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Christopher Hitchens: the New Statesman years

Friends and colleagues recall how Christopher Hitchens bagged his dream job as a staff writer at the

When I interviewed Christopher Hitchens for the New Statesman in May 2010, just a month before he was diagnosed with cancer, I asked what he would have done had he not become a writer. "Have been someone else," he replied, "because writing is all I ever wanted to do. It's what I am, rather than what I do." More than any other title, it was the NS that Hitchens longed to write for as a young man. "I considered myself to be miles to the 'left' of it, of course, but still in awe of the review on which I had cut my teeth as a schoolboy," he wrote in his memoir, Hitch-22. Unlike his friend Martin Amis, however, Hitchens did not enjoy an uncomplicated ascent.

He was sacked from the Times Higher Education Supplement for displaying "a distinct lack of interest in higher education" and then became a lowly researcher on ITV's Weekend World. It was only in 1973, three years after he had graduated from Oxford, that he was offered a job as a staff writer by the then NS editor, Anthony Howard. His university friend James Fenton, who helped him wangle the post, was already on the staff and Hitchens began contributing leaders and articles.

In an early piece, written under a joint byline with Fenton (and which Hitchens said "still gives me great pride in retrospect"), he reported from Belfast where, ill-advisedly venturing down the Falls Road, he narrowly avoided being shot by British troops. As he recalled: "I found myself slammed against the wall by a squad of soldiers with blackened faces, and asked various urgent questions . . . Managing a brief statement in my cut-glass Oxford tones, I was abruptly recognised as non-threatening, brusquely advised to fuck off, and off I duly and promptly fucked."

When I spoke to Howard last year, before his death at the age of 76, he praised Hitchens as a "first-rate" leader writer but remarked that he was surprised by how successful he became. "To me, James Fenton was a much more interesting figure. Fenton was a genuine poet; he had much more body to him than Hitch." More damningly, he told me that Hitchens "didn't always seem to see the difference between truth and falsehood. He said he'd been at meetings he hadn't been at, that sort of thing."

Others from the period are more complimentary. Claire Tomalin, then the NS's literary editor, told me: "He was extremely impressive, he really was, the amount of work he could take on and the way he could write." In her words, "he set out to charm everybody, and succeeded".

Hitchens had a prodigious memory. As Ian McEwan later observed: "It all seems instantly, neurologically available: everything he's ever read, everyone he's ever met, every story he's ever heard."

His ability to write at a speed at which most people talk allowed him to combine a life of writing with a life of hedonism. The Friday lunch set - Amis, Hitchens, Fenton, McEwan, Julian Barnes, Clive James - used to play a game in which members came up with the sentence least likely to be uttered by one of their number. Hitchens's was: "I don't care how rich you are, I'm not coming to your party." His lifestyle resembled Oscar Wilde's more closely than that of the ascetic George Orwell: it was Wilde who contended that the problem with socialism "is that it takes up too many spare evenings".

It was in November 1973, shortly after joining the NS, that Hitchens suffered what he called a "lacerating, howling moment in my life". His mother had been found dead in an Athens hotel room after an apparent suicide pact with her lover, a defrocked priest who had become a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. He travelled from London to reclaim the body.

Assailed by grief, he threw himself into reporting the political situation in Greece. The leader of the military junta, Georgios Papadopoulos, had been overthrown by the still more reactionary Dimitrios Ioannidis, who exploited the disorder that followed the student up­rising. Hitchens was proud of the article that resulted ("The Greek lesson", 14 December 1973, reprinted on the following pages), the longest he had written. The junta fell the following year and his optimistic conclusion proved prescient: "In Greek, the word syntag­ma means both 'constitution' and 'regiment'. After a seven-year sleep, it now seems to more and more people that the two words need no longer be interchangeable." He later reflected: "People said to me, how could you write a story, and I thought, how could you not?"

And yet, set against the literary pyrotechnics of Amis, Hitchens's prose often seemed leaden and clichéd. Another piece from the same year ("The Manx fat cats", 10 August 1973) opens: "The Isle of Man Parliament met in Tynwald on Tuesday morning, and business fell into four parts." Casting a critical eye over his son's friends, Kingsley Amis described Hitchens as "the one who can talk but can't write". Acknowledging as much, Hitchens told me that it was Simon Hoggart, now the Guardian's political sketchwriter, who improved his style.

