Christopher Hitchens

The better half is cut up about the death of Christopher Hitchens. She liked to read him in Vanity Fair, and so did I.

I knew him slightly years ago when we were both at Oxford and both members of the Oxford University Revolutionary Socialist Students. He was a revolutionary leader whereas I thought of myself as more of a cadre. (What a strange word ‘cadre’ is, meaning both the revolutionary cell and the individual member. I’ve never felt comfortable with it. Of course there is hardly any need for it these days.) Hitchens’ leadership qualities were partly his already burgeoning eloquence and partly because he had the most elegant little Mao jacket imaginable. Someone said that he’d bought it at Hung On You, in the Kings Road. I remember him leading us up the steps of the Sheldonian Building and inciting us to break in and occupy it, which we did. We were on the front cover of the following day’s Daily Mail, him in his Mao jacket, me in a nice burgundy sweater that my mother had knitted for me, and about twenty-eight others, the image being cropped to suggest the numberless hordes at the gates of civilisation.

After Oxford I was distressed to hear on the grapevine that he had fallen into the hands of novelists.

I caught him half way through his long march from the Oxford University Revolutionary Socialist Students to the discontented libertarian Right, when he wrote a regular column for Alexander Chancellor’s Spectator, whenever that was: the Eighties? What a publication the Chancellor Spectator was, by the way: Jeffrey Bernard, Alice Thomas Ellis, Auberon Waugh being scurrilous at the front end of the magazine and selling wine at the back, A N Wilson when he was still a young fogey, a minimum of smug Tories.

I thought that he was silly about both God and Iraq, but he wrote about them beautifully. There was never a hint of Dawkinsian shrillness, and whereas I would put money on a deathbed conversion in Dawkins’ case, the stoic implacability with which Hitchens approached death was at once hugely moving and no surprise.

No one who can write as Christopher Hitchens did can be bad. Similarly, no one who plays the tenor saxophone can be wholly bad, though Stan Getz came close. This was a mistake that Bill Clinton’s Republican enemies made repeatedly.

Tony Blair, curiously, made the opposite error. He thought that no one who played lead guitar could be wholly bad, but he was wrong.

Bill Clinton, incidentally, was at Oxford when we Oxford University Revolutionary Socialist Students occupied the Sheldonian Building, as I believe was Ang San Suu Kyi, but neither of them joined in.

I am reading The Track of the Cat by Walter Van Tilburg Clark, who was apparently in his day one of Nevada’s most notable novelists. He was recommended in a book by Wallace Stegner, a writer I have a lot of time for, but who had occasional awful lapses into gush (see A Shooting Star). It’s set on a ranch in the middle of nowhere, where the family is haunted and occasionally savaged by a black panther that lives out there in the hills. The panther has to be hunted down and killed. Each of the characters – not just the panther – carries a heavy weight of symbolism; especially the Indian. Clark hated it when people compared the novel to Moby Dick; I think an apter comparison is Cold Comfort Farm.

Anyway, I shall finish it. I hope that in the second half dreams are kept to a minimum. Sometimes the characters get tired and their eyelids droop and you think, For God’s sake don’t dream! Of course, the dreams are indicated by Italics and you can safely skip them without missing whether the Cat gets it.

I was lying awake this morning thinking about this and about how the blurb praises Clark’s command of language. This is indeed impressive. His English is rich and rounded, carefully put together, but without ever betraying any possibility of humour. You cannot imagine Walter Van Tilburg Clark, even though since he died in 1971 it would have been just about possible, playing word games with Christopher Hitchens. Ian McEwan and the Amises, Young and Old. Even if he had, it is likely that the sudden stabs of wit that apparently reduced them all to hysterics would have passed him by.

Then I thought about the awful consequences when Young Amis’s characters take up the heavy weight of symbolism and I realised that intense moral seriousness unaccompanied by wit is not wholly bad. And with that I went back to a dreamless sleep.

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