Christopher Hitchens: Writer and journalist renowned for his incendiary opinions

 

With customary pithiness, Christopher Hitchens once described the formula for his success. "I can talk, I can write, I've got a good memory and I have strong opinions."

That combination of keen mind, dazzling pen, forthright tongue and unflagging relish for controversy made him for decades one of the most high-profile public intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic.

"Hitch", as friends referred to him, was English by birth, by educationand, most instantly recognisably, by his voice – a sonorous baritone, oiled by a substantial and steady intake of Johnny Walker, in which he could expound, entertain or intimidate with equal facility.

Britain, though, has always had an ingrained suspicion of intelligence on such unashamed display. America was where he truly thrived, as a radical who moved from anti-war leftist to quasi-neocon, as a vociferous atheist (or "anti-theist", he liked to maintain) and as an extraordinarily prolific writer and broadcaster. And, as he also liked to point out, while he generously partook of "Mr Walker's amber beverage", he never missed a deadline.

Over some 30 years in Washington DC, "Hitch" turned into an unofficial listed monument – a transplantedand invariably rather dishevelled enfant terrible, with a licence to shock. He had an extraordinary range of friends – and enemies – across the entire spectrum of politicians, officials, writers and opinion-makers in his adopted city and beyond.

His heroes were a suitably trans-Atlantic mix, above all George Orwell, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine, each of whom he honoured with a book. But their admirer was not just a 21st-century polemicist and pamphleteer. In the starchy and stratified capital, his raffish image had social cachet, too. The annual White House Correspondents dinner, attended by the President, is the great media set-piece gala of the year. But the more select gathering later, at the Hitchens apartment nearby, was where invitees could really let their hair down.

Hitchens' background was what Orwell described as "lower-upper-middle class". His father was a "purse-lipped and silent" naval officer, whom he respected. His mother by contrast, the "exotic and sunlit" Yvonne, he loved. Long afterwards Christopher and his younger brother Peter (later to become a noted conservative columnist in London) discovered that she – and thus they – was of Jewish origin, from a family that came from Poland. The breakdown of his parents' marriage, and his mother's suicide with her lover in Athens in 1973, affected Christopher deeply, as he movingly described in the memoir Hitch-22, published in 2010 just as he learnt he was ill with oesophageal cancer.

Enough money was scraped together for a decent private education at Leys School in Cambridge before Hitchens went up to Balliol, just as the upheavals of 1968 were about to transfix the world. It was a thrilling moment, and at Oxford Hitchens threw himself into the far-left cause, as a proclaimed Trotskyist and correspondent for the magazine International Socialism. He was also a womaniser, but not averse to the odd gay fling – including ones, by Hitch's telling, with a couple of Oxford colleagues who went on to be ministers under Margaret Thatcher.

After graduating (with a third in PPE), he took his first steps in Fleet Street. After an unhappy spell at The Times Higher Education Supplement he found a far more congenial home at the New Statesman amid a coterie of friends whose names today constitute a roll call of the British literary establishment. They included Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Salman Rushdie, as well as his closest friend of all, Martin Amis.

It was at that time that Hitchenshad his famous encounter with Thatcher, whom he had singled out in a piece in New Statesman as a politicianto watch. The two had an argumentative and mildly flirtatious conversation that ended, at least as Hitchens told it, with the future prime minister telling him to bend over, and then gently smacking his bottom with a rolled-up parliamentary order paper. As she walked away, she was heard to mutter, "Naughty boy." The Iron Lady's judgement was spot on.

In 1981 Hitchens moved to America, where he began a bi-weekly column for the left-wing magazine The Nation that would run until 2002. Other assignments soon followed. By 1992 he wasa contributing editor for Vanity Fair. He wrote for The Atlantic Monthly,The New York Review of Books, the online magazine Slate – sometimes, it seemed, for everyone. His output was prodigious; as well as articles and essays on virtually any subject under the sun, he produced 20-odd books over the years, on subjects as varied as Henry Kissinger and the Elgin Marbles as well, of course, as religion; God is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything was published in 2007 and became an instant best-seller.

The bohemian image he cultivated in fact needed little cultivating. The standard Hitchens attire was a crumpled suit, often white, over a shirt with the top two buttons undone. A tie was strictly optional. His hair was longish and tousled, his face pink and slightly puffy. A glass, usually containing the amber beverage, was the normal prop. Though he was a bit of a show-off and loved dropping names, Hitchens was rarely arrogant. But he was always ready for combat.

"Christopher's always taken upunpopular positions; he likes thebattle, the argument, the smell of cordite," Amis once said of his friend. The cordite part was true literally as well. Hitchens was a regular visitorto many of the war zones of the past quarter century, including Bosnia, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. He was an essayist and polemicist, but also very much a journalist.

He was most famous for the sacred cows he slaughtered, however. He urged that Henry Kissinger be prosecuted as a war criminal; Mother Teresa was "a fanatic, a fundamentalist and a fraud," and JFK he once described as "a high-risk narcissist."

His fiercest ire, though, was reserved for Bill Clinton. Hitchens set out his case in the 1999 book No One Left To Lie To that depicted the 42nd president as an adulterer and serial deceiver. "Clinton could change his mind on any issue, but couldn't change the fact that he was a scumbag" was a sample judgement.

His loathing of Clinton led to an epic falling-out with a one-time great friend, the liberal journalist Sidney Blumenthal, who was serving as a senior White House adviser at the time of the Monica Lewinsky affair. During the Clinton impeachment proceedings on Capitol Hill, Hitchens testified against Blumenthal to Republican investigators. Some liberals called him Judas to his face, but Hitchens was unapologetic. The two never talked again.

A later (and lesser) feud, stemming from the 9/11 attacks, was with the author Gore Vidal, and spilled even on to the dust-cover of Hitch-22. There among the blurbs was one from Vidal, to the effect that "I have decided to name Christopher Hitchens as my successor" – only that it was crossed out, alongside a scrawled "No, CH."

Hitch as "naughty boy" featured in another famous confrontation, with the actor Charlton Heston. During a joint television appearance during the 1991 Gulf War, he asked the pro-war Heston (who was then also president of the National Rifle Association) to name the countries bordering Iraq. Heston couldn't, and in frustration accused Hitchens of indulging in a "high-school geography lesson." "Oh, keep your toupee on," Hitchens replied.

At that point, Hitchens, still the left-wing radical, opposed the conflict against Saddam Hussein. By contrast, George W Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq couldn't come soon enough for him. The great catalyst for change was, of course, 9/11. Appalled by what he saw as the left's self-flagellation over the terrorist attacks, and the argument that America had brought the disaster on itself, Hitchens became arguably the most eloquent advocate in Washington of the need to overthrow Saddam Hussein. He quit The Nation, made friends with the likes of Paul Wolfowitz and, in foreign policy at least, was indistinguishable from the neocons.

His conversion led him into a hilarious and celebrated clash in 2005 with the then MP George Galloway, who had accused Hitchens of being a "drink-soaked, former-Trotskyist popinjay." The actual debate between them ended in an insult-strewn draw. As for Galloway's charges, the ex-Trotskyist and popinjay bits were true, Hitchens happily acknowledged, "but not the implication that I cannot hold a drink. Here I must protest."

The cataclysm of 9/11 also led Hitchens to become a US citizen. The ceremony took place on 13 April 2007, his 58th birthday. Typically, it took place in style, at the Jefferson Memorial in Washington DC, with Michael Chertoff, the head of the new Homeland Security department, in charge of proceedings. "This country, this society, has been pretty welcoming to me," he said, and it was time to repay the debt.

The fact that the terrorist attacks were carried out by Islamic extremists also sealed – if sealing were needed – Hitchens' belief that religion, and the "absolute certainty" of its followers was nothing but trouble. When his graveillness became public, there wasmuch speculation that this godlessindividual might experience a deathbed epiphany. But Hitch would havenone of it, though he expressed gratitude for people who said they prayed for him "as long as they're praying for my recovery."

To many Hitchens, who died from pneumonia, a complication of his cancer, was an intellectual chameleon. But there was one constant – the secular liberalism of an unbeliever who had made "a decisive admission of uncertainty," and was committed to science and reason. As he once said, "I'd rather have an argument than be bored." Christopher Hitchens was rarely bored, and never boring.

Christopher Eric Hitchens, writer: born Portsmouth 13 April 1949; married 1981 Eleni Meleagrou (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1991 Carol Blue (one daughter); died Houston, Texas 15 December 2011.

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