The BBC’s Hitchens remembrance

A few days ago I directed you to an hourlong BBC show about the life and work of Christopher Hitchens, who, had he lived, would have been 70 on April 13. If you haven’t yet heard it, I recommend it highly. You can listen to the program by clicking on the third screenshot below (or going here); it won’t be up forever.

And you have to click a trigger warning verifying that you’re over 16 years old and also have turned off a “parental guidance lock”. Hitchens would be amused at that:

Even if you think you know everything about the man, I think you’ll learn quite a bit. There are interviews with his brother Peter, his BFF Martin Amis, Ian McEwan (who poignantly describes his farewell to Hitchens in the hospital), his Nation colleague Katha Pollitt, his ex-wife Elena, and others. His youthful Marxism is on view, as is his sexism and his prodigious consumption of libations. You’ll be intrigued at the very last thing he wrote: a few words scrawled on a pad, described as “the most succinct op-ed piece ever written—by a writer who was never at a loss for words.”

One thing that struck me was that even those who were opposed to his political beliefs or who found his personality off-putting still admired and felt affection for him. As Amis notes, “I think the key to Christopher is how intensely he was loved by so many people. Not many commentators are loved. I mean, some are valued and respected, but not loved.”

The program is ably narrated and moderated by D. D. Guttenplan, Editor at Large for The Nation. Click below:

26 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 10:09 am | Permalink

    sub

  2. Ken Kukec
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    His youthful Marxism is on view …

    Even in his more callow days, Hitchens wasn’t so much a doctrinaire Marxist (though he had great respect for Marx’s diagnostic analysis of capitalism) as he was a Trotskyist — or, even more to the point, a Luxemburgian, after the (subsequently anti-Soviet) co-founder of the Spartacus League.

  3. Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    An excellent radio programme. Perhaps next time they’ll do a TV documentary, wouldn’t that be good?

    I rather enjoyed the recollections of his youthful dalliances with the harsher sex. And I’m still wondering who those two Thatcher cabinet ministers were…

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:43 am | Permalink

      A proper “public” school and Oxford gentleman never kisses’n’tells, I reckon. 🙂

  4. Roger
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    Usually we read internet articles, merrily along, la-di-da, okay done, next one please. Until one day you accidentally stumble upon “The Missionary Position” by the hitherto unknown to yourself author, who at first you think is some random wannabe journalist with the most generic sounding name ever. Then you keep reading. And can’t stop reading. “Wait, who the hell wrote this thing,” you say to yourself.

    • Roger
      Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:34 am | Permalink

      “And why is he in my head now.”

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 17, 2019 at 12:12 pm | Permalink

      Quite. And I think it was the lengthy two-parter he did a bit earlier for The Atlantic, “The Trial of Henry Kissinger,” that did the same for many others.

  5. Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Listening to this at the moment.

    Amis and Pollit are saying (as many did then) that he went overboard in his criticism of Bill Clinton. But having watched the way that the accusations against Trump were simply batted away with reference to Bill’s disgraceful and abusive behaviour, I can only think he was right. Hillary thought she could advance her career by “standing by her husband”, but ultimately it made her look like a fool and a hypocrite when criticising Trump.

  6. BJ
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:57 am | Permalink

    It’s hard not to love Christopher Hitchens. I’ve listened to nearly every speech and debate of his on Youtube and, even when I vehemently disagree with his positions (as with much of what he had to say during his Marxist years, and on subjects like the Iraq War in later years), I can’t help but not only admire, but be hypnotized by his passion and wordsmithing. His mannerisms and way of speaking just make me want to spend all night drinking a bottle of expensive whiskey and talking philosophy with him.

  7. Randall Schenck
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:59 am | Permalink

    Hitchens is always going to be the most interesting person in the conversation, the interview or the debate. His mistake on Iraq was not so different from many others and for the same reasons. He was not perfect in political forecasting and he did not know the country as well as he thought. He also did not bother to look at the lie perpetrated by the Bush administration. The real mistake is to not admit the mistake when it becomes obvious.

