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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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.