A young Christopher Hitchens outside the offices of the New Statesman, where he was hired in 1973. Photograph: Rex Features.
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Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011

A tribute to a brilliant essayist, orator and wit.

"I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me," wrote Christoper Hitchens in his most recent essay. But today, after 18 months, his duel with cancer ended. He was 62 years old. The world has lost one of its most outstanding and prolific journalists and a wonderful polemicist, orator and bon vivant. Hitchens could write brilliantly about an extraordinarily wide range of subjects and people: the death penalty, religion, Leon Trotsky, Evelyn Waugh, the British monarchy, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, George Orwell, Saul Bellow, the Elgin Marbles, North Korea, the Balkans, Henry Kissinger, Thomas Paine and Philip Larkin.

In recent months we had sad cause to add cancer to that list. The series of essays Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair about his illness stands as the finest writing on the subject since John Diamond's C: Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. Without a hint of self-pity or sentimentality, Hitchens confronted his fate with pure reason and logic. "To the dumb question, 'Why me?'", he wrote, "the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: 'Why not?' " Nor did his humour desert him. To a Christian who insisted that God had given him "throat" cancer in order to punish the "one part of his body he used for blasphemy", he replied: "My so-far uncancerous throat . . . is not at all the only organ with which I have blasphemed." And to those who insultingly suggested that he should embrace religion, Hitchens's flawless riposte was: "Suppose there were groups of secularists at hospitals who went round the terminally ill and urged them to adopt atheism: 'Don't be a mug all your life. Make your last days the best ones.' People might suppose this was in poor taste."

I interviewed Hitchens for the New Statesman in May 2010 during the UK leg of his Hitch-22 tour. Over several glasses of Pinot Noir and Johnnie Walker Black Label, we discussed, among other things, religion, neoconservatism ("I'm not a conservative of any kind"), his time at the NS, Zimbabwe (his biggest regret was that he hadn't been tougher on Mugabe in the 1980s) and the euro. Hitch was on form that day, calmly eviscerating the likes of David Cameron ("He seems content-free to me. Never had a job, except in PR, and it shows. People ask, 'What do you think of him?' and my answer is: 'He doesn't make me think' ") and Sarah Palin ("I think she's a completely straightforward cynic and opportunist and I think she's cashing out . . . She's made a fortune and she'll make another. But she's not actually going to do the hard work of trying to lead or build a movement"). Two days later he returned to the US. A month later he was diagnosed with cancer. He never returned to the country of his birth.

It was the United States, where Hitchens lived for more than 30 years, that he came to call home. By the end of the 1970s, he had tired of Britain ("Weimar without the sex" was his verdict on the Callaghan era) and longed for the bigger stage of America, moving first to New York and later to Washington, DC. He struggled at first, eking out a living writing a biweekly column for the Nation magazine and relying on the kindness of friends such as the radical journalist Andrew Cockburn. But the move paid off when he landed a column for Vanity Fair in 1992, greatly increasing his income and his readership. It was also there that he met his adoring second wife, Carol Blue, who once remarked of him: "I was just glad such a person existed in the world." He is survived by Blue, their daughter, Antonia, and two children from his previous marriage to Eleni Meleagrou, Alexander and Sophia.

"I believe in America. America has made my fortune," declares Bonasera in the opening line of The Godfather. Hitchens's allegiance to the US (he became a citizen in 2007) had more to do with its secular constitution and its commitment to free expression but America did make his fortune. By the end of his life, with regular slots in Vanity Fair, the Atlantic and Slate, several bestselling books and a lucrative place on the lecture circuit, Hitchens was earning nearly $1m a year.

His extraordinary output – 12 books, five collections of essays – was suggestive of a solitary, bookish man, rather than a compulsively social hedonist. In resolving this apparent paradox, Hitchens was aided by two attributes in particular: his prodigious memory (as Ian McEwan once remarked: "It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he's ever read, everyone he's ever met, every story he's ever heard") and his ability to write at a speed that most people talk. The late, great Anthony Howard, who as New Statesman editor hired Hitchens in 1973, told me last year: "He was a very quick writer . . . Hitch could produce a front-page leader, which would take me a couple of hours, in half an hour."

In his final interview, with Richard Dawkins (published in the current issue of the NS), Hitchens reflected, with touching modesty, on his status as an essayist. After Dawkins told him that he could think of no one since Aldous Huxley who was so well read, he replied:

It may strike some people as being broad but it's possibly at the cost of being a bit shallow. I became a journalist because one didn't have to specialise. I remember once going to an evening with Umberto Eco talking to Susan Sontag and the definition of the word "polymath" came up. Eco said it was his ambition to be a polymath; Sontag challenged him and said the definition of a polymath is someone who's interested in everything and nothing else. I was encouraged in my training to read widely – to flit and sip, as Bertie [Wooster] puts it – and I think I've got good memory retention. I retain what's interesting to me, but I don't have a lot of strategic depth.

