Hitchens Observed
How Christopher Hitchens learned to love old England.

Christopher Hitchens in 2010


John O’Sullivan

Sometime in the early 1970s, Frank Johnson, later editor of the British Spectator but then a young parliamentary correspondent, came into my room at the Daily Telegraph and began waxing enthusiastic about a newcomer to Fleet Street, one Christopher Hitchens, with whom he had dined the previous night.

Eulogies of Christopher have poured from the press both before and since his recent death from cancer. His extraordinary courage on the edge of eternity; his justified pride in never missing a deadline (with only hours to live, he delivered a major essay on Chesterton to The Atlantic); his lack of self-pity over an illness he had earned fair and square by his chain-smoking; his wit, clarity, and unyielding firmness in debate — all these earned him admiration, sympathy, and even love from millions of people who had never met him. They ranged across the spectrum from radical atheists who saw him as their champion to evangelical Christians praying for his conversion.

So it requires a slight feat of memory to recall a time when Christopher wasn’t the celebrity “Hitch” but an unknown young, ambitious aspiring journalist just down from Oxford.

He wasn’t entirely unknown even then. He had cut quite a dash at Oxford, as his memoir Hitch-22 recounts, by combining sandwich lunches on the picket line with formal dinners at the most reactionary high tables. One Oxford contemporary dismissed him as a salon revolutionary with the words, “Oh yes, Hitchens. Never seen in black tie at the Oxford Union, never seen outside it in anything else.” Private Eye magazine had picked up this caricature of him and introduced it to a wider metropolitan audience under the rather feeble pseudonym “Christopher Robin.”

So I had heard of Christopher, but not exactly favorably.

Frank, however, was entranced. After a good dinner the previous night, he and Christopher had wandered for hours around London debating politics and literature. Towards the end, they had stopped for supper at a fish-and-chip shop, where Hitchens had loudly denounced the working classes in an exaggerated upper-class accent in order, said an amused but nervous Frank, to sharpen class contradictions and advance the revolution.

I was less impressed than Frank by this because I recognized it as the Pappenhacker gambit. In Evelyn Waugh’s Scoop, Pappenhacker is a journalist who is seen being inexcusably rude to a waiter. His conduct is explained by Mr. Salter of the rival paper, the Daily Beast:

He’s always like that to waiters. You see he’s a communist. Most of the staff at the Twopence are — they’re University men, you see. Pappenhacker says that every time you are polite to a proletarian you are helping to bolster up the capitalist system. He’s very clever of course, but he gets rather unpopular.

Christopher himself loved Waugh. He quoted the Pappenhacker passage above in a 2005 Vanity Fair article. So he was presumably amusing himself in playing the revolutionary, but he was partly serious too.

Until his famous change of mind over the Iraq War, Christopher’s politics were resolutely left-wing, belonging to a school that Frank once defined as “country-house Trotskyism.” (He was describing the ideology of the Tatler magazine, then edited by Tina Brown, who is now running the Daily Beast — in the real world, that is, and in a small world too.)

At that time, however, the generation of ’68ers was beginning to make itself and its politics felt on Fleet Street. I knew that I was immovably on the other side of the barricades.

So when Frank told me about his evening out, I suspiciously pigeonholed Christopher as the distilled spirit of 1968. That didn’t prevent me from being charmed by him when the three of us met later, or from enjoying debates with him both private and formal, or even from developing a friendship that was real and sustained though not very close. But I nursed my suspicion of him as an inveterate enemy of the traditional in everything from politics to morality — until a small incident one evening in the late ’70s.