BookReviews

The big climb

Before he found fame and fortune, Christopher Hitchens was an ordinary boy from a lower middle-class English family. It was his love for words which took him far, all the way to America.

Reviewed by Kathy Hunt

The rare and fortunate individual reading Christopher Hitchens for 
the first time could be forgiven for thinking that the English-born American citizen comes from a privileged background. Published at the beginning of his seventh decade, the writer's memoir corrects this impression by recording an ordinary childhood as the elder son of Eric Hitchens, a naval commander, and Yvonne, a "young and eager girl from a broken Jewish home in Liverpool".

One of many wartime alliances (and misalliances), the marriage was only partly successful. "My father", writes Christopher, "never stopped considering himself lucky, my mother soon ceased to do so". She was 12 years younger than her husband and the keeper of a secret, one never revealed to Eric, the son of a "mirthless, Calvinist patriarch" and a "somewhat repressed Baptist family". After noticing "some slight unpleasantness" directed at her mother in the 1930s, Yvonne had decided to leave her Jewish heritage behind if she was to have a crack at good old English "social mobility". Later on, Hitchens believes, she did not want her two sons to be "taxed" with "the Jewish question".

Born in Portsmouth in 1949 and christened on a submarine, Christopher would be an unwitting witness to the simultaneous scuttling of a navy and a dedicated navy man as post-war economics bit into pay and pensions.

The day after Christmas 1943, the commander's ship, HMS Jamaica, had sunk the Scharnhorst, a Nazi convoy raider—"a better day's work than I have ever done," says Hitchens. But everything after that glorious day was a disappointment. "Running guns to Joseph Stalin" was not a job he cared for and so "he took off his uniform (or had it taken away from him) and went to work as a bookkeeper".

Being the wife of a peripatetic bursar did not slow the inexorable pace of Yvonne's ambitions, either for her boys or herself. She opened a dress-shop called Pandora's Box—"One thing I do have," she used to say with 
a slightly defensive tone...is a bit of good taste."

"These enterprises just didn't fly," says Hitchens, blaming the local housewives who "were just too drab and myopic and penny-pinching". It is the adult Christopher speaking here but it is a disconcerting ventriloquism, for by now the reader has twigged that Yvonne, for all her charm and joie de vivre, is a dreadful snob, and that this trait, genetic and acquired, will powerfully influence her son's world view as it crystalises into a perception of the political.

Christopher HitchensTrapped between the front door and the tradesmen's entrance, the children got many opportunities to observe life among the lower orders, encounters which would ultimately drive them in opposite philosophical directions, Christopher to the Left and his brother Peter, like his father, to the "flinty and adamant" Right.

In Fifeshire, a babysitter called Jeanie was kind enough to take Peter Hitchens home for "tea", by which, explains his brother, "she meant 'dinner' or at least 'early supper', a meat-and-potato fest rammed home with a mug of hot and sweet brown nectar". Jeanie's husband, reported Peter, actually ate "OFF HIS KNIFE". Christopher swears "that my mother went chalk-white when she heard of this".

Besieged by the tasteless and the banal, Yvonne also had to live with the "exquisite pain" of knowing that the castrated commander's very own relatives, perhaps fearing that visitors would get lost in their five-room bungalow, had "bought a china plaque engraved with the word 'toilet' and screwed it to the outside of their lavatory door". There was one for the bathroom too.

But "if there is going to be an upper class in this country", Hitchens remembers his mother asserting during "a domestic argument", then Christopher is going to be in it—beginning at prep school aged eight.

Much has been written about the English public school system that 'prepares' a boy to scale the snow-capped peaks of higher (high) education (society). Hitchens' experience is typical and, not before time, abandoned 
as barbaric. He is already vaguely 
aware of "keeping two sets of books"—
a phrase he uses often to describe the unfolding ironies and paradoxes of his life. The child of conflicting values and barely controlled conflict, and encouraged by his adored and adoring mother to have great expectations, 
he had already been introduced to the concept of incongruity by virtue of his family's real and imagined social standing. At Mount House, his old-fashioned prep school, it is natural for him to rationalise the systematic tyranny with "its unpredictability 
and caprice".

