‘right wing Leftie’ and raconteur, hates God and bores. But most of all, he hates losing an argument…
Christopher Hitchens likes to point out, he never misses a deadline, or a plane – despite his fondness for ‘strong waters’ and his disinclination to wear a watch.
But what of trains? I have arranged to meet him at Paddington at 10.45am and, according to my watch, that was two minutes ago.
I am to accompany the 61-year-old author and journalist on the 10.50 to Oxford because, as he says, it will be ‘a nice prompt for reminiscence’, but if we miss each other, that will be it.
He has a tight schedule: lunch with Richard Dawkins at Balliol, their old college, followed by a reception in the afternoon and a debate on atheism versus religion at the Sheldonian in the evening, then it’s home to Washington DC tomorrow and thence to Australia for a book tour.
When he appears, wearing a white suit and open-necked navy blue shirt, he is dragging a suitcase, or perhaps, given his slightly ruffled appearance, the suitcase is dragging him.
The look is that of the English gentleman abroad, but where exactly abroad for him is, these days is debatable.
A couple of years ago he took American citizenship, having lived there for a quarter of a century, and he still likes to fly off to war zones and ‘difficult countries’ to file dispatches and/or find inspiration for his polemical essays and books.
And as he reveals in his latest, a pert yet elegantly written memoir called Hitch-22, he has been roaming the globe, looking for trouble, all his life. But when you hear his voice, any doubts as to his true identity evaporate.
He speaks in a sonorous Oxford English, in sentences that are sometimes clipped (his father was a commander in the Royal Navy), sometimes florid. And something in his tone makes every word sound vaguely ironic.
We immediately seem to fall into pre-assigned roles: he the slightly unworldly senior don, me the amanuensis as he hands me some papers among which he suspects his ticket might be lurking.
I find it and slot it in the barrier, but, before he can get through, it closes on his suitcase and a tussle ensues. ‘A dignified start,’ he says, once freed by an inspector.
The Hitch, as he is known, does self-parody well. He plays up to the Hitch image a little – the cool, louche, tousle-haired, twice-married street fighter.
Rarely is he sighted in public without a cigarette in one hand and a Scotch in the other. And according to his closest friend, Martin Amis, he ‘likes the smell of cordite’ and is always on the prowl for an argument.
‘Against the Hitch,’ Amis once wrote, ‘physical and intellectual opposition are equally futile.’ His favoured technique when debating is charm followed by the abrupt, flick-knife withdrawal of charm.
We settle in our seats on the train and take in the scenery as the suburbs turn to fields. He used to do this journey a lot, he says, not least because he stayed on in Oxford for a year after graduating.
‘My girlfriend was still doing her final year. I was looking for a job in London and, alas, I found one.’ It was with The Times Educational Supplement.
Getting fired six months later proved a good thing, leading as it did to a job on the New Statesman, where he joined a set that is now part of literary legend.
‘It’s funny,’ he says, ‘this thing about being in a set. We didn’t think it was at the time.’ Either way, the roll call was impressive, with Clive James, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie and James Fenton among the names.
Every Friday they would gather for a lunch and, as Hitchens acknowledges in Hitch-22, it’s hard to convey the atmosphere because ‘you had to be there’.
Their favourite game was word replacement, so that, say, house became sock, as in Bleak Sock, The Sock of the Rising Sun and so on.
Those lunches, I suggest, must have been horribly competitive and self regarding.
‘Julian Barnes has described them as being “shouty”, but I don’t remember them like that. I don’t think I was competitive. Clive said a lovely thing about me once, which was that I was the cause of wit in others. I should have used it as a blurb.’ He slaps the table. ‘In fact, why the f— didn’t I?’
He gets to his feet and steadies himself against the motion of the train. ‘Come and look at this. I’ve always loved this part of the journey. In a few seconds we will glimpse Christ Church.’ We do, and, five minutes later, we are in his hotel.
As he’s checking in, he rather deftly dispatches me to the bar, a suggestion rather than an order, one made almost under his breath, as if he is talking to the concierge:
‘I imagine there’s time for a Johnnie Walker Black Label, no ice, Perrier on the side.’
We sit outside so as he can light up a Rothmans and, for the next 45 minutes or so, unless you hear otherwise, you must assume he is always lighting one up (that’s a line from a Martin Amis novel, by the way).
