18th April 2010

The bitterest of winters has been transformed into the most beautiful spring. I drive down to Washington through the Laurel Mountains and Maryland in bloom and bud, interrupted by the half mile interchange between the Pennsylvania Turnpike and the interstate 70 – a purgatory of strip development and indigestible food. When first in the States I would see Christopher Hitchens three or four times a term – in New York, in Pittsburgh, in Washington. Now I travel less and his speaking fees are more than Pittsburgh can afford. But each spring I drive down to Washington or fly to Stanford. I arrive to find Christopher, and Carol his wife, sitting in what used to be Christopher’s office but which now looks like a lumber room or rather the set for a particularly despairing Beckett play. It only becomes clear slowly that they are sitting in this scene of bleak desolation rather than their delightful apartment next door because they have taken up smoking again. Ravaged by self-punishment they have banished themselves to what will soon be a remodeled dwelling but is currently a dump.
I go out shopping with Laura Antonia, my goddaughter, who has a sharp eye on the world. We talk mainly of university, to which she must apply soon, and I am struck by how much she knows about the various American schools. It also strikes me , as I sing the praises of Pittsburgh, that the most crucial thing about any university, your cohort, is inevitably unknown when you apply. We also talk about Cannes, to which I have , since she was a little girl, promised her a visit. It seems clear that next May , as she approaches high school graduation will offer a window of opportunity.
Christopher is one of the great talkers and I have often sat up all night listening to him but it is not only age that ensures an early bed. For Christopher has advance copies of his memoir. Despite the unpromising title, Hitch 22, I am keen to read it even when I have established that my own appearance in it is distressingly brief. I am pondering my own memoir and wonder how Christopher manages this very dangerous genre. The opening chapters are both extraordinarily well written and very moving as he remembers his parents. However, if I thought it might be a bit difficult to make the politics of the sixties and seventies interesting, then my suspicions are confirmed. Indeed it is in this rather drear section, in Portugal in 1975, that I make my walk on appearance in the saga . The Socialist Party rally where Christopher remembers me voicing grim foreboding about the Stalinism of the Portuguese Communist Party is memorable to me for another reason as well. When I graduated from Cambridge in 1971 I went and worked for BBC Radio Birmingham as a journalist. Although I had returned to Cambridge for a dissertation on Joyce, I had continued to do some free-lancing and still then thought of journalism as an alternative career. Indeed I was in Portugal as a correspondent for the Morning Star, the paper of the British Communist party. There was violence in the air that spring in Lisbon as there had been an attempted counter coup the month before. The rally in a bull ring was an extraordinary event not least because it was a deliberate show of muscle by the Socialists against the Communists. To say I was overwhelmed does not capture the state of fearful paralysis that gripped me. As Mario Soares’s speech ended, Christopher leapt from the box we were in to the box from which Soares was speaking ignoring both the terrifying drop and the heavies gathered around Soares in order to get the leader of the Portuguse Socialist Party to answer a couple of pertinent questions. It was at that moment that I realized that ,I lacked the requisite courage to be a journalist. Ten years later the opening sequence of The Killing Fields provided me with the simplest image of what Christopher had and I lacked. A group of Europeans are sitting around the table when a bomb goes half – half the table flees from the explosion, the other half, the journalists, run towards it.
Indeed that is what I learn from the memoir, something I already know – that Christopher is completely fearless.
However if British politics in the seventies seems as dull as I remember it, Christopher’s account of his literary London in the same period is even duller. In one extraordinary section he compares his world with Bloomsbury but leaving aside Woolf, Forster, Keynes and suchlike comparisons, the whole point of Bloomsbury was that for the first time men and women mingled in intellectual discussion. The Friday lunch where everybody sat around laughing themselves silly over what happened when you added “in bed” to your Chinese motto sounds like the last gasp of the gentleman’s club.


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