The death of Christopher Hitchens is hardly unexpected, given his protracted illness, but no less sad. We live in an age where a cacophony of fools spout all manner outrageous opinions for money, so it's a loss when a truly original, uncompromising voice is silenced.
I first came across Hitchens' work around 12 years ago when I discovered a collection of his essays and journalism on the bookshelf of a flat I was sharing. I liked the cut of his jib; the way he interspersed typically spiky, barbed pieces on modern politics with hymns to the joys of drinking and smoking, both of which I was fond of at the time, and both of which contributed to his untimely demise, as he was the first to accept. One of the first things I thought when I read one of his last articles, a painful yet beautiful examination of the agonies and indignities his illness had wreaked on his increasingly fragile frame, was how galling it must be for him to be unable to to have a fag. I doubt that crossed his mind though. If it had, I'm sure he'd have mentioned it.
It was also a delight to discover there was another Hitchens, an antithesis to the one with whom I was familiar. Chris left these shores for the US a long time ago, leaving behind his brother Peter, also a newspaper columnist, essayist and author. I can't think of two more different siblings. In one corner, Christopher, soaked in drink, mischievous, left-wing (in the main), iconoclastic, scathing of the natural order and of tradition. A stark contrast with Peter: puritanical, reactionary, a defender of the natural order and nostalgic for some mythical Golden Age of respect and deference. No wonder they were barely to able to be in the same room as each other. However, both shared a common trait, beyond an ability to write well, and a welcome one in my view (and about the only redeeming one regarding Peter): contrarianism.
It was always a delight to see Hitchens (Christopher) rub people up the wrong way. I wonder if he gravitated towards the US because there were so many more swivel-eyed, right-wing nutters there whom he could poke and jab than over here. Even more satisying, many of them were wore their faith as a badge of honour and, as we know, there were few greater enemies of the organised con that is religion than Hitchens. Of course, he also loved the US. The freedom, the possibility, the energy, which he contrasted with drab old Blighty, weighed down by the damp-encrusted grime of the ages. Though, as he also wrote, he did miss a decent cup of tea.
His contrarianism, or at least his refusal to adhere to rigid ideological lines, led him to some strange places. His defence of the war in Iraq seemed bizarre to those of us who see it as no more than a rich man's war for oil; even those who supported his view on the rise of 'Islamo-fascism' wondered why he went to to such lengths to argue the case for a war based on such flimsy evidence. But he believed it was right, and while he scorned any belief in gods and other mumbo-jumbo, the one thing he always seemed to have absolute faith in was the right to have an opinion and to disagree, something many of his critics, and the regimes he criticised, were less enthusiastic about.
So tonight I'll raise a glass, though not a cigarette (I only do that these days when led astray by Cara or Yrsa...) to Hitch. The world just became a little more bland, while the hypocrites and liars, the pompous and the greedy, will sleep sounder in their beds, which is hardly a good thing.