With the sound of woodpigeons and church bells in the background, I ask about his childhood stutter. It went away, but the idea that the ferociously fluent Hitch could have been vulnerable in this way is intriguing.
Are there any other insecurities we should know about?
‘Money. Never had enough growing up. And I’m full of self-loathing that I don’t speak another language well. And I would have liked to have run for a seat in Parliament. Think less of myself for not doing it.’
He draws on his cigarette. ‘I don’t have any terrific self-esteem issues but I do sometimes realise I’ve been too lucky and that I’m over praised. It makes me nervous. I have this sense of being overrated.’
A sip of Scotch. ‘Another insecurity is that I never like to lose an argument, even a domestic one. Even when it might not matter.’
Does that make him difficult to live with? ‘It must do. In fact, I know it does. It’s a vice.’ What’s wrong with losing an argument? ‘What a question! I would feel it was a defeat.’
Although he often uses humour as a weapon, he can turn nasty, go into flame-thrower mode. What happens to him in those moments? Is it the red mist?
‘It doesn’t take much to make me angry. Don’t care about getting it back in return. There are all kinds of stupid people that annoy me but what annoys me most is a lazy argument.
‘People being too easily pleased. I’m amazed they settle for so little. But a gentleman is someone who is never rude by accident.’
I once saw Hitchens in a television debate with the elderly Charlton Heston, arguing about the first Iraq war. At one point he snapped and told Heston to keep his hairpiece on.
Does he ever regret such personal attacks? ‘No, in a debate there’s no point in not doing it. I don’t regret that one because he f—ing asked for it. But if you worry you’ve gone too far it’s usually a sign that you have not gone far enough.’
Politically he considers himself an advocate of secular liberalism. Others describe him as a contrarian, a term he doesn’t much care for.
Either way, he was, and is, a formidable advocate of the war on Iraq and this has left him as something of a punch bag on the internet.
Not that he cares. He does feuds well, having had a public spat not long ago with the MP George Galloway, who memorably dismissed Hitchens as a ‘drink-sodden ex-Trotskyist popinjay’. (Hitchens only took exception to the suggestion that he couldn’t hold his liquor.)
He certainly doesn’t look like a hard drinker, although he does acknowledge that his looks have declined so much that now only women will go to bed with him. It’s a good line, one that alludes to the bisexuality of his youth.
In Hitch-22 he ‘claims’ two young men who later became members of Margaret Thatcher’s government. So, come on then, who were they? ‘I’m amazed no one has guessed. But no comment. And please don’t bother David Heathcoat-Amory.’
His memoir is selective, not least on the subject of his womanising. Even his former girlfriend Anna Wintour, the editor in chief of US Vogue, doesn’t get a look in.
Neither does his ex-wife, Eleni Meleagrou, whom he met while working as a foreign correspondent in Cyprus, or indeed his current one, the Californian writer Carol Blue.
‘No, didn’t do any of that.’ Why not? ‘This might sound conceited, but if you were doing it properly there were quite a lot. And also you enrage people you leave out. If you leave everyone out then you are in the clear.’
As a youth he was a paid-up Trotskyite: the visit to Cuba, the manning of the picket lines, the selling of Socialist Worker on street corners.
When arrested after a sit-in, he sang The Internationale in the dock, fists raised in the approved defiant manner.
In retrospect, was he playing up to a romantic image of himself?
‘No, there was no role-playing. At Oxford there was a guy called Gyles Brandreth who set out to make himself into a Ken Tynan. Wore a cloak. Spoke at the Oxford Union.
‘Took his girlfriend up in a monoplane. I remember thinking, whatever happens, these are not going to be known as “the Brandreth years”. I shall make sure of that. Do you mind if I shade my eyes? They are light sensitive.’
He pops on his sunglasses. ‘You must tell me if I am being boring. You must be blunt with me.’ Fear of boring people, and people boring him, has been the driving force in his life, he reckons, and the reason for his drinking.
It’s also what makes him so readable, although it wasn’t until his last book that he enjoyed a commercial success.
What was it about God is Not Great that clicked with the reading public?
‘I think it was a desire to push back against theocratic bullying. The violence in the Bible is appalling. And written by people who were terrified a lot of the time and brutally, barbarically ignorant.’