  8. Posted April 17, 2019 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    “…a clutch of hysterical sinister virgins…”

    Hitchens’ transcendent description of the clergy.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 17, 2019 at 12:17 pm | Permalink

      “No child’s behind left,” was the motto he recommended for the Church.

  9. Jon Gallant
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

    I would love to hear the program, but it was inaccessible for me, due to the BBC’s imposition of something called a PG lock, which requires a “Pin” number. [My religion forbids the invention of still another #@X+! goddamn Pin number or password.] I suspect that by reading “Hitch 22”, I got pretty much the same information available in the BBC program. The book, BTW, while rather messy and in need of editing, is great reading for any Hitchophile, like myself.

    • Posted April 17, 2019 at 1:14 pm | Permalink

      Hit “play without PG lock”, and it should work.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted April 17, 2019 at 1:18 pm | Permalink

      Hitchens was a great writer. And the man could turn a phrase like nobody’s business. But like that of many of the über-prolific with a low threshold for boredom, his prose was prone to the occasional sloppiness.

      In reading his longer magazine pieces in particular, it isn’t rare to come across a passage with a redundancy here or prolixity there that could’ve done with a bit of editorial nip-and-tuck. But, according to the above-linked BBC program, the Hitch wasn’t given to allowing anyone else to muck around with his copy.

  10. Michael Fisher
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 1:11 pm | Permalink

    The best speech by Christopher Hitchens was his ‘debate’ with Dembski at Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano [nr Dallas] in November 2010. His bald head shining as he sketches out his themes on the empowerment of women & the divine North Korea, his view on what it would mean to be saved for eternity in Heaven. A most effective performance that put new ideas into the heads of the school kids in the audience that day. I am certain all those kiddos remember Hitchens to this day. The Church tried to remove the video of that powerful performance that squashed Dembski like a tick, but they got caught. Search it out on YouTube.

    This was an account of Christopher Hitchens’ unique angle on life & how to live it, mainly from the POV of friends, although a bit soft. Just for the halibut I would have enjoyed hearing from that faker George Galloway or one of the more wacky Baptists that he liked to shred to pieces.

    My favourite Hitch rant is from the memory of Alexander Waugh, though I wonder how accurate it could be. Annoyed at a British Rail porter who wouldn’t assist an elderly woman get on a train about to depart from Taunton, Hitch shouted from a train window:

    “You’re job is to help this poor woman not to hinder her! Listen to me, you fish-faced, pettifogging baggage man, open this door immediately and let her on the train. What kind of fat-kidneyed cretin are you? Why haven’t you been sacked, you aborted rooting hog, parasite tosser, you…?”

    16:00 Re. the double “self slaughter” of Yvonne Hitchens & defrocked priest Timothy Bryan in an expensive Athens hotel [1973]: At some point they’d become devotees of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi whom Hitch loathed.

    The initial report in The Times was that it was a murder suicide, but the coroner recorded it as suicide pact. I’ve always thought this was very fishy given the method was pills OD & yet there was reportedly blood about the bathroom & the coroner had a rep as corrupt. I suspect there’s a lot more to the story than Hitch has written – it was a very dark period for him & I think it coloured the rest of his life indelibly.

    But Hitch didn’t ever reveal his full inner self, he maintained a tough outer hide. He had a great admiration for the better kind of novelist & I think he could have been one himself if he’d been more emotionally honest with himself. This excellent Spectator review by Alexander Waugh of CATCH-22 covers some of the above. A worthy read for fellow/fellowess Hitchites.

    26:39 Katha Pollitt isn’t entirely accurate here: “…you know you couldn’t change a comma…” – Hitch wasn’t hot on the old punctuation & I think editors were forever ‘improving’ that aspect of his writing without complaint from him – it was the words that he cared about & not the nitty gritty of commas.

    40:34 Despite the suggestion otherwise in this audio stream, Tony Blair & CH were not friends. Blair says: “Chris had always been…”, but friends knew to always call him “Christopher” or “Hitch” or “you” or “Doris” even – anything but “Chris.”

