Christopher Hitchens was not yet famous as an atheist when I interviewed him about his book, Why Orwell Matters, in November, 2002. My editor thought getting drunk with him might make for a sparky interview, but Mr. Hitchens declined to meet in the bar of his hotel because smoking was forbidden in public places. Given a choice of indulgences, Mr. Hitchens, who was known to smoke in the shower, needed cigarettes more than whisky – at least in the middle of the afternoon. That’s why we met in his hotel room.
Through the cigarette haze, I spotted him slouching in a chair, sipping what looked like builder’s tea and looking wary, as he ingested cigarettes the way others might throw back salted almonds. By way of greeting, he went on the attack, not about the “puritanical” values of Toronto the Good, but about the poppy I had pinned to the lapel of my coat.
I knew all about Mr. Hitchens’s noisy defection from the left in the aftermath of 9/11, his very public split from The Nation where he’d been writing a column for two decades, his vociferous opposition to “Islamic fascism,” and his ardent support of the war on terror. So why was he against poppies, the symbol of loss and sacrifice in wartime? Turns out he equated poppies, bizarrely in my view, with warmongering and the white feathers symbolizing cowardice that were handed to seemingly able-bodied civilians on the streets of London during the Great War.
And so we went at it, with me quoting John McCrae and explaining how Canadians forged a sense of nationhood on the bloody battlefields of Flanders and northern France, while he, digging back into his leftist past, derided the muscular imperialists and the propagandists who had glorified war, duped the British public and let a generation of beautiful young men die horrific and needless deaths.
Half a pack of cigarettes later, we had circled round to the same point of view and Mr. Hitchens grudgingly allowed that perhaps poppies meant something different in Canada from the rest of the world. How long would the argument have lasted, I wondered, as the conversation finally turned to George Orwell, if he had had ample access to his beloved Johnny Walker amber.
Words were weapons to Mr. Hitchens, as he himself said on more than one occasion. Others try to make an impression with charm, erudition or friendliness, he liked to wrestle you to the ground, not to make you cower, but because he knew no other way to make a connection. He was a contrarian to be sure, but more than that he was a profound reader, a tenacious debater and a prolific and stylish writer.
Some people have suggested that he wrote as fast as others read. His many books were mostly polemics deriding his enemies – Kissinger (war criminal), Clinton (rapist and liar), Mother Teresa (fanatic, fundamentalist, and fraud) – and jeremiads to his heroes, including George Orwell, Thomas Paine and Thomas Jefferson. He was an interpreter of texts rather than a researcher of archival documents; his métier was the fast and superior first draft rippling with clever provocative prose rather than the epoch-shifting tome based on arduous original research and a careful compilation of evidence.
Born too late to fight in the Second World War, as his father had done, Mr. Hitchens was once described by his friend, the journalist Ian Buruma, as “always looking for the defining moment – as it were, our Spanish Civil War, where you put yourself on the right side, and stand up to the enemy.” That’s what his father had done against Nazi Germany, what he applauded Margaret Thatcher for having done in the Falklands in 1982, and what he thought George W. Bush, the son of his former foe, was doing in the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Inevitably though, Mr. Hitchens was never a combatant, merely an opinionated observer, and the defining stand that will mark his legacy was against an ethereal rather than a mortal foe: his full blown attack on the Almighty, an entity whose existence he denied in his most famous book, God Is Not Great.
In my brief encounter with Mr. Hitchens, I learned he needed an audience. That’s why he loved to argue. He demanded to be heard, to have his voice, his opinions and his presence felt – a ghastly irony considering how his voice was ultimately silenced by the esophageal cancer that eventually killed him. In an elegy for himself in Vanity Fair in June, 2011, he lamented, “... in public and private I ‘was’ my voice” and ends his essay with the poignant plea: “What do I hope for? If not a cure, then remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”