“I think it was at dinner at his house, some time in the late Seventies, I'd written a piece in the New Statesman and Hoggart said, 'Good piece, I agree with you, you've made a strong case this week. But I thought it was a bit dull.' And I bridled, 'What do you mean, dull? I was making a strong argument for the cause of the labour movement. Dullness doesn't come into it.' He replied: 'No, the thing is it's not as amusing to read you as it is to have a conversation with you. Why don't you try and write more as you talk?' That insight stayed with me."

Pedant and scorekeeper

He became "less suspicious of the personal pronoun" and consequently evolved a more distinctive style. Here he is, writing from the 1976 Conservative party conference in Brighton:

Hitchens's Law states that a politician who allows his policies to seem as if they are dictated by those of another party will fail with his own (cf Jenkins, Prentice, Nutting, Boyle). What really did for Edward Heath was the feeling that Tories could not say what they thought about Labour and the unions, but always had to have "responsible" concordats with them.

Perhaps because of his early struggles, Hitchens was always supportive of young journalists starting out. With characteristic generosity, he continued to reply to my emails even as the cancer ravaged him. "Hope you thrive," his final message ended.

Ever the wandering internationalist, he began to write more foreign reportage, filing despatches for the NS from Libya ("Gaddafi's reverence for Nasser is exceeded by nothing but his reverence for himself") and pre-Saddam Iraq in 1976 ("As the situation grows more complicated Saddam Hussein will rise more clearly to the top. Make a note of the name"). Two other pieces from this period proved particularly significant for Hitchens. The first, a long report from Beirut, prompted a rare phone call from his father, a stern military type known affectionately as "the Commander". He told Hitchens that he had been impressed by the report and said that he thought it had been "rather brave" of him to go there. For Hitchens, who always thought that he had disappointed his father by "failing as a sportsman", it felt like vindication. The second, a piece about the US-backed dictatorships of what he called "the southern cone", caught the attention of Victor Navasky, the new editor of the radical US magazine the Nation, in 1978. He invited Hitchens to start contributing to the paper.

When I asked Hitchens why he didn't write more in his memoir about his time at the NS, he said that he "didn't think it would be particularly interesting". However, in a piece published on the website Slate the day after Hitchens's death, Fenton hinted at another motive. "Christopher said he didn't write more about that [the NS years] because he hadn't been happy and didn't enjoy recollecting it. That surprised me, but it was true that he ended on a sour note a relationship with the editor, Anthony Howard, who gave Christopher so many opportunities. They ended by disliking each other."

Indeed, Hitchens later denounced Howard in print as "a pedant and a scorekeeper". The journalist and pollster Peter Kellner, who co-wrote a quick-fire biography of the then Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, with Hitchens in 1976 (Callaghan: the Road to No 10), perceptively suggested to me that Hitchens no longer wanted to be edited by someone he considered an inferior writer. "Tony's editing style, originally a huge help to Hitch, had become a hindrance," he said.

In 1977, Hitchens defected to the Daily Express (prompting Amis to attack his friend for "taking the rich man's shilling"), where he became a foreign correspondent. But he returned to the NS only two years later as foreign editor, under Bruce Page. Hitchens was disappointed when Page became editor, chiefly because one of the other candidates for the role was Fenton. He told me that, had it not been for the opposition of Richard Hoggart, the then chairman of the NS board, his old Trotskyist comrade (Hitchens and Fenton were both members of the International Socialists) would have got the job. By his own account, he had "a lot of disagreements" with Page, but he recalled one redeeming moment.

“I brought to the office Edward Thompson's manifesto against nuclear weapons, Protest and Survive, which I feared was much too long for the NS. I gave it to Bruce Page, with whom I often quarrelled, he went into his office, shut the door and came out afterwards and said: 'No, we have no problem with running every word of that.' And I thought: 'Ah, so sometimes the right thing does happen.' We put Edward Thompson back into the public domain when he'd been excluded for a long time. That was good."

