The place where Christopher Hitchens spent his last few weeks was hardly bookish, but he made it his own. Close to downtown Houston, Tex. is the medical centre, a cluster of high-rises like La Défense of Paris, or London’s City, a financial district of a sort, where the common currency is illness. This complex is one of the world’s great concentrations of medical expertise and technology. Its highest building, forty or fifty storeys up, denies the possibility of a benevolent god – a neon sign proclaims from its roof a cancer hospital for children. This “clean-sliced cliff ” as Philip Larkin puts it in his poem about a tower-block hospital, was right across the way from Christopher’s place – which was not quite as high, and adults only.
No man was ever as easy to visit in hospital. He didn’t want flowers and grapes, he wanted conversation, and presence. All silences were useful. He liked to find you still there when he woke from his frequent morphine-induced dozes. He wasn’t interested in being ill, the way most ill people are. He didn’t want to talk about it. When I arrived from the airport on my last visit, he saw sticking out of my luggage a small book. He held out his hand for it – Peter Ackroyd’s London Under, a subterranean history of the city. Then we began a 10-minute celebration of its author. We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything. Only then did we say hello. He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn’t hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he’d finished it.
He could have written a review, but he was due to turn in a long piece on G.K.Chesterton. And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it; they raised it to the condition of a good university library. And they protected us from the bleak high-rise view through the plate-glass windows, of that world, in Larkin’s lines, whose loves and chances “are beyond the stretch/Of any hand from here!”
In the afternoon I was helping him out of bed, the idea being that he was to take a shuffle round the nurses’ station to exercise his legs. As he leaned his trembling, diminished weight on me, I said, only because I knew he was thinking it, “Take my arm old toad …” He gave me that shifty sideways grin I remembered so well from healthy days. It was the smile of recognition, or one that anticipates in late afternoon an “evening of shame” – that is to say, pleasure, or, one of his favourite terms, “sodality.”
That must be how I came to be reading The Whitsun Weddings aloud to him two hours later. Christopher asked me to set the poem in context for his son Alexander – a lovely presence in that room for weeks on end – and for his wife Carol Blue – a tigress for his medical cause. She had tangled so ferociously with some slow element of the hospital’s bureaucracy that security guards had been called to throw her out of the building. Fortunately, she charmed and disarmed them.
I set the poem up and read it, and when I reached that celebrated end, “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain,’ Christopher murmured from his bed, “That’s so dark, so horribly dark.” I disagreed, and not out of any wish to lighten his mood. Surely, the train journey comes to an end, the recently married couples are dispatched toward their separate fates. He wouldn’t have it, and a week later, when I was back in London, we were still exchanging e-mails on the subject. One of his began, “Dearest Ian, Well, indeed – no rain, no gain – but it still depends on how much anthropomorphizing Larkin is doing with his unconscious … I’d provisionally surmise that “somewhere becoming rain” is unpromising.’
And this was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature. Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd, he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions toward Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s A German Requiem: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”
While I was with him, another celebration took place in far-away London, with Stephen Fry as host in the Festival Hall to reflect on the life and times of Christopher Hitchens. We helped him out of bed and into a chair and set my laptop in front of him. Alexander delved into the Internet with special passwords to get us linked to the event. He also plugged in his own portable stereo speakers. We had the sound connection well before the vision and what we heard was astounding, and for Christopher, uplifting. It was the noise of two thousand voices small-talking before the event. Then we had a view from the stage of the audience, packed into their rows.
They all looked so young. I would have guessed that nearly all of them would have opposed Christopher strongly over Iraq. But here they were, and in cinemas all over the country, turning out for him. Christopher grinned and raised a thin arm in salute. Close family and friends may be in the room with you, but dying is lonely, the confinement is total. He could see for himself that the life outside this small room had not forgotten him. For a moment, pace Larkin, it was by way of the Internet that the world stretched a hand toward him.
The next morning, at Christopher’s request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton.
Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.
Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment, was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.
Ian McEwan is a highly acclaimed British novelist and screenwriter. He has written 11 novels including such titles as The Cement Garden, The Comfort of Strangers, Black Dogs and Atonement (made into a film starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy). He was nominated six times for the Man Booker Prize and won it 1998 for Amsterdam.