"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."