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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 ...

© MARK PETERSON/REDUX/EYEVINE
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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars