Christopher Hitchens, one decade on

Some lives reflect the mission of The Long Now Foundation, a creative thinking foundry that encourages imagination at the timescale of civilisation of the next and last 10,000 years. Individuals so rooted can make a huge impression in the here and now, but reflection enables a longer view of what shaped their past, animates their present, and inspires their legacy. Authenticity characterises them; honesty drives them; and we can imagine them, wearing different clothes but being essentially what they are, via travel backwards or forwards in time.

Christopher Hitchens is one such character. Normally people of his talents and appetites are described as protean, particularly when they make a living from writing – and especially when their chief subjects are themselves and the things that annoy them. The double whammy that possibly sees our subject come up short in the protean stakes are, first, that his appetites robbed us of the man and his talents at far too young an age. A heavy smoker and drinker for most of his 62 years, he died of the complications of oesophageal cancer ten years ago this day. And second, his acuity, vocabulary, prodigious memory, and passion were turned into a Rolls Royce of dialectical and stunning eloquence during precisely those years when his talents were less tested.

Born earlier, he would have been at the height of his powers in inveighing against Vietnam, about which he would have been right; born later, he could have led the modern charge against cowardly and puerile populism, advocated for climate change, and reflected with rare vision and wit on the challenges of Artificial Intelligence – about all of which he would have been invariably fascinating and almost as often right there, too.

As it was, his pomp saw him railing against the busted flushings of Henry Kissinger and Bill Clinton and tackling figures of questionable moral force but scarcely deserving of the calibre of his contempt – Mother Theresa and Princess Diana. And the wars for which he showed up were a mixed bag: hitting the jackpot with the War on Religion while being wrong for a lot of the right reasons in the absurdly conceived and ludicrously and corruptly prosecuted “War on Terror”.

Where the Hitchens legacy is secure is in that sweet spot occupied by great conversation and warmth of character, nowhere better illustrated than in Dr Johnson’s aphorism that “there is nothing which has yet been contrived by man, by which so much happiness is produced, as by a good tavern or inn.” Nobody tested this proposition to better effect than “Hitch”.

Amidst the encomia raining down in the storm of affection with which his friends recall him now, it is interesting to note that his ten years in Fleet Street’s pubs were the years in which the mould was set. By the time he emigrated to America in 1981, he was ready for us now but today’s world was not ready for him. The life was cut short: it is for the rest of us to make the legend long.