The death of a free-thinker

Patrick Cockburn pays his tribute to the wit, warmth, and humanity of his friend Christopher Hitchens

I first met Christopher when we wrote a column together in Cherwell, the student newspaper, in Oxford in 1969.

From the beginning I found him intelligent, quick-witted, funny, engaging and warm-hearted. In the 40 years or more that followed, he became a central part of the landscape of my life.

But my strongest memories of Christopher do not date from when we were students in the 1960s or young journalists in London in the 1970s. They revolve rather around the relations between Christopher and my son Henry who, at the age of 20, almost drowned trying to swim Newhaven estuary in mid-winter in 2002. He was rescued by some fishermen, taken by the police to hospital and diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia.

Christopher was Henry's godfather – though how this had happened, given Christopher's atheistic beliefs, was something of a mystery. But from the time Henry became ill and started his long miserable years of confinement in hospitals interrupted by disappearances and police searches, Christopher was assiduous in keeping in touch with him.

This was not easy. He would repeatedly try to call Henry on intermittently operating hospital switchboards trying to reach a sick young man who seldom rang back. I remember once in about 2007 having lunch with Christopher in central London and taking a taxi out to the far-distant Cygnet Hospital in Beckton on the grim outer fringes of east London. Even Christopher's capacity for cheerfulness in almost all circumstances faltered as he chatted to Henry and tried to raise his morale in his dishevelled room beside a rain-swept concrete yard.

I went to stay with Christopher in Washington in November last year when he first discovered he was ill, living in the spare room in his apartment on Columbia Road. It was an attractive airy place beside the Washington Hilton hotel, its rooms filled with light and almost devoid of furniture but with every wall covered in bookshelves. Even when he was sick, Christopher's literary output was large – something he attributed to the freelancer's instinct never to turn down a commission and the fact that he never watched television. There was only one television in the apartment, which nobody seemed to know how to turn on.

He was already very sick, but the degree of sickness varied from day to day. He was still almost compulsively social and, about half the time, at about 12.30pm he would feel well enough to go out to lunch and we would go to Le Tomate or some other restaurant on Connecticut Avenue. He was then, as he had always been, extraordinarily good company. Unlike many people who are at ease in small gatherings, he was also, more than anybody I have ever known, equally effective on a public platform, where his quick-wittedness gave him an advantage in any confrontation. Ill though he was at this time, he was still energised by appearing in public, in this case debating the existence of God with Tony Blair.

In February I was back in Washington, this time with Henry who was under heavy strain because we were giving interviews about a book we had written together, called Henry's Demons, about Henry's struggle with schizophrenia. Christopher was more fragile than he had been three months earlier, but he spent hours making Henry feel at home.

They retreated together to a second apartment beside the one in which Christopher and Carol lived and where they smoked cigarettes together (I assumed that if Christopher had not given up smoking despite having cancer of the oesophagus that meant that he had decided early on that the prospects for fighting off the disease were hopeless). They sat on either side of a narrow table, talking for hours about Blake and Freud, while I fluttered about emphasising to both of them the dangers of smoking.

Christopher later wrote about Henry to my wife, Jan Montefiore, whom he had known since their sixth-form days in Cambridge. Christopher told me that he had introduced us, though I was dubious about this. What I found so touching about the letter was that there was so little about himself and so much that is so perceptive about Henry.

Looking at it now I am struck by the degree to which Christopher's quickness of mind, originality and perceptiveness about people remained with him until his last days. Through family connections, Christopher knew all too much about mental illness. He saw how Henry retained his mental curiosity, noting that he would laugh at the right moment "so unlike the upsetting tendency of [others similarly afflicted] to laugh immoderately when there's nothing funny, and to assume mysterious and puzzled and point-missing expressions when something is obviously amusing."

I was always a little surprised that Christopher lived in Washington rather than New York, a city which he always told me he preferred. In Washington, where a little charm goes a long way, Christopher was one of the most intelligently charming people of his generation.

I saw him last at the end of May when he was in Georgetown University Hospital. I was in Egypt when I heard he could no longer speak, and this seemed so sad and so final for somebody so articulate that I thought I should see him one more time before the end came.

By the time Jan and I got there, he had recovered his voice, though he sounded weak and was attached to an IV. He tried to eat a piece of banana and choked. He was stoic, but, even though he was taking heavy doses of morphine, I sensed he was suffering from extreme pain.

Nothing is appropriate to say in such circumstances and we spoke mostly about PG Wodehouse, trying to recall the names of characters and stories. I thought I would never see him again but he was so much part of the thread of my own life that today I can scarcely believe that he is gone.

The World According To Hitchens

On religion

"The main source of hatred in the world is religion, and organised religion."

On Mother Teresa

"A lying, thieving Albanian dwarf.... She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.... She has gigantically increased the amount of poverty and misery in the world. The vast sums of money she raised were spent mainly on building convents in her own honour."

On the Bible

"The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals."

On drinking and smoking

"Cheap booze is a false economy."

"My keystone addiction is to cigarettes, without which cocktails and caffeine (and food) are meaningless."

On Henry Kissinger:

"Henry Kissinger should have the door shut in his face by every decent person and should be shamed, ostracised and excluded. No more dinners in his honour; no more respectful audiences for his absurdly overpriced public appearances; no more smirking photographs with hostesses and celebrities; no more soliciting of his worthless opinions by sycophantic editors and producers.... Let this character at last be treated like the reeking piece of ordure that he is."

On George Galloway

"A thug and a demagogue, the type of working-class-wideboy-and-proud-of-it who is too used to the expenses account, cars and hotels – all cigars and back-slapping. He is a very cheap character and a short-arse like a lot of them are, puffed up like a turkey. He has managed to fuse being a Baathist with being a Muslim sectarian and a carpet-bagger in the East End."

This came shortly after the then-MP had responded to a Hitchens question by calling him "a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay". He added: "Your hands are shaking. You badly need another drink."

On George W Bush

"He is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated and apparently quite proud of all these things."

On Bill Clinton

"A habitual and professional liar."

On the royal family

"The House of Windsor has achieved the near-impossible by way of its own negation. Its misery and frustration, which are inseparable from the hereditary principle of random selection – the same principle that undid the Cromwells and will undo Kim Il-sung – are such as to make Britain look more like a banana republic, not less."

On torture

"If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."

(After submitting himself to waterboarding to see what it was like.)

On cluster bombs

"Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect."

On the execution of Saddam Hussein

"To watch this abysmal spectacle as a neutral would be bad enough. To know that the US government had even a silent, shamefaced part in it is to feel something well beyond embarrassment."

On writing

"Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay."

"Being a writer is what I am, rather than what I do."

On Christmas

"A moral and aesthetic nightmare."

On having cancer

"Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another... it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending."

On his atheism

"No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind. But I like surprises."

On death

"Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of paradise and the dread of hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more."

On himself

"I burned the candle at both ends... it often gave a lovely light."

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