    54:47 Peter Hitchens is very generous & honest here I think. It takes a lot for me to say so since I can’t stand the man.

    I wish the stream had been two hours & gone into how his empathy for the Kurds influenced his views on going to war.

    This from The Telegraph is a must read: GODLESS IN TUMOURVILLE

    • Posted April 17, 2019 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for sharing these thoughts. It makes me want to reread all my Hitchens books
      and hunt up everything on the internet I’ve already seen and not yet seen. Amazing exemplar of humanity.

      • Michael Fisher
        Posted April 17, 2019 at 11:26 pm | Permalink

        @Rowena. How kind of you to say. If the urge is strong then I suggest the following lesser known stuff to try out.

        DVD:

        92Y: Christopher Hitchens Having a chat with his mate Salman Rushdie at the 92nd Street Y, NYC is worth hunting out. It’s going for peanuts on Amazon. Buy it & a bottle of vino & settle in. If you can’t play DVDs get an X Box 🙂

        HIS PRE-GOD BOOKS:

        [1] Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies on Britain’s notional “special relationship” with the USA. A sharp delight.

        [2] Blaming the Victims: Spurious Scholarship & the Palestinian Question is a fine collection of essays, co-edited by Palestinian scholar Edward Said [RIP] & Hitch. Edward Said is probably the reason Don Guttenplan [see my comment lower down] wrote & narrated this BBC Radio 4 piece on Hitch. Said & Hitch have some peculiar similarities in their background & they both knew Said very well [Guttenplan particularly wrote extensively on Said].

        [3] Love, Poverty & War: Journeys & Essays
        Good fun & rather acid – a willingness to say the unsayable as one critic put it.

        [4] Thomas Jefferson: Author of America
        A fairly concise & very interesting, if somewhat partial[!] account. Jolly good read.

  11. John Laughlin
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    >

  12. Filippo
    Posted April 17, 2019 at 8:41 pm | Permalink

    At approximately 3:30 in, the omniscient, noble soul narrating this program informs listeners that the Hitchenses were not really officer material on account of being Baptists. How does that possibly follow? How does this apparently class-conscious/-obsessed self-absorbed media darling know that? (Are high church Anglicans somehow more likely officer material? How about atheists/agnostics/deists?)

    As pere Hitchens was in fact a Royal Navy officer, he WAS IN FACT OFFICER MATERIAL, apparently, whether the narrator, refulgent in and trailing clouds of snootiness, likes it or not.

    He then proceeds to say the same about the Lynns (Levins) on Hitchens’s maternal side, but does not say how he knows this. He leaves one to guess. How so – because they were Eastern European and Jewish??

    This guy would qualify to write for the NY Times “Style” section. Does he fancy himself officer material?

    I write this as one brought up (indoctrinated) as a child in the Southern Baptist church, and who went to U.S. Navy Officer Candidate School.

    • Michael Fisher
      Posted April 17, 2019 at 10:25 pm | Permalink

      Filippo:

      “the omniscient, noble soul narrating this program informs listeners that the Hitchenses were not really officer material on account of being Baptists. How does that possibly follow? How does this apparently class-conscious/-obsessed self-absorbed media darling know that? (Are high church Anglicans somehow more likely officer material? How about atheists/agnostics/deists?)”

      Your “media darling” knows what he’s talking about & you do not I’m afraid. The class-ridden, suffocating England of the ’40s & ’50’ is a world away from your experience – hence your misunderstandings I suppose.

      The narrator who pulled this material together is the accomplished American Jew, Don Guttenplan & he has post-WWII Britain exactly right! He’s the former editor in chief of the Jewish Quarterly & editor at large for The Nation Magazine. He’s lived in London for three decades, his spouse is an English journo of Greek descent & he has a thrace [my coining] of grown up kiddos. I know him for his excellent book: The Holocaust on Trial: History, Justice & the David Irving Libel Case. The man has experience day-to-day in four cultures & he can see how the gig works.

