As with my father, so too with Christopher I felt that the tab that had to be paid was not far off, and yet did not necessarily have to be paid even at the eleventh hour. I recognized in both cases that the drinking and smoking in some way could not be entirely divorced from productivity (my father similarly never missed a day of work) and indeed might be the essential fuel that kept them going. But equally I knew that continuing those habits was akin to putting leaded gas in a contemporary automobile — the car runs wonderfully until the oxygen sensors eventually clog and with them the engine. In response to such a dour observation, Christopher reminded me that his father had died of cancer after quite a bit of drinking and, I think, smoking — but not until his late seventies. And sometime around 2007 Christopher, while out west, had checked on his own medical deterioration, only to discover that, mirabile dictu, there was no deterioration: His 58-year-old lungs, heart, and circulation were supposedly those of a 50-year-old ascetic — and, as he reminded me, he was enjoying his most productive and richly rewarded years. A prayerless, secular miracle.
Our shared support for the Iraq War made us pariahs of sorts by 2006, especially in the eyes of those who once advocated the removal of Saddam Hussein and soon either argued that they had never really taken that position, or claimed parentage only of the brilliant three-week war, outsourcing responsibility for the flawed and orphaned six-year occupation to denser others. In his comparison of things small to large (and he all but said just that), Christopher once asked me whether the classics community, my readers, and my Democratic family had become disgusted with me in the same way that the far greater global literary and left-wing world had with him over Iraq. I could only answer, “Well, yes, of course, but it is a matter of degree, since I am not sure how much they knew or cared.” He smiled, “Well, if they did, at least, that’s good news, Victor. We are judged better by our enemies than our friends.” I disagreed about that.
Like many Englishmen, Christopher had a great reverence for classics; he made it a point once to have me over to dine with the great Sophoclean scholar Bernard Knox, and on another occasion a Latin-quoting Jerry Brown (who remembered that I had written him a note in classical Greek in 1976). Christopher’s daughter was a gifted Latin student, and he often peppered me with academic questions about Thucydides and Aristophanes. He oddly seemed interested in the scholarly minutiae that others considered the equivalent, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, of a dog walking on two legs (impressive, but for what purpose?): Could the average Greek have followed Pericles’ Funeral Oration as it is “transcribed” by Thucydides? How did the parabases actually work on stage in Aristophanes’ plays? For a radical, Mr. Hitchens had great reverence for traditional education, especially its emphasis on rote, grammar, and syntax.
I was more surprised about Christopher’s interest in agriculture, but then, in my experience, the English — and Christopher seemed to me as English as anyone born in Britain — seem to treat farming with the same special reverence they extend to dogs and Greek. He once asked to visit me for a weekend on our farm, and was fascinated about raisin production, tree fruit, tractors, and the economy of rural central California. I kidded him that out here driving a Massey Ferguson with a tandem disk was seen as far more impressive than reciting a stanza of Kipling, and he flared up and answered, “But why, man, one at the expense of the other?” But often of course they are.
When he arrived in rural Selma, out of drink and angry that he had exhausted his usual favorites, I warned him there was no way I could buy all his accouterments out here, and I was not going to drive all the way up to Fresno to find them. He rattled off a number of carbonated-mineral-water brands that he apparently knew well from Mexico, and announced, “Victor, there is a global brotherhood of quality drinkers that reaches even here that you are apparently not aware of.” He then insisted that we drive into the local barrio and find a “good” liquor store. Finally at one of the most run-down places imaginable we found two dusty bottles of exactly what he was looking for. “Why the surprise?” he scoffed.