The first time I heard of Christopher Hitchens was when I was spending a weekend at Oxford; my usual practice when an undergraduate at Cambridge. I was staying in rather a louche house and one of its male inmates arrived back in the middle of the afternoon to announce that he had just enjoyed a threesome with Christopher HItchens and some beautiful young woman. As so often in Oxford I marveled at the sophistication of its students.
The first occasion that I saw Christopher Hitchens was I think sometime in my third year as an undergraduate and I found myself in the Gent’s at the Oxford Union ( as I never attended a debate at the Union nor knew anybody who did, I can ‘t think why I was there but I was). Into the room swanned a good looking young blade surrounded by acolytes who continued to talk to the great man ( for thus both he and his torch bearers obviously regarded him) even as he emptied his bladder. His exit was equally theatrical trailing admirers in his wake. As so often in Oxford I marveled at the sophistication of its students.
It was in fact another three years before I met Christopher properly. I had just spent a year at the Ecole Normale Superieure in Paris studying, amongst others, with Althusser and I aligned myself with ( although I had not yet joined ) the Communist Party. James Pettifer, a friend who was already signed up invited me to a Marxist discussion group that met weekly in Ward’s Public House, a drain just off Piccadilly Circus. I was entranced, as so many have been, from the first . And then , and then , and then but where begin and where resume.
Lisbon March 1975 a week in the real excitement of a real revolution where, in very different ways, our revolutionary beliefs began to evaporate.
Manhattan April 1981. Christopher introduces me to America. For more than a decade we will drink and talk through the restaurants and bars of New York.
Pittsburgh March 1988 Christopher gives a talk which will become Blood Class and Nostalgia – the best modern literary history I have ever heard. I realize, slightly to my surprise, that my great friend is a great thinker.
Pittsburgh February 1991 Christopher comes to give a talk against the First Gulf War entitled “Why are we in Mesopotamia?” People come up to him on the streets and in restaurants. He is famous.
And always drink and talk. Of love and war, of history and poetry, of gossip and greatness, of England and America.
And now I am driving down from Pittsburgh in January , rather than my customary April, to nurse my sick friend and give his wife Carol and my goddaughter Laura Antonia a two day respite from his cancer, diagnosed last summer
I am apprehensive with thoughts of feeding thin gruel to a dying man. In fact, however, Christopher is in great form. A brush with death and a gall bladder operation has taken him off chemo and he is practically full of beans. The first night we entertain Willie Shawcross, a legendary figure for me since his 1972 book Sideshow and we reminisce about Laura Warner, my girlfriend of more than 40 years ago and the sister of Willie’s first wife.
The next day we both work and then Christopher feels well enough to venture out to his favourite restaurant La Tomate. More work as Christopher finishes his column for Slate on Tunisia and fatally we start to listen to Bob Dylan. In nurse mode I feel that Christopher should go to bed but we have started talking of Rosa Luxemburg and the end of the First World War. I insist that it is late and he should go to bed but Christopher is adamant – this is the last time we may talk all night. There are so many pleasures in talking with Christopher – the range of information, the constant wit but also always the poetry. Christopher is the only friend with whom I quote poetry – he longer and more accurately than me. I think of Antony before Actium
Let’s have one other gaudy night: call to me
All my sad captains; fill our bowls once more;
Let’s mock the midnight bell.
We talk till dawn