Friday, 16 December 2011

Farewell to the Hitch

When I woke up this morning it was snowing and a voice on the radio was saying that Christopher Hitchens was dead. We had all been expecting it, but it's still a shock. The world is full of tributes to today and I don't want to add to the pile, except to say that reading him, or (even more so) watching him talk, invariably left me feeling pointless and inadequate. He was, at times (to borrow Disraeli's famous put-down of Gladstone) inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity. But the world offered few sights more exhilarating than Hitchens in full flow.

On Radio 4 this morning, Hitchens' friend Ian McEwan gave us a moving glimpse of his last days, hooked up to morphine, lapsing repeatedly into unconsciousness, yet somehow finding reserves of strength to tap out his final articles. The mind was working at full capacity right to the end, still challenging lazy assumptions, still interrogating himself and the world.

Not a good way to go, perhaps, but a way to go well. What a contrast, though, to the iron constitution described by Toby Young in his poignant but clear-eyed tribute:

Alcohol had the opposite effect on Christopher that it has on most people. Instead of making him fuzzy and sentimental, it seemed to clear his head – and the drunker he got, the more accurate and deadly his mind became. He wasn't merely born a couple of gin-and-tonics below par. He was born a bottle of vodka below par – and I do mean a whole bottle. Quantities of alcohol that would leave ordinary mortals face down in their own vomit had the same effect on Hitchens as a strong cup of coffee. I remember one drinking session at the house of the journalist Nicholas Lezard in Shepherd's Bush. We sat up all night arguing – Hitch didn't really do small talk – and, at 7am, when I staggered out into the dawn, Christopher asked if he could share a cab with me. He was due at Television Centre to do an on-air review of the morning's papers at 7.30am.

Truly a creature from another age.

If God exists, I hope He won't be giving Christopher Hitchens too hard a time of it today. No-one less deserves an eternity of hellfire and damnation. Any God who sentenced Hitchens to such a fate would surely merit every last ounce of vitriol the writer ever flung at him, and more. There is, perhaps, a special place in heaven reserved for morally courageous atheists like Hitch, a place from which they can sit for eternity throwing insults at their creator.

It could be that the Almighty has a more ironic fate in store for one of his most eloquent critics - an eternity sitting in the divine chariot, perhaps, whispering "Remember, God, that You do not exist!" into the Sempiternal ear. A God like that would almost be worth believing in. Almost. Mind you, I don't think that Hitchens would have anything to feel embarrassed about as he approached the pearly gates. His main point, after all, was not that God did not exist but that He was Not Great.

Better for God that He does not exist than that He now has to look Christopher Hitchens in the face.