I could recall that fifth bottle of wine in Tuzla, Bosnia. Or Hitch still arguing furiously about the Falklands War some time around 3 a.m. at the poet James Fenton’s kitchen table in Oxford. (“Christopher,” said James, raising his head from the table, “you sound like a bishop.” It was the ultimate insult.) But what pops entirely unbidden into my mind is the leg of lamb he cooked, English-style, with boiled vegetables and mint sauce, for us to eat by the poolside in a high Californian summer. It was parody of parody, like something out of the opening pages of Evelyn Waugh’s The Loved One, and of course he knew it – but at the same time, I think he actually liked it. That was Sunday Lunch.
I did not always agree with the political positions he took – and they did not always agree with each other – but his company was irresistible. Nowhere was he more genial than at the poolside house in Atherton, arguing, arguing, arguing, while the automatic swimming pool cleaner went about its ceaseless submarine work, hoovering, hoovering, hoovering. Where other people furtively Google it on their iPhones, he had extraordinary natural powers of recall. Detail, anecdote, biography, and quotation would flow almost as fast as the whisky.
Writers and activists from the 17th to the 21st century were brought conversationally into the same room, to argue with each other – a conjuring act he shared with Isaiah Berlin, whom he attacked mercilessly soon after the liberal philosopher’s death. In his verbal salon, Tom Paine crossed swords with Edward Said, Thomas Jefferson met P.G. Wodehouse. Yes, Wodehouse – that superficially unlikely hero for a political writer who spent much of his life on the more or less militant left. Last time we met, we traded Wodehouse-isms. (Roderick Spode, leader of Britain’s fascist Black Shorts, with “the sort of eye that can open an oyster at 60 paces.”)
It is this literary, English, Hitch that I remember with most affection. The American citizenship he took after the 9/11 attacks on his adopted country meant a great deal to him. In many ways, it defined what we must now call his last decade. But culturally, we can say of him that in spite of all temptations to belong to other nations, he remained an Englishman. Never more so than when dishing up roast lamb, with mint sauce and added Wodehouse, by the poolside on a California summer Sunday.
Timothy Garton Ash is a professor of European Studies at Oxford University and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. This is an edited version of a piece published on Slate.com.