Christopher Hitchens and I were not friends or even acquaintances. We never met or spoke on the phone, just exchanged occasional brief letters — notes really — hand-written and snail-mailed at first, e-mailed later. I suppose the most colloquial name for our relationship is “pen pals,” but that is much too hearty and well-adjusted for either of the difficult personalities involved: It reeks of reaching out. My description of what we shared comes from the imagery that Longfellow called “ships that pass in the night.”
Our first pass occurred in the ’80s when we were both weekday book reviewers on Newsday. I think I was Tuesday and he was Wednesday. The book-page staff took to betting on which of us would come up with the most devastating comment on a bad book. The results were passed on to us by the book editor, the late Nina King (just about everybody I used to know is now “the late”), while Hitchens and I, voicing suitably modest disclaimers, would tell Nina our favorite lines from each other’s reviews, which she would then pass on to us. This strikes me as significant now. That Nina slipped so naturally into the role of go-between seems to hint that even then the fates had decided that he and I would never meet.
Hitchens went on to bigger and better devastations, attacking religion in general and Mother Teresa in particular, while I went on to National Review. It was the least likely place to bring us back together but, in a way, that’s where it happened. One of my last “Misanthrope’s Corner” columns before my premature retirement in 2002 was about my experiences in blurbing books. I related my best blurbing stories, then ended with a confession: “The writer I would most like to blurb is Christopher Hitchens and I’ve already written the blurb: ‘If Christopher Hitchens is a Marxist, I want to be one too.’”
That broke the ice. He wrote me a thank-you note and our occasional correspondence began. We always addressed each other as Miss King and Mr. Hitchens, our symbolic — but never spelled out — loathing for the hang-loose world we both occupied. It was better that way; we said more by saying nothing.
I was glad that we always kept things short. If we had written real letters I would eventually have gone on too long about my Anglophilia, but one of our brief exchanges brought it out naturally. I asked him if he knew the words to an old music-hall song my father used to sing, about an undernourished baby having a bath. He did, and dashed off the Cockney lyrics:
BLOCKYour baby ’as gone down the plug ’ole, your baby ’as gone down the plug;
The poor little thing was so skinny and thin, ’e ought to’ve been washed in a jug.
Your baby is perfectly ’appy, ’e don’t need no washing no more!
Your baby ’as gone down the plug ’ole. Not lost, just gone before!ENDBLOCK