Page also hosted a memorable engagement party for Hitchens and his fiancée Eleni Meleagrou, whom Hitchens met while on assignment in Cyprus in 1977. Kellner told me that Hitchens began his speech by thanking Page "for giving me this party on my engagement to my first wife" - a quip that prompted gasps from the guests. True to his word, he divorced Meleagrou in 1989 and married the Californian screenwriter Carol Blue, with whom he remained until his death.

Coming to America

By the end of the Seventies, Hitchens had grown weary of British politics ("Weimar without the sex", was his verdict on the Callaghan era) and was starting to feel "the strong gravitational pull of the great American planet". "Christopher had to get out of Britain to be free," Amis told New York magazine in 1999. "There were too many depressing memories and connections."

Yet shortly before leaving for the US, Hitchens asked Peter Wilby, then the Sunday Times's education correspondent and later editor of the NS, to help him get a job on the paper. Hitchens was standing in as editor of the Atticus gossip column and was keen to take on the role permanently. Wilby told me: "I think I may have been father of the chapel and he seemed to think I could get him a job, which seemed to me a misunderstanding of the role of a trade union representative."

Towards the end of my interview, I asked Hitchens again about what he thought of when remembering the New Statesman. He went over to the window, lit a cigarette and replied: "Of Great Turnstile, at the corner of Lincoln Inn's Fields, a wonderful place for it to be, just opposite the LSE, founded by the same people. Of lunches in the boardroom at the top floor, which had all the old cartoons by Vicky and Low from the Twenties and Thirties, which made the Statesman famous. Of greats coming in to the literary department; V S Pritchett, for example, you could meet on the stairs. The day we decided to publish Gabriel García Márquez's essay on the murder of Allende, Márquez was then hardly known outside the Spanish world. And cricket matches with Tribune."

For a transitory moment, the young, restless man who said that all he'd "ever wanted to be" was a writer on the Statesman was back in the room with me.

George Eaton is a staff writer for the New Statesman

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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

Picture: David Parkin
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The humbling of Theresa May

The Prime Minister has lost all authority. The Tories will remove her as soon as they feel the time is right.

Being politicians of unsentimental, ruthless realism, the Conservatives did not linger in the grief stage of their collective disaster after the general election. Disbelief, too, was commendably brief.

Currently, their priority is to impose some sort of order on themselves. This is the necessary prelude to the wholesale change that most see as the next phase in their attempt at recovery, which they all know is essential to their career prospects – and believe is vital to a country whose alternative prime minister is Jeremy Corbyn.

For that reason, talk of Theresa May enduring as Prime Minister until the end of the Brexit negotiations in two years’ time is the preserve of just a few wishful thinkers. Some sort of calm is being established but the party is far from settled or united; there is a widespread conviction that it cannot be so under the present leader.

Elements of the great change have been executed, as Nick Timothy and Fiona Hill, May’s former advisers, will testify.

However, this is only beginning, as shown by the debate in the media about how long May can survive in Downing Street. There is dissatisfaction about elements of her recent reshuffle, but it is quieted because few believe that some of the more contentious appointments or reappointments will last more than a matter of months. Her colleagues are also alarmed by the meal she has made of doing what was supposed to be a straightforward deal with the DUP.

The climate in the party at the moment is one in which everything – jobs, policies and, of course, the leadership – will soon be up for grabs. Debate over “hard” and “soft” Brexits is illusory: anyone who wants to be Conservative leader will need to respect the view of the party in the country, which is that Britain must leave the single market and the customs union to regain control of trade policy and borders. That is one reason why the prospects of David Davis, the Brexit Secretary, are being talked up.

Some of May’s MPs, for all their hard-mindedness about the future, speak of feeling “poleaxed” since the general election. Even before the result changed everything, there was dismay about the bad national campaign; but that, it was felt, could be discussed in a leisurely post-mortem.

Now, instead, it has undermined faith in May’s leadership and credibility. “The social care disaster was key to our defeat,” an MP told me. “It wasn’t just that the policy damaged our core vote, it was the amateurishness of the U-turn.” A more seasoned colleague noted that “it was the first election I’ve fought where we succeeded in pissing off every section of our core vote”.

