We almost met once, but the opportunity came at the worst possible time. A few years ago he wrote me that he had a speaking engagement down my way, and suggested that we have a drink together. Anything less than the truth would have sounded like an excuse, so I told him the truth: “I just got out of the hospital and I feel and look like hell.” He understood and we agreed to aim for another time. “I need somebody to sneer with,” I wrote, “and they’re so hard to find.” He replied: “If you ever feel like collectivizing the sneers I am within bull’s roar of you and at your service.”
The question of meeting never arose again. It was up to me to suggest another occasion but I never did. I forget what reason I gave myself, but looking back, I think Fate was at it again. If we had met, particularly with alcohol in the mix, we would have talked the hind legs off a mule, but no matter how intellectually satisfying it might have been, it would have brought about a change that I hated to think about: We could never again write those terse little notes, never again be ships that pass in the night.
Holding back has become the last remaining art form in 21st-century America and Hitchens and I had perfected something that I did not want to give up. To do so would be to join the marauding armies of equal time; the buzzing swarms of twitters and tweeters who fill the nation’s computer screens with their acronym droppings and call it “communicating”; the screenwriters who stuff movies with so much unnecessary dialogue that it confuses what little plot there is; and the verbal bricklayers who write 10,000-page congressional bills that nobody reads before passing. Brevity used to be regarded as the soul of wit, but in America it identifies a rapidly multiplying segment of the population with a three-word vocabulary consisting of “surreal,” “awesome,” and “cool.”
My last note to Hitchens before he died was about the royal wedding. “Did you watch Drooping the Colour this weekend?” I asked. He replied: “I did hazard a glimpse of it; was there anybody there higher than the rank of Sir Elton and Beckham? It looked low-rent even by showbiz standards. In Oliver Cromwell’s funeral cortege there walked John Milton, John Dryden, and Andrew Marvell.”
I’m pleased to say that the blurb I wanted to give him — “If Christopher Hitchens is a Marxist, I want to be one too” — actually did appear in an ad for one of his books. Some people believe he is now in Heaven, others that he is now in Hell, but I have the skinny on this controversy: He’s in the sea lane next to mine.
– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.