      “The Commander” was an unimaginative, inarticulate, hidebound royalist & Tory with no money or family behind him who was fucked over by the MoD, the Royal Navy & the British labour government immediately after the war. He was hauled up onto the beach with a miniscule, derisory pension & he spent the rest of his working life as a book keeper which was a huge drop in staus. He didn’t have the contacts nor influence to obtain a position in some secure government department – his years making the right noises to his fellow officers & superiors counted for nothing when the crunch came in a bankrupt, broken Britain.

      His wife Yvonne quite rightly hid her Jewish roots to the bitter end as it would have sunk her ambitions for her morose hubby & her boys. Somehow he had to fund the private education of two lads that his wife was determined would rise a good deal further than her rather pathetic hubby & for that you need to move in the right circles & have a bit of ‘front’.

      Family, family history, education & religion are still of great importance today in Britain as a look at the bios of the current cabinet will show you. You can be Jewish today so long as you don’t wave it about too much, although you’ll always be one foot outside the inner circle of power. I suspect there will be a lesbian, black, working class British Prime Minister before there’s a Jewish one [Benjamin Disraeli doesn’t count – he converted to Anglican at age 12].

      • Filippo
        Posted April 18, 2019 at 6:42 am | Permalink

        Your “media darling” knows what he’s talking about & you do not I’m afraid. The class-ridden, suffocating England of the ’40s & ’50’ is a world away from your experience – hence your misunderstandings I suppose.’

        Your evaluation of me is congenially noted.

        I’m not misunderstanding anything. I’m very aware of the state of British class-consciousness/-snobbishness of that time. The guy needed to make it clear that that was what he was talking about, and not his personal opinion. Exactly how is one to tell? It’s easy to make it clear, if one can trouble oneself to do so, by including in the same breath a reference to British class-consciousness.

        • GBJames
          Posted April 18, 2019 at 8:15 am | Permalink

          Perhaps. But British class-consciousness isn’t exactly a hidden mystery. The error, IMO, is assuming the experience of an American exposed to Navy officer training transfers to another country nearly a century in the past.

  13. 355101pkl
    Posted April 18, 2019 at 8:00 pm | Permalink

    I forgive you for having this infatuation with the British upper class. I like your blog . I was also a Trotskyist in London through the sixties a bit younger than him when I joined the keep left group ,the youth branch of Gerry Healy’s the SLL. I was still at school. I have to say we were the serious Trotskyists. We were the working class variety. Hitchens played and dabbled at middle class revolutionary politics with the SWP . I was up at 5 am selling the Workers Press outside factory gates. At weekends we would go round the working class pubs in East London and sell the paper. We ran sports clubs and discos and live music dances with well known bands to attract the kids from council estates . Hitchens and his upper class pals went on to great things with their Cambridge education. it was a great platform for them to get known but it was never serious. The downfall of the SLL or WRP as it became known as began with the sex abuse of young girl members by Gerry Healy himself by then a little fat old man with a gift of the gab . I saw it happening with my own eyes and i left in 68. I was 17 years old but the party continued to be influential and they did their best to silence any one who would try to speak out until it all hit the fan in the early 70’s

  14. GOTWEL
    Posted April 22, 2019 at 11:41 pm | Permalink

    I Miss Christopher Hitchens intelligence and wit almost every day, he still shows up on my YouTube feed and I’ll click and watch A debate he did years ago and hear it all brand new again..
    And Christopher Hitchens will convince me of his being correct all over again….Anybody else out there feel like watching Christopher Hitchens go up against a christian is like watching Michael Jordan make that jump shot over Ehlo? A year after Mr Hitchens died I went on Amazon and bought every book he ever wrote and I have them on my bookshelf right next to why evolution is true…
    And when I get my kids through college and retire, I plan to just read all of his books in order one after the other in a Christopher Hitchens Netflix type binge read.
    I am looking forward to that time: Jordan shots over Ehlo, Bulls win……
    With Hutchins books, we all still win.


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