A lot of reviewers have said, to the point of embarrassing me, that I'm in the class of Edmund Wilson or even George Orwell. It really does remind me that I'm not. But it's something to at least have had the comparison made – it's better than I expected when I started.

Hitchens's modesty was unwarranted. In this age of high specialisation, we will not see his like again.

It was God Is Not Great, his anti-theist polemic, that sent him supernova. While Dawkins's atheism is rooted in science, Hitchens's was rooted in morality. He was repelled by the notion that people do good only because they fear punishment and hope for reward. The question he often posed about believers was: "Why do they wish this was true?" Heaven, for Hitchens, was a place of "endless praise and adoration, limitless abnegation and abjection of self; a celestial North Korea".

It is Hitch the controversialist that many will remember. The man who said of Jerry Falwell, "If you gave Falwell an enema he could be buried in a matchbox," and of Ronald Reagan: "Reagan is doing to the country what he can no longer do to his wife." But as John Gray wrote in his NS review of Hitchens's fifth and final collection of essays, Arguably, he was no mere provocateur or contrarian. Throughout his career, Hitchens retained a commitment to the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and pluralism. His targets – Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Henry Kissinger, God – were chosen not at random, but rather because they had offended one or more of these principles.

Over the past decade, many on the left came to regard Hitchens not as a friend but as an enemy. Tariq Ali, a fellow soixante-huitard, wrote: "On 11 September 2001, a small group of terrorists crashed the planes they had hijacked into the Twin Towers of New York. Among the casualties, although unreported that week, was a middle-aged Nation columnist called Christopher Hitchens. He was never seen again . . . The vile replica currently on offer is a double." And yet, contrary to reports, Hitchens did not perform a crude midlife swerve from left to right (also known as doing a "Paul Johnson"). Unlike Johnson, a former New Statesman editor who became a reactionary conservative ("Pinochet remains a hero to me," he wrote in 2007), Hitchens did not give up everything he believed in. He maintained, for instance, that the US invasion of Vietnam was a war crime, that Kissinger belonged behind bars (see his 2001 book The Trial of Henry Kissinger for a full account of the former US secretary of state's "one-man rolling crime wave") and that the Israeli occupation of Palestine was a moral and political scandal.

His support for the "war on terror" was premised not on conservative notions but on liberal principles. As he wrote in a column for the Nation published on 20 September 2001, "What they [the 9/11 attackers] abominate about 'the west', to put it in a phrase, is not what western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state."

He was wrong, badly wrong about Iraq, but for the best of reasons. His support for the invasion arose out of a long-standing solidarity with the country's Kurds (see his long, 1992 piece for National Geographic, "The Struggle of the Kurds", collected in Love, Poverty and War) and his belief that even war was preferable to the survival of Saddam Hussein's totalitarian regime ("a concentration camp above ground and a mass grave beneath it"). It was not an attempt to ingratiate himself with the neoconservatives, whom Hitchens had fought and continued to fight with on issues from gay rights to the death penalty to Israel. But he was too casual in dismissing the civilian casualties (estimated at anything between 100,000 and a million) that resulted directly or indirectly from the invasion of the Iraq and, as he later conceded, too optimistic about the Bush administration's ability to stabilise the country. In his boisterous advocacy of the war there was more than a hint of the Marxist belief in the necessity of violence in order for history to progress. As Lenin once grimly phrased it: "You can't make an omelette without breaking eggs."

Yet those who stopped reading Hitchens after 11 September 2001 are all the poorer for it. They have not read his haunting account of the US's deadly legacy in Vietnam: "Some of the victims of Agent Orange haven't even been born yet, and if that reflection doesn't shake you, then my words have been feeble and not even the photographs will do." Or his unrivalled indictment of capital punishment: "Once you institute the penalty, the bureaucratic machinery of death develops its own logic, and the system can be relied on to spare the beast-man, say, on a technicality of insanity, while executing the hapless Texan indigent who wasn't able to find a conscientious attorney." Or his unique denunciation of waterboarding: "I apply the Abraham Lincoln test for moral casuistry: 'If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.' Well, then, if waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."

The tragedy of Hitchens's illness was that it came at a time when he was enjoying a larger audience than ever. Of his tight circle of friends – Martin Amis, James Fenton, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie – he was the last to gain international renown, yet he is now read more widely than any of them.

In his later years, Hitchens was fond of quoting his late mother's assertion that "The one unforgivable sin is to be boring". Today, as I realise I will never hear that resonant baritone again, that Hitchens's mighty pen is still, I feel certain in saying that the world has become a more boring place.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The hidden joy of charity shops

Mary saw her colleagues at the charity shop every day, but she didn't tell them she was sleeping on the 31 bus.

