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Never giving ground

The editor of the New Statesman reflects on the life and legacy of Christopher Hitchens.

In his final interview, conducted with Richard Dawkins and published in the Christmas issue of the New Statesman (and a worldwide internet sensation), Christopher Hitchens, who died from cancer on 15 December 2011 at the age of 62, spoke of how the one consistency for him, in his four-decade career as a writer, was in being against the totalitarian, on the left and on the right. "The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy - the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes." And the ultimate totalitarian was God, against whom (or the notion of whom) he was raging until the end.

Hitchens himself was many things: a polemicist, reporter, author, rhetorician, militant atheist, drinker, name-dropper and raconteur. He was also an absolutist. He liked a clear, defined target against which to take aim and fire; he knew what he wanted to write against and he did so with all the power of his formidable erudition and articulacy. He was an accomplished and prolific writer, but an even better speaker: his perfect sentences cascaded and tumbled, unstoppably. He was one of our greatest contemporary debaters, taking on all-comers on all subjects, except sport, in which he professed to have no interest at all.

Born in 1949, he remained a recognisable late-1960s archetype, radicalised by the countercultural spirit of the turbulent era of the Vietnam war and the sexual revolution. (He reminded me of Philip Roth's David Kepesh: celebrity journalist, upmarket talk-show star, libertine, hypercon­fident scourge of bourgeois respectability and conventional behaviour.) The son of a Tory naval officer and a Jewish mother who committed suicide in a bizarre love pact, Hitchens was educated at the Leys School in Cambridge and at Oxford, where he joined the far-left, anti-Stalinist sect, the International Socialists, a forerunner of the Socialist Workers Party, agitating at demonstrations by day and romping with the daughters, and sometimes sons, of the landed classes by night.

He remained a member until the late 1970s and continued, long after that, to defend the Old Man, as he and the comrades called Trotsky. If there was a parliamentary road to socialism, he didn't seem much interested in it in those early days, though towards the end of his life he claimed that the British Labour Party was "my party".

After university, Hitchens worked for the New Statesman under the editorships of Anthony Howard and Bruce Page. He was operating then very much in the shadows cast by his luminously gifted friends and fellow NS staffers Martin Amis, Julian Barnes and James Fenton. Other friends, including Salman Rushdie and Ian McEwan, were also beginning to establish themselves as unusually ambitious writers of fiction. Yet there was a feeling among that group of clever young men - with their smart book chat and bolshie political opinions - that the Hitch, as they called him, was a powerful intellect and journalist but a mediocre stylist. "To evolve an exalted voice appropriate to the 20th century has been the self-imposed challenge of his work," Amis once wrote of Saul Bellow in what served as a self-description and statement of intent. Amis had his own exalted style from the beginning; Hitchens, certain in his opinions but less so as a stylist, took much longer to find his.


Amis, in Koba the Dread, his 2002 book about Stalin and the British left's historic reluctance to condemn the crimes of the Soviet Union and its satellites, suggests that his old friend began to improve and grow as a writer, his prose gaining in "burnish and authority", only after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, as if before then he had been ideologically and stylistically constrained by a self-imposed demand to hold a fixed ideological line, even at the expense of truth-telling.

My view is that Hitchens was liberated as a political writer long before the fall of the Berlin Wall - through moving, in his early thirties, first to New York and then to Washington, DC. There, after some early struggles, he found his voice and signature style, contributing to Harper's and the Nation and, later, as a well-paid deluxe contrarian, to Vanity Fair and the Atlantic.

I once had a drink with him (everyone seems to have had a drink with Hitchens) in the mid-1990s after we were introduced by the then Conservative MP George Walden. We were in the basement premises of Auberon Waugh's old Academy Club in Soho, central London, and the air was rancid with cigarette smoke. He sat opposite me at a table, chain-smoking and drinking whisky, and he spoke in long, rolling sentences as he recited from memory large chunks of W H Auden's poetry. I felt battered by his erudition - can you keep up! Hitchens exuded what I thought then was a superb worldliness. His voice was deep and absurdly suave - and, in manner and attitude, he closely resembled his old friend Amis, both more than half in love with their own cleverness and fluency. He was engaging, yet I found his confidence disturbing: he knew what he knew and no one could persuade him otherwise.

