Christopher Hitchens night: a review

Stephen Fry, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Sean Penn and others unite to celebrate Hitchens.

"I'm not as I was," Christopher Hitchens poignantly remarked recently. Afflicted by oesophageal cancer and, now, pneumonia, Hitchens, who I interviewed for the New Statesman last year, was too ill to appear in conversation with Stephen Fry at the Royal Festival Hall in London last night. But rather than cancelling the event, the organisers assembled an extraordinary selection of Hitchens's comrades and friends to pay tribute to the great essayist and polemicist.

Richard Dawkins, Hitchens's fellow anti-theist, appeared on stage with Fry in London, and Martin Amis, his dearest friend, appeared via video link from New York, as did James Fenton and Salman Rushdie. The line-up also included actor Sean Penn (who Hitchens enjoys pool games with), former Harper's editor Lewis Lapham and novelist Christopher Buckley, son of the late conservative intellectual (whether there can be such a thing is a subject for another occasion) William F. Buckley, whom Hitchens often debated on US TV show Firing Line. It felt like a hyper-intelligent version of Question Time.

Wreathed in smoke clouds and looking as if he had just climbed out of bed, Penn (beamed in from LA) opened proceedings, discussing the political significance of The Trial of Henry Kissinger - Hitchens's account of the former US Secretary of State's "one-man rolling crime wave" - until the satellite link failed ("God damn you Google!" cried Fry). Regaining his composure, Fry welcomed Dawkins on stage. Dawkins and Hitchens are often spoken of as one entity (Terry Eagleton christened them "Ditchkins" in his 2009 polemic Reason, Faith and Revolution) but the former made an important distinction between their approaches. While Dawkins's hostility to religion is born of his commitment to science and free inquiry, Hitchens's reflects his moral outrage at what Dawkins called "a tyrannical God figure" and what Hitchens has described as a "celestial dictatorship". In this regard, Hitchens's anti-theism is merely an extension of his anti-totalitarianism.

It was Buckley, who spoke recently of how Hitchens composed a Slate column in 20 minutes in his presence (as the late Anthony Howard, a former editor of the NS, told me last year, Hitchens can write at a speed that most people talk), who appeared next, recalling the moment Barbra Streisand "caught fire" at the Vanity Fair party hosted by Hitchens following the White House Correspondents' Dinner. It was a reminder that Hitchens, whose extraordinary output is suggestive of a solitary, bookish figure, is a compulsive socialite and bon vivant. Fenton (introduced by Fry as "the greatest living English poet") , a friend of Hitchens's since Oxford and the dedicatee of his recent memoir Hitch-22, then read his remarkable poem 'The Skip', the first verse of which appears below.

I took my life and threw it on the skip,
Reckoning the next-door neighbors wouldn't mind
If my life hitched a lift to the council tip
With their dry rot and rubble. What you find
With skips is-the whole community joins in.
Old mattresses appear, doors kind of drift
Along with all that won't fit in the bin
And what the bin-men can't be fished to shift.

Lewis Lapham, who appointed Hitchens as the Washington editor of Harper's in 1986, spoke of how he was "the only journalist in Washington that would actually bite the hand that fed him", placing him in the tradition of Twain and Mencken. Rushdie, whom Hitchens defended so brilliantly during the fatwa, was up next, recalling some of the word games the pair used to play, the most uproarious of which is "titles that didn't quite make it", including For Whom The Bell Rings, A Farewell to Weapons, The Catcher In The Wheat, To Kill A Hummingbird, The Big Gatsby and Good Expectations.

It was Amis, now a Brooklyn resident, who appeared last, sagely guiding the audience through old photographs of Hitchens, including the unlikely sight of Hitch, a quintessential urbanite, holding a brace of pheasants on the Rothschild estate. He described his relationship with Hitchens as an "unconsummated gay marriage", adding that "Christopher, certainly some time ago, would have consummated it very happily".

