Written on: 20. 12. 2011 in the category: Featured news

Hitchens had charisma and intellect in spades

The best thing about Christopher Hitchens was that he changed his mind whenever the evidence justified it. He started out on the classical English left, rather like his hero, George Orwell, and when he realised that it was an intellectually threadbare gallimaufry of ego-driven career politicians, cynical or witless trades union leaders, and middle-class emoters, he moved to the position of Permanent Sceptic. This is the only respectable position for any journalist of honour, which was easier to maintain in the US than in ideologically besotted London.

I first met him shortly before he made that move. I went to stay with an old friend from UCD, the actress and writer, Jeananne Crowley, who was sharing a house in Highbury with several people. One of them was Christopher; he exuded charisma like some sea-creature of the deep, phosphorescing in the dark.

That night, he and I and Jeananne’s friend Alan Rusbridger — now the editor of ‘The Guardian’ — and their landlord Bernie Simmonds, (who by an amazing chance had been a prefect in charge of us Catholics and Jews during assembly at my first secondary school, Wyggeston Grammar, in Leicester) drank Bushmills and talked long into the early hours.

Christopher was fascinated by Northern Ireland, where I was then living, and which he had visited. He had met some republicans — the Hannaway family, and Tony Rosato: how were they? Over the next few days, I got to know him well. England was finished, he said. The future lay across the Atlantic.

No other foreign journalist could in adulthood have made the great cultural leap to greatness in the US — aided, admittedly, by a radiant charisma that enchanted men and prostrated women. This mysterious force-field, together with his astonishing memory, an exuberant sense of humour and a wickedly sharp intellect, helped make him easily the greatest journalist of his generation. They also explain the high regard in which he was held by other alpha males — Salman Rushdie, Stephen Fry, Martin Amis: these A-list celebrities are now the chief public co-celebrants of his life. His writing style was superb, marred by the occasional crassness, such as calling Mother Teresa a “dwarf”.

But overall, he became in the American mind the quintessence of the upper-class English intellectual: imitation being the sincerest form of flattery, Robert Downey’s Sherlock Holmes is a near-perfect copy of Christopher Hitchens.

I last met him four years ago, at a publisher’s dinner in the Eden Restaurant in Dublin, three decades after our previous meeting. He was late. I had my back to the door — but I knew he had arrived because his aura preceded him. “We were talking about the Hannaways and Tony Rosato,” he began, as he asked for a large Chivas Regal. “How are they?”

He was here to publicise his book ‘God is not Great’, a polemic against religion that was to become a world-wide bestseller. We sat outside till all hours, while he chain-smoked and downed whisky in volumes. The next morning in RTE he breakfasted on a couple of Bloody Marys, after which the journalist Max McGuinness took him for lunch.

He drank a couple of whiskies, two bottles of wine and a few brandies without visible effect. Others then took up the hospitality baton, and in the early hours, they retired to bed, one and all, broken men. The next morning, the still-shattered survivors woke to hear Christopher talking with erudite clarity from the London studio of the ‘Today’ breakfast programme on BBC Radio Four.

Yes, by God, Christopher lived. Yet no matter how much he’d drunk, he would always read copiously before sleeping, and he would travel anywhere for a debate. United Airlines’ computers automatically upgraded him to first class, because he had flown one million miles with United alone: air-travel, my vision of hell, was to him the staff of life. He would have lived in a biscuit tin, provided he had his books, his fags, his scotch and someone to argue with.

Like me, he supported the US invasion of Iraq, and on the same grounds: Saddam was a genocidal monster whose murderous regime could only be ended by force. This caused his final and long-overdue alienation from the American left, which naturally then vilified him, as lefties do. But for the thinking mind, there is no left or right, but different political and social problems, each unique, with its own causes and its own cures.

He was not my friend; we were merely acquaintances who stayed in touch. I emailed him last year after seeing him on Jon Stuart’s talk-show, wittily and urbanely promoting his autobiography (in which he flattered me with a small mention). I bitterly denounced him for his rich head of undyed hair: perfectly inexcusable at his age.

“Ah, my friend,” he replied with a pleasing vocative hyperbole, “do not fret about my mop, for that shall soon be gone.” He explained: shortly before he had appeared on air, that he’d learnt he had incurable cancer, and that chemotherapy would swiftly achieve what decades of self-abuse had failed to do. Thus it was that Christopher Hitchens levelled his lance at death, and without a single subsequent word of complaint, gallantly charged to meet his end.