The limited ministerial reshuffle was inevitable given May’s lack of authority, and summed up her untenability beyond the short term. Most of her few important changes were deeply ill judged: notably the sacking of the skills and apprenticeships minister Robert Halfon, the MP for Harlow in Essex, and a rare Tory with a direct line to the working class; and the Brexit minister David Jones, whose job had hardly begun and whose boss, Davis, was not consulted.

George Bridges, another Brexit minister, who resigned, apparently did so because he felt May had undermined the government’s position in the negotiations so badly, by failing to win the election comprehensively, that he could not face going on.

Much has been made of how Philip Hammond, the Chancellor, was marginalised and briefed against, yet reappointed. Patrick McLoughlin, the party chairman, suffered similarly. Conservative Central Office was largely shut out from the catastrophic campaign, though no one got round to briefing against McLoughlin, who kept his head down – unheard-of conduct by a party chairman in an election.

As a political force, Central Office is for now more or less impotent. It has lost the knack of arguing the case for Conservatism. MPs are increasingly worried that their party is so introspective that it just can’t deal with the way Corbyn is spinning his defeat. “An ugly mood is growing,” one said, “because militant leftism is going unchallenged.” That cannot change until May has gone and the party machine is revived and re-inspired.

***

Nobody in the party wants a general election: but most want a leadership election, and minds are concentrated on how to achieve the latter without precipitating the former. One angry and disillusioned ex-minister told me that “if there were an obvious candidate she’d be shitting herself. But most of us have realised Boris is a wanker, DD isn’t a great communicator and is a bit up himself, Hammond has no charisma, and Amber [Rudd] has a majority of 346.”

On Monday a group of senior ex-ministers met at Westminster to discuss next steps. It was agreed that, with the Brexit talks under way, the most important thing in the interests of restoring order was securing the vote on the Queen’s Speech. Then, May having done her duty and steadied the proverbial ship, the party would manage her dignified and calm evacuation from Downing Street.

Those who agree on this do not always agree on the timing. However, few can make the leap of imagination required to see her addressing the party conference in October, unless to say “Thank you and goodnight” and to initiate a leadership contest. Many would like her out long before then. The only reason they don’t want it this side of securing the Queen’s Speech is that the result, as one put it, would be “chaos”, with a leadership contest resembling “a circular firing squad”.

That metaphor is popular among Tories these days. Others use it to describe the ­apportioning of blame after the election. As well as Timothy and Hill, Lynton Crosby has sustained severe wounds that may prevent the Tories from automatically requesting his services again.

Following the Brexit referendum and Zac Goldsmith’s nasty campaign for the London mayoralty, Crosby has acquired the habit of losing. And then there was Ben Gummer, blamed not only for the social care debacle, but also for upsetting fishermen with a vaguely couched fisheries policy. These failings are becoming ancient history – and the future, not the past, is now the urgent matter – yet some Conservatives still seethe about them despite trying to move on.

“I haven’t heard anyone say she should stay – except Damian Green,” a former minister observed, referring to the new First Secretary of State. Green was at Oxford with May and seems to have earned his job because he is one of her rare friends in high politics. He is regarded as sharing her general lack of conviction.

Older activists recall how the party, in 1974, clung loyally to Ted Heath after he lost one election, and even after he lost a second. Now, deference is over. Most Tory activists, appalled by the handling of the campaign, want change. They would, however, like a contest: annoyed at not having been consulted last time, they intend not to be left silent again.

That view is largely reflected at Westminster, though a few MPs believe a coronation wouldn’t be a problem, “as we don’t want a public examination of the entrails for weeks on end when we need to be shown to be running the country effectively”. Most MPs disagree with that, seeing where a coronation got them last time.

With the summer recess coming up, at least the public’s attention would not be on Westminster if the contest took place mostly during that time: hence the feeling that, once the Queen’s Speech is dealt with, May should announce her intention to leave, in order to have a successor in place before the conference season. It is then up to the party to design a timetable that compresses the hustings between the final two candidates into as short a time as compatible with the democratic process, to get the new leader in place swiftly.