An absence of doubt defines his later work. His weaknesses are overstatement, especially when writing about what he despises (cleri­calism, God, pious moralising of all kinds), self-righteous indignation ("shameful" and "shame", employed accusatorially, are favoured words in his lexicon), narcissism, and failure to acknowledge or to accept when he is wrong. His redeeming virtues are his sardonic wit, polymathic range, good literary style and his fearlessness.

Until the beginning of this century, Hitchens played the role of Keith Richards to Amis's Mick Jagger. He was the more dissolute, the heavier drinker and lesser writer, very much the junior partner in an ostentatious double act. (Their relationship was a kind of unconsummated marriage, Amis said recently, though Hitch would have happily consummated it at one stage.) Amis was a multimillionaire literary superstar, "the most influential writer of his generation", as he liked to put it. He wrote in the High Style, after Bellow, and declared war on cliché. Hitchens, by contrast, wrote journalism and quick-fire columns and was not averse to using ready-made formulation. Even in his final interview, with Dawkins, he described himself as a "jobbing hack". "If I was strident, it doesn't matter . . . I bang my drum."

After the 11 September 2001 attacks, Hitchens remade himself as a belligerent supporter, in his writings and through public debates and his many appearances on American television, of the so-called war on terror. He supported the US-led invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. In the arguments over dodgy dossiers and unilateral declarations of war, he sided with George W Bush, Richard Perle, Paul Wolfowitz and Tony Blair rather than with his old friends at the Nation.

At last, he had found his grand anti-totalitarian cause. A robust Manichaean, he denounced "Islamofascism", a catch-all term that was so loose, generalised and opaque in its application as to be meaningless. The Taliban, Iranian Shia theocrats, Sunni al-Qaeda operatives, British Muslim jihadists, Hamas, Hezbollah - in spite of their different origins and sociopolitical circumstances, they were all "Islamofascists".

Hitchens believed his mission was comparable to that of Orwell and those who presciently warned of, and wrote against, the dangers of appeasing both communist and fascist totalitarianism in the 1930s. He became a hero to neoconservatives and the pro-war left, the leader of the pack.

How will he be remembered? In many ways the comparisons made between him and Orwell, to whom he returned again and again, as evangelical Christians return to Jesus ("What would George do?"), are false. He had no equivalent to Nineteen Eighty-Four or Homage to Catalonia. He was not a philosopher and made no original contribution to intellectual thought. His anti-religious tract God Is Not Great is elegant but derivative. His polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals, such as Mother Teresa, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger, feel already dated, stranded in place and time.

Ultimately, I suspect, he will be remembered more for his prodigious output and for his swaggering, rhetorical style as a speaker - as well as for his lifestyle: the louche cosmopolitan and gadfly; the itinerant, sardonic man of letters and indefatigable raconteur.

In the introduction to his final book, the essay collection Arguably, Hitchens wrote that since being told in 2010 that he had as little as another year to live, his articles had been written with "full consciousness that they might be my very last". This was, he wrote: "Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another . . . it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending."

How to live

One is reminded here of Duke Vincentio's remark in Measure for Measure when he urges Claudio, who has been tricked into believing that he is about to be executed:

Be absolute for death; either death or life
Shall thereby be the sweeter.

What the duke means is that through acceptance of and resignation to death we may find a kind of peace and a deeper knowledge of what it means to live, or to have lived, well.

Claudio replies:

To sue to live, I find I seek to die;
And, seeking death, find life: let it come on.

The culture no longer throws up a Christopher Hitchens. Today, he has no equal in contemporary Anglo-American letters; there are followers and disciples but no heir apparent.

A J Liebling used to say that: "I can write better than anybody who can write faster, and I can write faster than anybody who can write better." He could have been describing Hitchens, whom death may have silenced but whose essays and books will continue to be read and who, through the internet and YouTube, will continue to be watched and listened to, as he went about his business, provoking, challenging, amusing and stridently engaging with the ways of the world, always taking a position, never giving ground. The Hitch, the only one.

This is an edited version of articles published on and the Daily Beast and in the Financial Times

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 02 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, And you thought 2011 was bad ...

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood