‘Arguably’ comprises ninety-seven essays, Christopher Hitchens’ final collection before his death in December 2011, written in the main for ‘Vanity Fair’, ‘the Atlantic’ and ‘Slate’. In ‘the Swastika and the Cedar’ he is walking along a shopping street and spots a swastika on a political poster. He takes out a felt-tip pen and begins to deface it. This would be an uncommon act of principle anywhere, but the particular high street is Beirut’s Hamra Street. He is almost immediately attacked, kicked and punched, all before he has ‘barely gotten to the letter ‘k’ in a well-known transitive verb.’ He escapes, but the blend of fearlessness, provocation and passion is Hitchens writ large. He was never the commentator behind closed doors. ‘Arguably’ is well titled.
Language is Hitchens’ tool of trade and he is pugnacious in its defence. The mighty New York Times comes in for a drubbing when it indulges in some afflatus on the topic of Iran and uranium: ‘the slack and neutral language of the headline reinforces the pseudo-objectivity of the article’. The deployment of verbs in the passive is a regular of gutless organisations, be they US newspaper leader-writers or British higher education spokespeople. ‘The confusion between the active and the passive is’ he writes ‘an indicator of a wider and deeper reticence, not to say cowardice’. He deplores the enforced resignation of a senior US government officer who has used the word ‘niggardly’ in a budget statement. ‘Hatred will always find a way, and will certainly always be able to outpace linguistic correctness.’ In democracy’s dealings with the world Hitchens sees ‘a masochistic cultural cringe somewhere in our discourse’.
He draws small distinction between failings in politics and those in art. He forgives the often prissy Anthony Powell for using ‘esurient’ and ‘inspissated’ when it fits the context, a London Club, to perfection. Evelyn Waugh’s first novel may be ‘imbued with the same breezy, heartless spirit’ but in ‘Sword of Honour’s treatment of the group of displaced Jews ‘the passage is one of the most bogus and leaden things he ever wrote.’
Dickens may have bequeathed his name to the underside of Victorian Britain but his views of foreign affairs are revealed as unenlightened. ‘Dickens if he had a view was minded towards the cause of the Confederacy.’ In a letter to Angela Burdett-Coutts on the Indian Mutiny Hitchens reports Dickens writing that he would use all ‘merciful swiftness of execution…to exterminate.’ When Governor Eyre sadistically suppressed Jamaica’s 1865 rebellion John Stuart Mill and Thomas Huxley demanded that Eyre be brought before parliament. Dickens applauds Eyre.
Language is Hitchens’ tool of trade and he is pugnacious in its defence.
Hitchens made America his home and place of work. But he never adopts the starry-eyed view of the new-comer. He makes mention of a Major General William Graves ‘who commanded the American Expeditionary Force during the 1918 invasion of Siberia (an event thoroughly airbrushed from all American textbooks).’ H M Mencken may have been a firecracker journalist for a previous generation but he is also author of a review of Mein Kampf for the American Mercury December 1933: ‘sensible enough…Germany’s first big task is to collar Austria and so consolidate the German people’. Hitchens reviews Pat Buchanan on European history: ‘this book stinks’.
One essay is entitled appropriately ‘Don’t mince words’. He derides historian Andrew Roberts for his defence of Dyer in the slaughter at Amritsar. Eleven percent of the population, he reports, accounts for seventy percent of birth defects in Yorkshire. He cites author Nadeem Aslam ‘In some families in my street the grandparents, parents and the children are all first cousins – it’s been going on for generations and so the effects of the inbreeding are quite pronounced by now’. Hitchens denounces the assault on Labour MP Ann Cryer who suggested this might be of public concern.
Religion is the eternal opponent. It refuses to stay within the domain of private conscience. It trivialises great issues, such as climate change. ‘We notice that creationism often entails ‘dispensationalism’- the demented belief that there is no point in preserving nature, because the Deity will soon replace it with a perfected form’.
One essay is entitled appropriately ‘Don’t mince words’.
In the wide range of his interests Hitchens reveals much that is novel. He digs out some of the black awfulness within regimes whose persecution of their citizens is their daily business. From Viktor Klemperer, a magazine ‘the German Feline’ publishes articles that exalt the authentic German cat over the suspect and degenerate ‘breeds’ that have been allowed to creep in. A newspaper in Zimbabwe runs Animal Farm as a serial and has its offices blown up as retributuion.
Hitchens also reports on the odd political paradox. ‘I once heard Newt Gingrich rebuking someone who was bad-mouthing Vidal’s politics, insisting that he wished to hear no ill of the author of the magnificent Lincoln. But mainly his is a voice that denounces fakery, in particular the fakery of false compassion. After the massacre on his campus, Cornell University’s President calls for the bell to be tolled thirty-three times at a memorial gathering- thirty-two times for the victims, and a toll of the bell too for the perpetrator, a general sogginess ‘engaging in a permanent dress rehearsal for masochism and the lachrymose.’
On occasion the language tips over to excess. Somerset Maugham’s wife may or may not have been ‘a greedy and impossible bitch to deal with.’ Maugham’s schooldays may have been ‘the traditional ration of bullying, beating and buggery’ but ‘leaving him with a frightful life-long speech impediment and a staunch commitment to homosexuality’ could be better phrased.
But the compensations are in writing like that on ‘Keep the Aspidistra Flying’. He distills a Britain ‘of wretched, tasteless food and watery drinks, dreary and crowded lodgings, outrageous plumbing, surly cynicism, long queues, shocking hygiene and dismal, rain-lashed holidays, continually punctuated by rudeness and philistinism.’ This sounds true. The Attlee years are adored and eulogised by a coven of unenquiring dramatists, but their theatrical reveries bear no relation to the family tales that I was told.
Hitchens writes of the literary life: ‘[m]any literary careers are doomed to go on slightly longer than they should, and to outlive the author’s original engrossing talent.’ He did not have that chance. Arguably could be twice its length and it would not tire in the reading. It sends me to the four volumes of essays that precede it.