But the most significant and poignant intervention came from Ian McEwan, who was watching the event live with Hitchens in Texas. "I talked until late last night with Hitch, we were discussing the non-communist left of the early 50s," he wrote in an email read out by Fry. "He can't run a mile just now but be reassured his Rolls Royce mind is purring smoothly."

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Don't blame Brexit on working-class anger - it's more worrying than that

White voters who identified as "English not British" backed Brexit.

For those of us who believe that the referendum result in favour of Brexit is an unmitigated disaster, the nominations for culprits are open. Former Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg made a compelling argument in the Financial Times that the blame lies squarely with Cameron and Osborne.

Clegg, who has first-hand experience of Tory duplicity, is scarcely a neutral observer. But that does not make him wrong. No doubt the PM and the Chancellor are the proximate cause, and should be held accountable by their parliamentary constituents, their party, and by the country as a whole - or what’s left of it if Scotland goes its own way.

Yet journalists and historians alike would do well to probe deeper causes of the referendum result. One obvious culprit is the British press, who, at best, failed to scrutinise the Leave Campaign’s claims and at worst actively abetted them. The New York Times has suggested that using the EU as a punching bag has helped sell papers (or at least generate clicks) in what is probably the most challenging climate for traditional journalism in two centuries.  Boris Johnson, it seems, is irresistible clickbait for the fourth estate. And as Nick Cohen has observed on Saturday, Johnson and Gove, both politician-journalists, have elevated mendacity in politics from an occasional vice to a lifestyle choice.

The search for deeper causes of the Brexit vote, however, cannot end with the press. A different electorate could have taken a different view, as they did in Scotland, which voted 2-1 to Remain.  What was the magic sauce?

Too many commentators, especially those on the Left, have blamed working-class anger. It’s all about social class, apparently. Lisa Mckenzie nearly predicted the result on that basis. Others use it simply to criticise Tory austerity politics. Blaming class can be woven into another favourite narrative - this is about lack of educational attainment. Anyone who has lived in Britain for any period of time knows the class system, the town-and-country divide, and intergenerational wealth disparities as important features of British life. 

Another favourite culprit is racism, as the Washington Post wondered on SaturdayOthers had the same thought, and racist attacks are on the rise. Given Nigel Farage’s antics in the weeks before the election, none of this is surprising. Amidst such scary stuff, many have tried to emphasise that most Brexit voters are not racist, but rather disillusioned with the rule of metropolitan elites. Douglas Carswell is one proponent of this argument, but he’s not alone. The Economist, in an effort to avoid talking about race, asserts that this result was about age, region and class.

Still, this kind of analysis is at best naïve and at worst disingenuous. 

As Lord Ashcroft’s polls suggest, it is only the white working class (if by this we mean C2/DE, though many in DE are unemployed) who voted for Brexit. In fact, those describing themselves as "in employment" generally voted to Remain. Those describing themselves as Asian, black or Muslims overwhelmingly voted Remain. By contrast, nearly six in ten white Protestants voted to leave. 

Brexit was a rejection of British multiculturalism. That is the real take-home message of the Ashcroft polls. Of those who see themselves as "English not British", 80 per cent voted to Leave, irrespective of social class. Those who see themselves as "British not English" voted 60 per cent for Remain. Similar patterns (and similar press involvement) can be found in the Quebec referendum of 1995, which failed by a narrower margin than Brexit succeeded.

Of non-Francophone voters in Quebec, 95 per cent voted to remain in Canada. Those who voted to leave, on the other hand, were rejecting Canadian multiculturalism. Quebecois separatism was seen as part of a struggle for cultural survival.  

Whether or not you call those attitudes racist, the advent of white English (and Welsh) nationalism is, for those of us who have taught modern European history, the truly ominous consequence of Brexit. Do not be fooled by the alternatives.

Dr D’Maris Coffman is a Senior Lecturer in Economics of the Built Environment at UCL Bartlett. Before coming to UCL in 2014, she was a Fellow and Director of Studies in History at Newnham College and a holder of a Leverhulme Early Career Fellowship in the Cambridge History Faculty.