"I would tell myself that I wasn't really part of the hierarchy of cruelty...the Beating, Bullying and Buggery." Not being "big or strong or desperate enough" to practise the first two, Hitchens denies the third most emphatically. But who could blame anyone for buckling under such a regime, certainly not a boy about to be "thrashed with a cane" by "a grown-up man, who was perhaps four times my weight and five times my age..."

It is words that saved Christopher Hitchens, words and books, any books, no matter how bad. At 13 he sat the Common Entrance exam for The Leys School at Cambridge. A late applicant, he was required to score a scholarship mark. "This," says the ever-humble Hitch, "I was able to do without much of a strain."

One would think that, having done his time with hot canes and cold, cross-country runs, and now positioned strategically for an assault on Oxford, the author would just get on with being clever. But no, thanks to another "high-risk narcissist" called Kennedy.

"I shall never forget where I was standing and what I was doing on the day he nearly killed me," writes Hitchens, shocked at the "vicious and chilling" way politics had insinuated itself into a curriculum of Milton, mutton and mutual masturbation. Moved to "find out a bit more about it" he was also driven by a growing awareness of both his good fortune in acquiring a (literally) first class education, and the realisation that most of his contemporaries took it, and social inequality, for granted.

As late as the sixties, "the sons of solid Lancashire and Yorkshire businessmen" simply could not "consort" with their employees' children. Having completely forgotten the crane-driver in Fifeshire who ate "OFF HIS KNIFE", and the plaques that indicated the bleeding obvious, Hitchens nevertheless launches himself on his long and often dangerous inquiry into socialism.

By now he was an undergraduate at Balliol College, Oxford, and an intellectual opponent of the Vietnam War. But "we didn't grow our hair too long, because we wanted to mingle with the workers at the factory gate and on the housing estates".

Another burning issue was his name, Christopher. "My mother had not nurtured her firstborn son in order to hear him addressed as if he were a taxi driver or pot-hole filler," he writes in a failed attempt at self-mockery. A name beginning with an H was an open invitation to "ditch the aspirate" and "Chris 'itchens" was simply not to be borne, not even by a socialist.

Meanwhile the Oxford years allowed him "to meet near-legendary members of the Establishment's firmament on nearly equal terms". He was finding his feet and only one thing was to happen to rock his shiny new world.

In the early seventies Hitchens had moved to London and was writing for the New Statesman. Back in Oxford he ran into his mother and a man called Timothy Bryan, a former Church of England minister. Yvonne would later be found dead in Athens, having entered into a suicide pact with her lover. It was her son's melancholy duty to identify her from photos taken at the scene and to live with the fact that she had tried to call him several times in London. Out of this "lacerating, howling, moment" comes a beautifully written tribute to his "exotic", "sunlit" mother.

If Hitchens is to be believed—and apart from his syllogisms he 
is—his reasons for becoming American were as trivial as liking the Mamas and the Papas; being "ravished" by California Dreamin', skyscrapers, the Lone Ranger and Rawhide—"So many cattle; so much emptiness..."

Awarded a Coolidge Atlantic Crossing, or Pathfinder Scholarship, he was fascinated to meet the endowing patron, Mr William Appleton Coolidge, "a direct descendant of Thomas Jefferson through the Randolph family of Massachusetts".

When Americans landed on the moon, the writer exalted. The happy recipient of "extraordinary hospitality", both arranged and spontaneous, the 21-year-old could now see for himself the manifold paradoxes rampant in the land of the free.

