Carla Carlisle on Christopher Hitchens

I’d like to thank all the folks who sent me emails of condolence following the death of Christopher Hitchens. These were as touching as they were unexpected. Touching because not all of you were fans of the combative and prolific writer; unexpected because I wasn’t really close to Christopher. In fact, I never met him. I never went to dinner where he was a guest, never saw him across a crowded demonstration, never caught his eye in a smoky Washington bar.

I can see how the confusion arose. We were both at university-albeit 3,000 miles apart-in 1968, the tumultuous year when Martin Luther King was assassinated, nine million workers in France joined a general strike begun by students, Bobby Kennedy was shot, the Russians invaded Czechoslovakia. In student meetings, we wept as we read of Dubcek quoting the poet Hölderlin: ‘And tenderly I pledged my heart to the grave and suffering land.’ Our own hearts were on fire with righteous anger and, long after that year ended, we both lingered in a post-university hinterland triggered by those events. Christopher, the Balliol Bolshevik, became a correspondent for the magazine International Socialism, and I edited a slender weekly called the Molly McGuire.

And then we traded places. He moved to Washington via New York and I moved to London via Paris. Although Christopher believed women were incapable of being funny (Vanity Fair, January 2007), I fell away from my comrades because of a ruptured funny bone. I found it difficult to sit through meetings in which the Albanian question was discussed for hours without seeing the loony side. In ‘criticism-self-criticism’ sessions, I was denounced for growing tomatoes and keeping chickens, activities denounced as ‘bourgeois distractions from the struggle’. When I was accused of ‘petit-bourgeois individualism’, a condition that still flares up from time to time, I knew my Rosa Luxemburg days were over.

I’m not sure what led to Christopher’s crossing of the political Rubicon, although I spotted a turning point in his memoir Hitch-22. It was the Falklands War. He was living in New York at the time and, to his amazement, he felt fury at the Argentine aggression. When Alexander Chancellor, then editor of The Spectator in London, asked him to write about the attitude in Washington towards the Argentine invasion, he leapt at the assignment. He suspected that Alexander Haig, Reagan’s ‘vain, preposterous’ secretary of state, had assured the Argentine generals that the British would not defend their territory at the wrong end of the world. He also felt flattered to be recruited by The Spectator, which was overtaking his old stable the New Statesman as the magazine of good writing.

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Sometimes, his ferocity took my breath away. No one was sacred, especially the sacred. He called Mother Teresa ‘a fraudulent, thieving Albanian dwarf’ who opposed ‘the only known cure for poverty, the empowerment of women’. He had a go at Prince Charles, Princess Diana, the Clintons. In his last Vanity Fair column (December, 2011), following the release of 50-year-old conversations with Arthur Schle-singer, he accused Jackie Kennedy of being the ‘widow of opportunity… savvy, manipulative, disingenuous and lacking the class for which she was so admired’.

Because he was the most provocative and brilliant essayist of my generation, I stayed faithful, although I nearly called the whole thing off over the war in Iraq. Obsessed by Islamist fanaticism, he never accepted that the invasion of Iraq made it worse. When I heard that Christopher had died, I was in England reading his essay on P. G. Wodehouse in his final collection, Arguably, published last month. On his deathbed in America, he was reading the new collected letters of Wodehouse. In an odd way, our lives crossed. Call it the friendship of the printed word.

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