Some letters requesting a contest are said to have reached Graham Brady, the chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbenchers. One MP told me with great authority that there were eight; another, with equal certainty, said 12. Forty-eight are needed to trigger the procedure. However, engineering such a contest is not how most Tories would like to proceed. “She has had an international humiliation,” a former cabinet minister said, “and it is transparently ghastly for her. Then came the [Grenfell Tower] fire. There is no sense our rubbing it in. I suspect she knows she has to go. We admire her for staying around and clearing up the mess in a way Cameron didn’t. But she is a stopgap.”

MPs believe, with some justification, that the last thing most voters want is another general election, so caution is paramount. None doubts that the best outcome for all concerned would be for May to leave without being pushed.

Her tin-eared response to the Grenfell disaster shocked colleagues with its amateurishness and disconnection. “I’m sure she’s very upset by Grenfell,” someone who has known her since Oxford said. “But she is incapable of showing empathy. She has no bridge to the rest of the world other than Philip.” Another, referring to the controversial remark that torpedoed Andrea Leadsom’s leadership ambitions last year, said: “You would get shot for saying it, but not having had children hasn’t helped her when it comes to relating to people. Leadsom was right.”

***

May was quicker off the mark on Monday, issuing a statement condemning the appalling attack at Finsbury Park Mosque swiftly after it occurred, and going there shortly afterwards to meet community leaders. No one could fault her assurance that Muslims must enjoy the same protection under the law as everyone else, or the speed and sincerity with which it was made. She is learning what leadership entails, but too late.

Her administration has become unlucky. This happened to John Major, but, as in his case, the bad luck is partly down to bad decisions; and the bad luck that comes out of the blue simply piles in on top of everything else. Grenfell Tower, lethal and heartbreaking for its victims and their families, was merely more bad luck for the Prime Minister because of her slow-witted response and failure – presumably because shorn of her closest advisers – to do the right thing, and to do it quickly.

But then it turned out that her new chief of staff, Gavin Barwell, had in his previous incarnation as a housing minister received a report on improving fire safety in tower blocks and done nothing about it. That is either more bad luck, or it shows May has dismal judgement in the quality of people she appoints to her close circle. Form suggests the latter.

The idea aired last weekend, that May had “ten days to prove herself”, was a minority view. For most of her colleagues it is too late. It was typical of Boris Johnson’s dwindling band of cheerleaders that they should broadcast a story supporting Davis as an “interim” leader: “interim” until Johnson’s credibility has recovered sufficiently for him to have another pop at the job he covets so much.

They also sought to create the impression that Davis is on manoeuvres, which he resolutely is not. Davis has been around long enough to know that if he wants to succeed May – and his friends believe he does – he cannot be seen to do anything to destabilise her further. It is a lesson lost on Johnson’s camp, whose tactics have damaged their man even more than he was already.

Andrew Mitchell, the former international development secretary and a close ally of Davis, told the Guardian: “. . . it is simply untrue that he is doing anything other
than focusing on his incredibly important brief and giving loyal support to the Prime Minister. Anyone suggesting otherwise is freelancing.” That summed up the contempt Davis’s camp has for Johnson, and it will last long beyond any leadership race.

There is a sense that, in the present febrile climate, whoever is the next leader must be highly experienced. Davis qualifies; so does Hammond, who before his present job was foreign secretary and defence secretary, and who has belatedly displayed a mind of his own since May was hobbled. Hugo Swire, a minister of state under Hammond in the Foreign Office, said of him: “He’s got bottom. He was very good to work for. He is an homme sérieux. I liked him very much and he would calm things down.”

But, as yet, there is no contest. Calls for calm have prevailed, not least thanks to Graham Brady’s steady stewardship of the 1922 Committee, and his success in convincing the more hot-headed of his colleagues to hold their fire. Yet MPs say the 1922 is not what it was 20 years ago: ministers have become used to taking it less seriously.

However, many MPs expect Brady, at a time of their choosing, to go to Downing Street and deliver the poison pill to Theresa May if she is slow to go. Some who know her fear she might take no notice. If she were to play it that way, her end would be unpleasant. As the old saying goes, there is the easy way, and there is the hard way. Remarkably few of her colleagues want to go the hard way but, like everything else in the Tory party at the moment, that could change.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 22 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The zombie PM

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