that he doesn’t know why his parents ever married. ‘My mother had charisma, father was a conservative, stodgy guy. She was a liberal. I take after her, my brother wants to be my old man.’ I’m sure Peter Hitchens may have wanted to be like his father, but I don’t think he was desperate for his father’s approval. On the contrary, he seems to have spent a career searching for disapproval from everyone – everyone, that is, except his mischief-making brother whom, I think, he secretly, perversely wants to please. Peter needs Christopher to define him just as much as he needs a world view to conform to, be it Trotskyite or Anglican.
He has a vulnerable side, then. He agitates out of fear of being bored. He is, I think, an essentially decent but pessimistic and frustrated man with low self-esteem and, contrary to his claims, a hatred of being mocked.
In the 1997 election, for instance, Tony Blair teased: ‘We have been very generous in allowing you a question. Please try to contain yourself, otherwise, if you are going to be bad, we may not call you again.’ Hitchens hated that.
‘I want to get beyond the ghettos of left- or right-wing opinion,’ Hitchens says, leaning forward on his sofa. ‘Be it in the Guardian, or on the BBC or in the Express. That is why I have written this book. Half the time I just think left-wingers are not listening to me because I’m a reactionary. They think nothing I say needs to be taken account of. Yet we share a lot of concerns. I actually prefer left-wing people to right-wing. But they won’t have me. They don’t want to hear.’
Alas, poor Peter. Always where he doesn’t want to be. On Talk Radio instead of Radio 4, which he is convinced has ostracised him since the invitations to contribute dried up a year ago. At York rather than Oxford. In agreement with Tony Blair over the importance of the family, rather than at loggerheads with him. A poor man’s Paul Johnson rather than the real thing. And, at what should be his moment in the sun – the moment when the Left is in power and he, as a right-winger, can savage them with the joy of an opposition polemicist – he finds himself being smiled at and patronised and trotted out by Talk Radio and the Daily Express as a tame reactionary. Alas poor Peter. Nice chap, though.
This appeared in the summer of 1999. The Abolition of Britain became a best seller. In 2000, when the pornographer Richard Desmond bought the Express Group, Peter Hitchens resigned in protest and went to work for the Mail on Sunday. During the 2001 election he was a regular on Radio 4.