August catch-up: The Hitch on Americans, literature, liberal intervention and language

Our political columnist on his book of the summer

Share

This collection of Christopher Hitchens’s journalism was my holiday reading this year. Not on a Kindle. It was published in 2011, when he knew he was dying. He died at the end of that year, although it seems more recent than that. It is a huge book, yet such a joy to read that it was all gone in a week and I was left wishing it had been longer.

It starts with essays on Americans from the Founding Fathers to Gore Vidal, taking in Abraham Lincoln and John F Kennedy. Kennedy is the first of the modern objects of the Hitch’s vitriol. The “boy wonder”, he says, “had a Pulitzer Prize procured for him, for a superficial book he had hardly read, let alone written”. That JFK was a bad president and a dreadful person is old hat now, but such observations are always good for prompting discussions about whether he was the second or third worst US president of the 20th century.

The section concludes with a short observation about the thinness of literature about Washington, which is still more like Canberra or Brasilia than London or Berlin, in the course of which Hitch observes that senators in fiction are customarily outfitted with a “mane”. As so often, as soon as he says it, you realise he is right.

In the essays on literature, Hitch always picks out lovely details: “Guy felt no resentment; he was a good loser – at any rate an experienced one” (Evelyn Waugh, Sword of Honour). Yet he writes as if effortlessly from them to grand themes, even reviewing JK Rowling’s seventh and final Harry Potter book, when he is surprisingly gentle about her “attempting a kind of secular dramatisation of the battle between good and evil”. He merely asks mild questions: “How can Voldemort and his wicked forces have such power and yet be unable to destroy a mild-mannered and rather disorganised schoolboy? … Is there really no Death Eater or dementor who is able to grasp the simple advantage of surprise?”

He has a similar problem with the fiction of Stieg Larsson. “The villains are evil, all right, but very stupid and and self-thwartingly prone to spend more time (this always irritates me) telling their victims what they will do to them than actually doing it.”

The book also contains the Hitch’s attention-seeking writings on blow jobs and “Why Women Aren’t Funny”, and a wonderful complaint about service in restaurants. It is either too attentive, when waiters “interrupt the feast of reason and flow of soul that was our chat” to “pick up the bottle that was in the middle of the table, and pour it into everyone’s glass”. Hitch demands to know: “How did such a barbaric custom get itself established, and why on earth do we put up with it?” Or it is not attentive enough. “‘Why are they called waiters?’ inquired my son when he was about five. ‘It’s we who are doing all the waiting.’”

He is entertainingly rude about Prince Charles, devoting an article to a textual analysis of a 2010 speech made by the heir to the throne. This bit in particular: “Nature has become completely objectified – She has become an it – and we are persuaded to concentrate on the material aspect of reality that fits within Galileo’s scheme.” (Galileo being at fault, apparently, for “mechanistic thinking”, which holds that “there is nothing in nature but quantity and motion”.)

Of which Hitch commented: “Nature is no more or less ‘objectified’ whether we give it a gender name or a neuter one. Merely calling it Mummy will not, alas, alter this salient fact.” But what can you expect, he asks, from someone who for six decades has been “performing the only job allowed him by the hereditary principle: that of waiting for his mother to expire”?

There are good and serious essays on foreign affairs, many of them in the form of book reviews, in which the late-flowering liberal interventionist makes and remakes the arguments that earned him such fierce admiration from those who think that military force, even that of the US, is sometimes justified in saving people from mass murder.

From the New Statesman in 2008 there is Hitch’s fine blast against pacifism, including this quotation from Mahatma Gandhi’s open letter to the British people of 3 July 1940, which ought to be better known: “I want you to fight Nazism without arms. Let them take possession of your beautiful island … If they do not give you free passage out, you will allow yourself, man, woman and child, to be slaughtered, but you will refuse to owe allegiance to them.”

As Hitchens remarks: “I must say that everything in me declines to be addressed in that tone of voice,” but that it is a “reminder of how fatuous the pacifist position can sound, or indeed can be”.

The last section collects some of his musings on language, including a late (Vanity Fair, May 2011) essay on the King James Bible. This includes the lovely juxtaposition of a passage from Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians with the American Bible Society’s Contemporary English Version. First, King James: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”

Then the Contemporary English: “Finally, my friends, keep your minds on whatever is true, pure, right, holy, friendly and proper. Don’t ever stop thinking about what is truly worthwhile and worthy of praise.”

Hitch quotes TS Eliot, who said of the New English Bible that it is a “combination of the vulgar, the trivial and the pedantic”.

One of the last essays in the book, although he wrote it at the time when Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was carrying all before it in March 2008, is on the vacuity of political slogans. “Take ‘Yes We Can,’ for example. It’s the sort of thing parents might chant encouragingly to a child slow on the potty-training uptake.”

Christopher Hitchens, eh? It is a shame he’s gone.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Austen Lloyd: Private Client Solicitor - Oxford

Excellent Salary : Austen Lloyd: OXFORD - REGIONAL FIRM - An excellent opportu...

Austen Lloyd: Clinical Negligence Associate / Partner - Bristol

Super Package: Austen Lloyd: BRISTOL - SENIOR CLINICAL NEGLIGENCE - An outstan...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Consultant - Solar Energy - OTE £50,000

£15000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Fantastic opportunities are ava...

Recruitment Genius: Compute Engineer

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Compute Engineer is required to join a globa...

Day In a Page

Read Next
SEEN graffiti Wonder Woman  

Warner Bros’ bold stance on Wonder Woman opens the door for Hollywood evolution

Matthew James
 

Errors & Omissions: moderate, iconic royals are a shoe-in for a pedantic kicking

Guy Keleny
Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

What the six wise men told Tony Blair

Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

25 years of The Independent on Sunday

The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

Homeless Veterans appeal

As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

Smash hit go under the hammer

It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

The geeks who rocked the world

A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

Growing mussels

Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project
Diana Krall: The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai

Diana Krall interview

The jazz singer on being friends with Elton John, outer space and skiing in Dubai
Pinstriped for action: A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter

Pinstriped for action

A glimpse of what the very rich man will be wearing this winter
Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: 'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'

Russell T Davies & Ben Cook: How we met

'Our friendship flourished online. You can share some very revelatory moments at four in the morning…'
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef serves up his favourite Japanese dishes

Bill Granger's Japanese recipes

Stock up on mirin, soy and miso and you have the makings of everyday Japanese cuisine
Michael Calvin: How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us

Michael Calvin's Last Word

How we need more Eric Cantonas to knock some sense into us