He has three children; what if they get religious on him?
‘As Jeeves might say, the contingency is a remote one. I can’t claim any credit for this, but I think with all three of them their sense of the ridiculous would be too strong.’
Though he had long been an atheist, there were two episodes that galvanised him into his crusade against organised religion.
The first was the fatwa against his friend Salman Rushdie in 1989; the second was the attack on the twin towers.
As he watched the news coverage he ‘swore a sort of oath to remain coldly furious until these hateful forces had been brought to a most strict and merciless account’.
Has it brought out the worst in his former allies on the Left?
‘Yes, at the time of the fatwa I was appalled that anyone with a Marxist background could find any excuse for the Ayatollah. And after 9/11 I realised there was a modern Left accommodation with Islam.
‘People like Galloway, to name the creepiest of them, feel let down by the British working classes from an insurrection point of view, so then they say: “Ah, disaffected Muslim youth are the new revolutionary force”.’
It was Hitchens who came up with the term Islamofascist; has he had death threats from them? ‘Yes, and if you read their communiqués, so have you. It’s nothing special.’
The Commander, as his father was known to his sons, would gather the family together every Boxing Day to toast the sinking of the German battleship Scharnhorst, an action he had been part of.
To what extent has his life been a reaction against his father? After all, his father was taciturn, he is garrulous.
‘We could not have been less alike. My father was not much of a presence in my life when I was growing up. I saw him as a rather weak person, or too effaced by life.
When I moved to London he called me up to say he liked something I had written from the Lebanon, adding that he thought I had been brave to go there.
So unlike him. I did wonder after that whether by going to these dangerous places I was compensating in some way for not having had to fight in wars.’
What was he like as a father? Was he the Commander? ‘Abnormally no good at the childhood stage. I am always impressed by how women get a grip of things.’
His own mother lost her grip after her sons had left home. She had an affair with a defrocked priest, which ended in a suicide pact in Athens. Hitchens refers to it as a lacerating, howling moment in his life.
‘But I hope there’s no mawkishness in the book. When I read that chapter back to myself I wept, to my surprise, quite a lot. Not Little Nell tears either.
‘The worst bit, in a way, was knowing from the phone records that she had been trying to contact me, because I’m pretty sure I could have talked her out of it.’
He identified more with his mother than his father.
‘My brother is much more like my old man, though you can’t really describe Peter as taciturn.’ Indeed not. Peter Hitchens is also an award-winning author and journalist.
In public, the sibling rivalry between them has been on a grand scale – the Liam and Noel Gallagher of political thought, they have been called – but actually they are more alike than different.
Both extremely argumentative, both started out as Trotskyites. Now one is a right-wing Leftie, the other a left-wing Rightie.
They often disagree on politics, but their real difference is over religion, Peter being a devout Anglican. ‘Yes, that’s true enough,’ the Hitch says.
‘Fundamentally we find the same sorts of things and people repellent. But yes, apparently he has some conviction about the supernatural.
‘I find it very hard to work out exactly why, even after reading his new book, The Rage Against God. It is very nice. It purports to be a riposte to my lot and me. You must tell me when it’s time to go for lunch. I don’t have a watch.’
I check mine; it is time. We set off for Balliol and, on the way, he shows me where he first met the young Martin Amis.
He also shows me the cobbles which the university considered paving over in the late Sixties, lest they be dug up and employed as missiles, as had happened in Paris. Dawkins is waiting for him outside Balliol. Both are wearing sunglasses. The atheist mafia.
That evening, at the debate, I watch Hitchens as he waits to speak, rotating his foot at the ankle like a cat about to pounce. He soon gets the audience on side, making them laugh, then cheer. As Dr Johnson was said to do, so Hitchens does. He tosses and gores his opponent, a desiccated professor who never stood a chance.
As I watch him perform – for it is a performance – it occurs to me that the Hitch has just come from a dinner at which the wine flowed and, given that it is unlikely the Master of Balliol runs a dry ship, he must have been putting it away all day, since that first Scotch at noon, in fact. Yet he slurs not one word.
On my way home, I remember that he signed my copy of his book. I open it up and smile to myself: ‘Well met on the 10.50 to Oxford.’