Hitch-22: a Memoir

Christopher Hitchens became dazzled by his “friendships” with the rich and powerful and turned into

The Oedipal children of the establishment have always proved useful to the left. Such ruling-class renegades have the grit, chutzpah, inside knowledge, effortless self-assurance, stylishness, fair conscience and bloody-mindedness of their social background, but can turn these patrician virtues to radical ends. The only trouble is that they tend to revert to type as they grow older, not least when political times are lean. The Paul Foots and Perry Andersons of this world are a rare breed. Men and women who began by bellowing "Out, out, out!" end up humiliating waiters and overrating Evelyn Waugh. Those who, like Christopher Hitchens, detest a cliché turn into one of the dreariest types of them all: the revolutionary hothead who learns how to stop worrying about imperialism and love Paul Wolfowitz.

That Hitchens represents a grievous loss to the left is beyond doubt. He is a superb writer, superior in wit and elegance to his hero George Orwell, and an unstanchably eloquent speaker. He has an insatiable curiosity about the modern world and an encyclopaedic knowledge of it, as well as an unflagging fascination with himself. Through getting to know all the right people, an instinct as inbuilt as his pancreas, he could tell you without missing a beat whom best to consult in Rabat about education policy in the Atlas Mountains. The same instinct leads to chummy lunches with Bill Deedes and Peregrine Worsthorne. In his younger days, he was not averse to dining with repulsive fat cats while giving them a piece of his political mind. Nowadays, one imagines, he just dines with repulsive fat cats.

The two faces of Hitchens, however, are as much synchronous as sequential. In a sense, he has become what he always covertly was. Even at the age of 20 he felt tugged between dissidence and dining out. "Hypocritchens", as he was known at Balliol, was suave, bright, fearless, loquacious, self-admiring and grotesquely ambitious. (I write as one who knew him as a comrade in the International Socialists.) He was a man who made Uriah Heep look like Little Nell. Having worked his way through everyone worth knowing in the United Kingdom, he spied a larger stage in the United States (a nation that was the stuff of his fantasies even as a student), hopped on a plane and proceeded to cultivate everyone worth knowing in Washington and New York as well. If he has not settled in Bingley or Sudan, it is because there is nobody worth knowing there.

Yet the synchrony cuts the other way, too, as something of the old lefty survives into the present. His favourite colour, he tells us, is "Blue. Sometimes red". The tentative punctuation says it all. He still detests Henry Kissinger, despises Bill Clinton, takes a brutal swipe at Dick Cheney (while mentioning that they share a dentist) and, having lustily cheered on the invasion of Iraq, is now honest enough to write of the "impeachable incompetence of the Bush administration" and the "terrifying damage" it inflicted on Iraqi society (though he confines this to cultural looting). He has not made his peace with the insolence of power, simply with capitalism. Nowadays he is a political sceptic, convinced that there are "absolutely no certainties". This is the catch-22 suggested by the book's title: the double bind of marrying a wariness of belief with a conviction that certainties are obnoxious.

It is, in fact, a false problem. Liberals ought to hold their convictions just as passionately as their illiberal opponents. Hitchens absolutely believed that it was right to unleash a murderous fury on the innocent people of Iraq. What was wrong was not the degree of his certainty, but the belief itself. It is absolutely certain that Osama Bin Laden is not a liberal pluralist. The mistake is to slip from this fairly innocuous use of the word "absolute" to a political one. But Hitchens, despite being one of the world's most renowned public intellectuals, was never very adept at ideas. In some ways, Hitchens is a reactionary English patrician, in other ways a closet Thatcherite, and in yet other ways a right-leaning liberal. The problem, in a striking historical irony, is that it is the literary-liberal guardians of the flame of tolerance and pluralism who are nowadays most likely to be cultural supremacists and gung-ho militarists when it comes to the Muslim world.

His double life as establishment groupie and swingeing iconoclast (Hitchens is to be seen smoking on the front cover of this book, the US equivalent of tearing up cobblestones) is reflected in his literary style. Take, for example, this nauseating piece of self-congratulation: "'I suppose you know,' said the most careful and elegant and witty English poet of my generation when I first took his hand and accepted a Bloody Mary financed from his slight but always-open purse, 'that you are the second most famous person in Oxford.'" Perhaps Hitchens obtusely imagines that the faint put-down of "second" will conceal the odious egotism of this vignette, as though he is wryly telling a tale against himself.

This blend of self-vaunting and perfunctory self-deprecation is a common device in his prose, as he recounts some self-aggrandising moment from his career as a war journalist while insisting that he was shaking with fear at the time, or professes to be knocked back by discovering that the great Isaiah Berlin should prefer his humble company while he is still an Oxford student to that of "much more distinguished figures". Hitchens's tutor had taken this Marxist on the make to meet Berlin, along with Noam Chomsky, at a private seminar at Oxford, and "I hope that by dropping these names I can convey something of the headiness of it". The faux candour of "dropping these names" is meant to deflect the charge that Hitchens is a fawning little name-dropper. As a speaker at the Oxford Union, he had the chance to dine and drink with senior ministers, and also to be "amazed once again at how ignorant and sometimes plain stupid were the people who claimed to run the country". The comment is intended to cloak his arriviste excitement at hobnobbing with the powerful, as well as to suggest his own intellectual superiority, even as a stripling, to the pick of the political class.