And then there were the women of America—so "forward" and generous. "I don't think," says Hitchens, "that I can even begin sufficiently to express my gratitude," a sentiment pre-empted by a note at the start of his memoir which speaks to "those I have loved, or who have been so lenient and gracious as to have loved me, I have not words enough here, and I remember with gratitude how they have made me speechless in return".

"Not words enough" and "speechless" also extend to a wife who surfaces for the first time, and in passing, on page 241.

By contrast the list of his lunch mates is comprehensive and no secret: Australian poets Clive James and Peter Porter, writers James Fenton, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Robert Conquest, and his great friend Martin Amis, who believed with the poet Craig Raine "that there is a design flaw in the female form and that the breasts and the buttocks really ought to be on the same side". So close were Hitchens and Amis once that, having now aged to the extent that "only women would 
go to bed with me", Hitchens writes that he is finally able to "acquit 
myself on any charge of having desired Martin carnally".

In one limited definition of a "public intellectual", the writer says that such a person should be "self-sustaining and autonomously financed". Labelled one himself, he finds "the whole idea faintly silly". From this pigeonhole, however, he has pronounced on every war and close call, from Orwell's Spanish one to democracy's nemesis, Afghanistan.

But how reliable a witness is he? A close reading of this book shows that he is only human and, as Tammy Wynette sang so perspicaciously, "just a man", with sheer testosterone driven arrogance his besetting sin.

Intellectually this is demonstrated by such questions as "Under what conditions would you lose or 'give' your life?" Hitchens declares a bias here, recalling the English (and Antipodean) tradition of wearing a red poppy in November in remembrance of those who had 'given' their lives in war.

"But," argues Hitch, "on what assurance did we know that these gifts had really been made? In order to know that a person had truly laid down his life for his friends, or comrades, one would have to hear it from his own lips, or at least have heard it promised in advance."

This is soggy sophistry from the Oxford man who, more than 40 pages earlier, had written movingly of Lieutenant Mark Daily, a young American so "deeply influenced" by Hitchens' writings "on the moral case for war" in Iraq that he joined up and was killed.

The writer quotes from a letter Daily wrote to his wife: "My desire to 'save the world' is really just an extension of trying to make a world fit for you." Fortunately for Daily, this satisfies "the better and more realistic test" set by Hitchens, which is "In what cause or on what principle would you risk your life?" If this is what Hitchens means by saying that "the usual duty of the intellectual is to argue for complexity" it comes as a small and not exactly guilty pleasure to read of his thrashing in Beirut after he defaced a poster in Hamra Street.

One of the questions most asked of this prolific writer is why he doesn't produce fiction. He puts this down to a "near-total inability with music, itself quite possibly linked with my incapacity with chess and mathematics", and furnishes an example of the unimaginative Taliban banning all music.

My theory is that all writing is a form of music, but lack of musical ability is not Hitchens' real problem as a writer and thinker; his main handicap is an abysmal sense of humour, humour being the essence of perspective, both emotional and intellectual. Certainly he cites faintly amusing word games, which seem to demonstrate a slight capacity for fun, but these amount to small change in the great vaults of wit. For example: "see what happens when you subtract the word 'heart' from any well-known title or saying and substitute the word 'dick'. This exercise gives us 'I Left My Dick in San Francisco' and 'Bury My Dick at Wounded Knee'."

The night before he sat his test to become an American citizen, Hitchens read through the United States Constitution, its preamble and the American Declaration of Independence.

"From an early age," he wrote after 9/11, "I had dreamed of Manhattan and identified it with breadth of mind, with liberty, with opportunity." Not even the blackest hats in Washington had shaken this romantic conviction, and his journey through these historic documents only reinforced his love, his passion for America, embodied in the miraculously luminous prose of so-called 'committee men'.

At his best, Hitchens writes towards this sort of forensic truth and beauty. At his entertaining, taciturn and trenchant worst, he at least avoids his mother's worst fear, as his father could not: "The one unforgivable sin," she used to say "is to be boring."