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25 October 1999

How central heating made us bad

Charlotte Raven reveals Chris's winning tactics in the battle of the Hitchens brothers

By Charlotte Raven

Hurrah for Prospect. I take it all back. Far from being the stuffy old stick-in-the-muds portrayed in a previous article of mine, the magazine and its editors have proved, in the past two weeks, an unending source of delight. First there was David Goodhart’s world-beating oxymoron, overheard at a London Review of Books party: “I believe in the end of history.” Pure gold, as my father would say.

Then, the following week, the long-awaited Hitchens v Hitchens debate, organised and sponsored by Prospect. However, Goodhart fans were disappointed to learn that the debate was to be chaired by John Humphrys. Our hero, it seems, was too modest to share the limelight – even though this event was the once-in-a-lifetime chance he had been training for in all those dank refectories. Goodhart, boma ye (Goodhart, kill him), we would have shouted.

As Humphrys called the meeting to order and introduced us to the Hitchens brothers – Christopher (“Hitch”) is the prolific left-wing journalist, author and wit; Peter (“Bonkers”, to everyone except his wife) is the ultra-conservative Express columnist and author – I thought I heart the sound of distant drums. Christopher, boma ye.

For most of the assembled earnests, this was a rare chance to hear how their most cherished opinions would sound in proper sentences. The gap between “Hitch” and his closest rivals for the mantle of the darling of the liberal left is so ludicrously wide that he hardly has to open his mouth and he’s applauded for not being Will Hutton. Which made it all the stranger that his admirers, on this occasion, should suddenly start demanding more than the usual gold-from-base-metal routine. Happy as they may have been, on any other evening, with the simple fact of his superiority, this time they scented blood.

Christopher, boma ye. Peter stood up first. “Comrades,” he began, which was a joke. Several other jokes followed in a self-deprecating vein. The one that got the biggest laugh referred to the widely held belief that he is “opposed to central heating”. Having read The Abolition of Britain, his book around which the evening’s entertainments had been themed, I wondered whether this was a denial or a way of avoiding the question. His section on the benefits of hearthside chats does suggest that a cold, but cohesive, family, “forced into unwanted companionship”, is “less selfish” than the modern model. If central heating isn’t directly responsible for the breakdown of values and morals that Peter believes is so crucial to our loss of identity, it certainly didn’t help matters.

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And while “the passage of time” might just get away with a ticking-off for covering our pavements with Tarmac, the communist conspiracy responsible for microwaves, computers, trainers, wider streets, straighter roads, supermarkets, air-conditioning and homosexuals should know that there’s no hiding place.

Christopher, boma ye. The crowd was getting restless. Peter had been speaking for what seemed like an age and the reasons for despair just kept coming. In true sixth-form debating-champ style, Peter had crafted his speech to include light and shade, humour, some reportage, a historical overview, some colour, some sideswipes at “Princess” Tony Blair and as convincing an account of the contemporary cultural landscape as someone who thinks Elvis Presley is responsible for teenage pregnancies could muster.

As with any madman theory, there was, undeniably, a convincing ring to Peter’s logic. In the same way that Christians, and other green-ink religionists, can point towards an intricate theology, which, while internally consistent, is flawed by the non-existence of the Being it fails to account for, reactionaries like Peter have this fascinating, multi-stranded web of explanations for everything from sliced bread to filial cussing which will appear coherent as long as you accept the founding premise. Even if you don’t, and you can see through this self-contained system, you’ll still find it damned hard to argue with. You can’t say why God doesn’t exist – He just doesn’t. The danger is that being simply right – in the way that one is right to say that there is a place called the House of Commons – you might end up losing the argument.

If someone said the House of Commons was in fact a spaceship, and then gave an account of society based on this premise, you’d be hard pushed to say why it wasn’t – and might end up, instead, arguing that aliens weren’t really that bad, as long as you got to know them.

Aware that he had won some respect for what must have been weeks of hard work, Peter wound up his speech with a quotation from Auden. No one heard it. All eyes were on “Hitch” as everyone wondered how he would “rise” to the “challenge”.

Peter sat down; there was silence, and I looked at his brother for clues as to what he might be planning. Suddenly, it came to me. This was the old-rope-a-dope trick. Just as Ali had won against Foreman by turning his own energy against him, “Hitch” was going to win by leaving Peter’s arguments intact. To challenge them wholeheartedly would have lent them credibility, but to let them stand on their own merits – well, that was a subtle cruelty.

All that preparation, and Christopher couldn’t be bothered to stand up, much less refute his brother’s case. He just sat there and, in a perfect piece of theatre, redirected Peter’s momentum with the same low-key insouciance Ali had used to wind up Foreman.

“My dear chap,” he said. And that was it. Peter was transformed into a schoolboy who, in spite of swotting, had got the wrong end of the stick.

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