Christopher Hitchens hardly needs an
introduction; as a journalist, polemicist and “contrarian”, he appears
to be a one-man road show in rusting armour, travelling the world to
tilt at whatever windmills of folly provoke his wrath. Late in this
often engaging, sometimes instructive and occasionally self-regarding
memoir, he compiles “hate” and “love” lists: in the hate column
he puts “dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship,
bullying and intimidation” while in the love column he has “literature,
irony, humour, the individual, defence of free expression, friendship.”
These lists sum up the passions and themes of this book.
Given the tensions and undercurrents
of his childhood and youth, Hitchens, unlike many who embark on their
autobiography, both understands and forgives his parents. His father
was in the navy, a conventional, reserved man who once admitted that
it was only during the War that he knew what he was supposed to be
His mother, Yvonne, was clearly the driving force of the family; from
a poor Jewish background – which she managed to conceal from her two
sons until well after her death – she was determined that they would
become English gentlemen. Under the English class system this meant
prep school, followed by public school: The Leys, Cambridge.
His mother’s later bizarre death
in a suicide pact with her lover in an Athens hotel when he was in his
early 20s haunts Hitchens still. She had been trying, and failing, to
contact him; for this, he admits, there is no “closure”. He also
confesses remorse at having been a highly neglectful father when his
own children were young. Elsewhere he might tie himself up in elaborate
explanations about his gradual move from a radical engagement with
socialism to support for American conservative policy after 9/11 –
“I didn’t so much repudiate a former loyalty, as feel it falling
away from me” – but here there is honesty without excuses.
An early and precocious reader,
captures well the effect of certain books on his growing awareness:
Richard Llewellyn’s How Green was my Valley, Orwell, Wilfred
Owen and Koestler among others. At The Leys he has a reputation as a
“pseudo-intellectual” and a master tells him, to his great delight,
that he is “in danger of ending up as a pamphleteer.” One might
suggest, perhaps unkindly, that these two early characteristics remain
with him still.
Yvonne instilled in her son that the
“one unforgivable sin is to be boring”. In his memoir, Hitchens
has not always remembered this; he includes long, detailed discussions
of particular political experiences and ideological arguments, such
as with Edward Said, which now seem dated and written to settle old
conflicts, not so much in revenge but because he always has to have
the last word. There is also an odd passage, put in for no good reason,
about what, when and how he likes to drink, carefully explained and
analysed but without any recognition that he might be more than a
and heavy drinker.
What sparkles is his deft and accurate
turn of phrase when pricking pretentiousness: “the bogus refulgences
of Kahlil Gibran and the sickly tautologies of The Prophet”;
freemasons, “the mafia of the mediocre”; JFK, “a high-risk narcissus”,
Havana, “run by a wrinkled oligarchy of old Communist gargoyles”;
Ceaucescu of Romania, “Caligula sculpted in concrete” and so on.
Hitchens is also honest about his
life.” Beginning at Oxford, his conscience (though he would hardly
call it this) troubles him about his privileged existence; thus his
joining the International Socialists and his championing the proletariat
wherever they seemed to be rising up against political injustice. At
the same time exotic foreign travel, dining out with friends, meeting
celebrities, good food and drink, becoming something of a media
himself, also matter hugely. Not for Hitchens the austere and dedicated
life of a George Orwell, for instance. He quotes Wilde: the problem
with socialism is that it “wastes too many evenings on ‘meetings’”.
With a low boredom threshold, the minutiae of ordinary life is tedious;
what Hitchens enjoys is spending long, boozy, smoke-filled occasions
discussing moral certitudes – interspersed with ritual schoolboy
– among his circle of close friends. These include novelists Martin
Amis and Ian McEwan, the poet James Fenton and Salman Rushdie; as a
prisoner of censorship, Rushdie is a cause naturally close to the
heart. Such is his evident loyalty to his friends that one suspects,
according to E.M. Forster’s dictum, that he would rather die for them
than for his country.
Hitchens is a man who needs a moral
cause. As Left-wing politics have gone sour on him he has taken up
cudgels, now declaiming that “the defence of science and reason is
the great imperative of our time.” There is an irony here; for all
his avowed hatred of bigotry and bullying, he comes across as blinkered
and bigoted in his views about religion as his new friend, Richard
Early on in his memoir he announces that “Everything about Christianity
is contained in the pathetic image of ‘the flock’”. Later, he
describes monotheistic religion “where love is compulsory and must
be offered to a higher being whom one must necessarily also fear…This
[is] moral blackmail…” He is delighted when another friend, the
Somali writer Ayaan Hirsi Ali, tells him she has abandoned Islam for
atheism and puts himself squarely in the “Athens” camp against “Rome”
in the conflict between tolerance and fanaticism.
As has often been pointed out, there
is no-one as intolerant as a liberal crusading against religious belief.
The critic Cyril Connolly once wrote that “inside every fat man there
is a thin man trying to get out.” I will not insult Hitchens by saying
that behind his anti-religious rage there is a believer trying to
But he is a bigger, more generous-hearted man than his prejudices and
spleen suggest, as this provocative memoir bears witness.
Francis Phillips writes from Buckinghamshire, in the UK.