Not just those who were dear to me, but the idea of heroism itself: of glorious lives that radically alter the course of history before shuffling off this mortal coil. My bedroom wall as a boy was plastered with posters, quotes and cutouts of the men who I dreamed of being like some day: Bob Marley, Jawaharlal Nehru, Bertrand Russell, George Orwell, Shane Warne, Christopher Hitchens.
The first four I knew I’d never meet; the last two I thought I probably would, and indeed this year I bumped into Warne at a party, but didn’t have the guts to explain that I basically devoted my childhood to trying to bowl leg-spin as well as him.
And it is a source not just of sadness to me, but also shame, regret, and self-loathing that I will now never meet Hitchens, who died last week.
Why not just regret? Because I could have met him, or corresponded with him, if I hadn’t been such a chinless schmuck. I own every book Hitchens has written and have read most of them – two of them twice. I have watched clips of him on YouTube for hours on end, read every profile of him in magazines, listened to him on the radio for whole days of my life, and felt that special, thudding heartbeat that accompanied the landing of Vanity Fair – and with it Hitchens’ latest dispatch – on my doormat.
And yet I never had the cojones to search him out, or to write a fan letter. Henry, a dear friend of mine, did exactly that a month ago, and in return received a long, personal, thrilling reply by email, typed by Hitchens while he lay on his deathbed. It would have been the highlight of my year to receive such an email.
But somehow I put it off and put it off, not wanting to seem obsequious and sycophantic, and convinced myself that – in defiance of science – he would live.
Reading endless “The Hitch I knew” columns over the weekend therefore brought on both melancholy and jealousy. A man I never met, and who knew nothing of my existence or the influence he had on it, has caused me to feel a deep sense of loss, in no small part because it turns out I am a coward.
That is one thing I learnt last week. Another, is that when your heroes die, a big part of you dies with them – but a bigger part of them lives on with you.