Camden is a bric-a-brac kind of place – market stalls, blaring music, occasional offers of weed. But the back room of the Sue Ryder charity shop on Parkway is immaculate, with hooped petticoats waiting to be steamed and crockery stacked neatly on the shelves. I’ve come to talk to the shop’s manager, Oya, and one of her volunteers, Mary*, and they are waiting for me with milky tea and chocolate-chip cookies.

Mary is nervous. She is afraid of having her real name printed. “It’s shaming to tell you my story but I believe if I tell people at the right time, good things will happen,” she says. Now in her fifties, she arrived in Britain four years ago from Italy, without friends or savings, having left her husband. The jobcentre gave her an Oyster card and told her to volunteer at a charity shop to improve her English. “So we put her on the tills,” says Oya. “That’s what we do with anyone who gets sent to us to learn English.”

But Mary had a secret. She couldn’t find anywhere to live, so every afternoon, when she finished her shift at the shop, she would go to the jobcentre and laugh and joke with the staff there to cover up the reality that she didn’t have anywhere else to go. When the jobcentre closed, she would ride the 31 bus through the night, from White City to Camden and back again. It was the best way to stay warm. Then, every morning, she would arrive at the shop early, brush her teeth in the staff bathroom and change into fresh clothes – washed in a friend’s hostel room. No one else knew.

The charity Crisis calls people such as Mary “the hidden homeless” and says that it is almost impossible to estimate how many of them there are in Britain today. Most homeless people don’t qualify for accommodation in shelters but eke out their time shuttling between friends’ sofas, insecure rented accommodation, bed and breakfasts or sleeping rough on the streets.

Eventually, the shop manager – Oya’s predecessor – asked Mary what was wrong and her story tumbled out. Between them, with help from the jobcentre staff, Mary found a studio flat and moved from volunteering on the tills to working at a nearby convenience store, where she is now a supervisor. Both she and Oya have to stop to reach for tissues while telling me this story. “Sue Ryder is my family,” says Mary. “Sometimes I want to cry but there are no tears left. And Allah would be angry if I dared to cry now, with all that I have.”

Despite having a paid job, Mary still volunteers at the charity shop on Friday mornings. She leaves at 3pm to work the evening shift at the convenience store. She and Oya are firm friends outside work. Mary brings in home-cooked lasagne for Oya and her daughter – “She says, ‘Eat some tonight, freeze the rest for Ella’” – and Oya invites her round and cooks her Turkish food on Friday nights. “She’ll say working here saved her life,” says Oya. “I’ll say I made a friend for life.”

The reason I’m here is a selfish one. Volunteering for a charity is the perfect antidote to a culture that can often feel mercenary, cynical and ruthlessly individualistic. I wish more people did it. I’m also here because in December, I wrote a piece defending charities from accusations that many do not turn every penny of donations into outlay on their projects. But running charity shops requires upfront investment – on electricity, rent and wages – so it’s too simplistic to demand that all the money they receive should go straight back out of the door.

That article prompted the management of Sue Ryder, which operates 457 shops with 12,000 volunteers, to get in touch and invite me in. Some of their volunteers, like Mary, need to learn English and other skills before they can get a paying job; some are serving prison sentences; others are youngsters sent unwillingly by their schools for work experience. (Jackie, who now manages one of the charity’s shops in Aberdeen, had previously been imprisoned three times.)

Not that everything is rosy in the charity shop back room. Oya says that some people use them as a “dumping ground”. I tell her that I once read a story about a donation of tights that had a used sanitary towel still stuck to the crotch and they nod: “We had that.” Oya is very proud, however, that the store “doesn’t smell like a charity shop”.

As well as providing jobs and raising money, stores such as this one provide a useful social barometer. There are around 9,000 charity shops in the UK and their number rose 30 per cent in the five years following the financial crash of 2007. Since then, the economic downturn has increased trade significantly. Last year at the shop in Camden, the number of donation bags increased by 52 per cent and takings went up by 8 per cent, yielding a net profit of £65,000.

In Camden, close to chichi Mornington Crescent and Primrose Hill, the donations can be eyewateringly expensive (recent finds include a £1,200 clarinet and a £980 Prada handbag), while the cheapest brands stocked are Marks & Spencer and Next. “More people are charity shopping,” says Oya. “And not the people you’d expect. They’re suited and booted. Sometimes they’re famous.” Mention is made of an EastEnders actress spotted in the store.

Because of her work, Oya has been invited to a garden party at Buckingham Palace on 12 June and naturally she is taking Mary. A trip to buy hats is coming up and their enthusiasm is infectious. Here in the back room of a north London charity shop, as the three of us – a Turkish-British Muslim, an Eritrean-Italian Muslim and plain old white agnostic me – drink milky tea, I feel the most British I have all year. These guys really love the Queen. And they love being friends. Stepping out into the sunshine, my overwhelming feeling is: maybe we’re all going to be OK.

*Her name has been changed

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster