I heard the sad news last night that Christopher Hitchens is to undergo treatment for oesophageal cancer. It had been clear that something was up, after Hitchens, a man who prides himself on never missing an engagement, cancelled the book tour for his memoir Hitch 22.
In an update on Vanity Fair's website he wrote:
I have been advised by my physician that I must undergo a course of chemotherapy on my oesophagus. This advice seems persuasive to me. I regret having had to cancel so many engagements at such short notice.
One hopes (if not prays) that Hitchens tackles cancer with as much gusto as he does his many political foes. I recently spent an enjoyable two hours interviewing him for a forthcoming issue of the magazine. He was a little husky (a tell-tale sign) but otherwise as lucid, eloquent and amusing as ever. I can only say how grateful I was that the meeting took place before he was forced to withdraw from all engagements.
Many know Hitchens best through his anti-theist polemic God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, but his collected essays, most recently in Love, Poverty and War, are where his finest work is to be found. In that volume you will find, as Peter Wilby writes:
[T]he most brilliant anti-capital punishment piece you have ever read; the most thoughtful piece on Israel and anti-Semitism; a marvellously vivid report on North Korea ("I found a class of tiny Koreans solemnly learning Morse code . . . Nobody has told them that the international community abandoned Morse two years ago"); a hilarious account of how Hitchens gave evidence to a Vatican commission on the beatification of Mother Teresa; and a gloriously rude demolition of Michael Moore's film Fahrenheit 9/11.
Hitchens is also one of the most formidable public speakers anywhere today. For an apt demonstration of this, I recommend his 2006 debate with Stephen Fry on blasphemy.
You may not agree with all the positions Hitchens has taken in recent years (I certainly don't) but I think most would agree that our public life would be poorer without him. So, as Ben Goldacre tweeted last night, good luck, old boy.