When Nelson Mandela tells him with a "room-warming smile" that a letter the youthful Hitchens had sent him had brightened his day, he is careful to tell us that he didn't believe it, which, to a reader with the IQ of a dormouse, might make him sound charmingly modest. When he dines with Christ Church nobs in restaurants that "featured tasselled menus", this shrinking violet of a down-at-heel minor public school boy naturally finds the whole experience "very embarrassing", as he has no money. He tells us how he had to swallow his vomit while shaking hands with one or two brutal fascist leaders, testimony to both his self-discipline and his duplicity. Judging from a photo of one of these occasions, he seems to be bowing rather than puking. Another picture shows him chatting chummily with George Bush Sr, although the caption, anxious to forestall any reproving response on the reader's part, insists that he is warning Bush to leave Nicaragua alone and stop trading arms for hostages. The president's genial smile would suggest that he is deaf, or has an imperfect grasp of the English language, or that there is a touch of historical revisionism at work here.

Hitchens is foolishly proud of having been thwacked on the bum by Margaret Thatcher, a tale he cannot stop recounting, but then hastily notes that he could hardly believe it was happening. He is almost as eager to report that the "blind Yorkshire socialist and proletarian David Blunkett" (three of the descriptive terms are accurate) observed how a brilliant lecture by Hitchens reduced a Tribune meeting to absolute silence, but adds in a touchingly self-effacing manner that he doesn't remember the silence "being quite so absolute". He feels, he tells us, "absurdly honoured" to be grouped in the public mind with such great scholars as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett. "Absurdly" because such parity is absurd, or "absurdly" because it is no more than his due?

“At the cocktail party afterwards, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal and Susan Sontag were all vying rather comically for my attention, an undignified scramble that lowered the lot of them in my ineradicably sceptical English eyes." Hitchens did not in fact write this sentence, but it is surprising that he did not. Like "that great Cornish queen, A L Rowse", whom young Comrade H is clearly tickled pink to have sat beside at a sumptuous All Souls dinner, he is "lost in conceit".

Speaking of Gore Vidal, there is a fulsome comment by him about Hitchens on the dust jacket; but because Hitchens has fallen out with him over the downing of the World Trade Center, he has, as a man of principle, scored the comment through in proof and scribbled a "no" beside it. The dust jacket reproduces the proof. Fortunately, however, he has crossed out Vidal's remarks very lightly, which allows us still to read them.

It is not that Hitchens is blind to his own schizoid nature. On the contrary, he makes considerable play of the tension between prole-loving Chris and arse-licking Christopher, Socialist Worker and John Sparrow, Prometheus and Oscar Wilde (both men he would have liked to be). He is not at all coy about his life as a double agent. On one page he indulges in a curious flight of nostalgia for the working-class movement, yet in a footnote elsewhere he seems rather chuffed that he may have been the recipient of Oswald Mosley's last missive. He relishes portraying his courageous student self taking part in demos and sit-downs, being carted off by the police and hauled before magistrates, and all in the cause of a politics for which he can now scarcely conceal his middle-aged contempt.

What others would see as squalid social climbing, gross opportunism and a greedy desire to have it every possible way, he himself seems to regard as both clever and amusing. (He has it every possible way in more senses than one, boasting of having bedded two young Oxford men who became cabinet ministers under Thatcher. Sodomy can be yet another route to success.) He also trumpets how he once "toyed" with a lesbian girlfriend of the youthful Bill Clinton, no doubt the only way he can claim intimacy with a man who can't stomach him.

It is as though he sees his own double-dealing as a rather agreeable versatility - as testimony to his myriad-mindedness rather than as a privileged, spoilt-brat desire (among other things) to hog it all. One is reminded of the scatty socialite in Evelyn Waugh's Vile Bodies who had heard talk of an Independent Labour Party and was furious that she had not been invited.

If one can swallow one's vomit at some of this, there is much in the book to enjoy. Hitchens writes with admirable seriousness and passion about the 11 September 2001 attacks, Poland, Cuba, Iraq and a good deal more. The old bellicose champion of human liberties and decencies is still alive and well. There is a vastly entertaining account of London literary life, and a chapter on the Rushdie affair that magnificently displays all the finest qualities of a long-standing critic of autocracy and injustice.

Paul Foot, Hitchens writes, was "perhaps the person with whom it was hardest to identify the difference between the way he thought and felt and the principled manner in which he lived and behaved". And with whom is it the easiest?

Hitch-22: a Memoir
Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, 436pp, £20

Terry Eagleton's most recent book is "On Evil" (Yale University Press, £18.99)