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Reviewed: Unhitched - the Trial of Christopher Hitchens by Richard Seymour

George Eaton reviews an embittered, polemical take on the late writer's life.

Unhitched: the Trial of Christopher Hitchens
Richard Seymour
Verso, 160pp, £9.99

With the defendant “in absentia”, as Richard Seymour phrases it, there are some who will deem this book to be in poor taste. But Christopher Hitchens, who rightly regarded the injunction not to “speak ill of the dead” as an invitation to hypocrisy, would not have been one of them. For Hitchens, it was both a duty and a pleasure to combat the sanitised memorials that greeted the passing of his opponents. “If you gave [Jerry] Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox,” was his pithy verdict on the late US televangelist.

His only proviso, he told me when I interviewed him for the New Statesman in 2010, was: “You should never say anything that you weren’t prepared to say when the person was around to defend themselves.” But as the author of a 2005 piece entitled “The genocidal imagination of Christopher Hitchens”, Seymour can hardly be accused of concealing his loathing of the polemicist.

Confirming the adage that the left seeks traitors and the right seeks converts, we find Hitchens arraigned for the crime of apostasy. The sense of fratricide is enhanced by the book’s title (a deliberate echo of Hitchens’s The Trial of Henry Kissinger) and its publisher, Verso, the radical imprint responsible for putting out Hitchens’s indictments of Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton and Kissinger. A Trotskyist in his youth (his party of choice, the International Socialists, was the fore - runner of Seymour’s Socialist Workers Party), Hitchens, the author claims, ended his life as an apologist for imperialism and its most toxic representative, the Bush administration.

One is reluctant to listen to lectures of this kind from a member of a party that uncritically aligned itself with Hezbollah and Hamas (both of which make George W Bush look positively libertarian) during the 2006 Lebanon war, not least one whose prose is as tediously inflated as Seymour’s. To take only the most egregious example, he writes early in the book of Hitchens’s “tendency to opportunistically strip-mine the cynosures of his old faith in order to defend his new alignments in the conjuncture of the ‘war on terror’”.

Seymour undermines his case from the outset by deploying “left” as a synonym for “things I like” and “right” as a synonym for “things I don’t”. In common with Michael Foot’s Labour Party, Hitchens supported the Falklands war on the anti-totalitarian grounds that it would lead to the downfall of the Galtieri regime (a prediction that proved entirely correct). However, the myopically anti-imperialist Seymour can only view this as evidence of Hitchens’s jingoism.

He concedes that Hitchens, unlike self-declared apostates such as Paul Johnson, David Horowitz and Melanie Phillips, recanted almost none of his early positions. Hitchens never stopped campaigning for Henry Kissinger to be brought to justice, for the abolition of the death penalty and for Israel to surrender the Occupied Territories.

For Seymour, Hitchens’s enduring leftism was but a rhetorical veneer for rampant imperialism. Such a judgement ignores the extent to which his stances remained leftist in substance, rather than merely style. Hitchens was wrong – unforgivably wrong – about Iraq but for the best of reasons. His support for the invasion arose out of his 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”). Only the most unreflective leftist would conclude that there is no reasonable debate to be had on these points.

Hitchens, we are told, became a “flack”, a “courtier”, an “amanuensis” of the Bush administration. If so, the president should have ordered a replacement. Among other things, Hitchens acted as a plaintiff in a lawsuit brought against the administration for its warrantless wiretapping programme, accused Bush of “near-impeachable irresponsibility in the matter of postwar planning” and denounced him as an “idiotic and psychically damaged Sabbath-fanatic”. One searches in vain for any mention of this in Seymour’s hatchet job.

A more apposite criticism of Hitchens is that having no patience for social democratic gradualism, he wrote little of the unglamorous but worthy duty of improving the lot of the poorest. His eventual conclusion that a leader’s character mattered more than his or her beliefs was a profoundly conservative one. When I asked him for his opinion of David Cameron, he replied: “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.’” This judgement is now celebrated but I was dismayed by it. Did Hitchens have nothing to say about Cameron’s austerity economics or his sinister alliance with Europe’s far right?

Yet there was no more formidable defender of the Enlightenment values of reason, secularism and internationalism. Any left that is worthy of the name will seek to learn from such a figure, not impugn him. But if one seeks evidence of why Hitchens so often felt the need to deny this association, Seymour’s embittered polemic provides ample proof.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Iraq: ten years on

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis