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2 January 2012updated 14 Dec 2021 6:02pm

Christopher Hitchens: the New Statesman years

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

By George Eaton

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.

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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

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