Category Archive 'Christopher Hitchens'

01 Jan 2015

Hitchens on the Drinking Life

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On the occasion of this particularly convivial time of year, The Dish shared the late Christopher Hitchens’ account of his own tippling habits, straight out of his memoir, Hitch-22.


Hitchens had even more to say about drink here:

I’ll be 54 in April, and everyone keeps asking how I do it. How do I do what? I’m never completely sure what the questioner means. I *hope* they mean how do I manage to keep producing books, writing essays, making radio and television appearances at all hours, traveling all over the place with no sign of exhaustion, teaching classes, and giving lectures, while still retaining my own hair and teeth and a near-godlike physique which is the envy of many of my juniors. Sometimes, though, I suppose they mean how do I do all this and still drink enough every day to kill or stun the average mule? My doctor confesses himself amazed at my haleness (and I never lie to a medical man), but then, in my time I’ve met more old drunks than old doctors.

What with the garlic, the full strength cigarettes, the raw espresso, and the array of winking and shimmering glasses and bottles, I can face the world pretty heartily (despite a slight heftiness around the central portions which i keep meaning to “address,” as the saying goes, and despite a long-standing preference for nocturnal activity over encounters with “morning persons.” I will admit that I am a standout in Washington for non-attendance at power breakfasts). In Europe, I don’t seem to attract as much attention, or as many questions. Indeed, it was the so-called French paradox that started the inquiry into the medicinal effects of alcohol in the first place. American physicians, taking their cautious tours of Paris and Strasbourg in the spring or perhaps having arranged to have their tax-deductible proctologists’ conventions in Provence, went to restaurants where they predicted from observation that all the diners would be dead or dying within a year. Then they went back — perhaps after attending a few boring funerals for their own miserable colleagues — and saw the selfsame French still browsing and sluicing away and looking more joyously fit than ever.

Well, that surely couldn’t be right. But an unsmiling look at the statistics confirmed that there was less heart disease in France, and meticulous scientific investigation then isolated red-wine consumption as the key variable. So let me tell you something that I could have told you long ago, and that your doctor already knew but hadn’t been telling you. Red wine will elevate your “good -cholesterol numbers (H.D.L.) as against your “bad” (L.D.L.) ones, and it will then and inspire your blood so that it is much less likely to go all clotted on you. A few drinks also assist you in warding off diabetes. And not just red wine, either. pretty much any grape or grain product will do. In Woody Allen’s 1973 movie, Sleeper, he plays an owner of a health-food restaurant in Greenwich village who is cryogenically frozen, and then thawed out in the year 2173. Among the many breakthroughs made by science in the intervening two centuries is the liberating discovery that steak, cream pies, and hot fudge are positively good for the system. The New England Journal of Medicine for January 2003 contains news much more encouraging than that. After all, nobody wants cream pie and hot fudge every day (do they?). And even if they did turn out to be beneficial for the health, they wouldn’t make you wittier, sexier, more vivacious, and less tolerant of boring and censorious people. Which the the daily intake of the fruit of the vine — to say nothing of the slowly distilled and matured grain — will also do, if you know how to make it your servant and not your master.

A few swift tips here, to show that I am perfectly serious. On the whole, observe the same rule about gin martinis — and all gin drinks — that you would in judging female breasts: one is far too few, and three is one two many. Do try to eat the olives: they can be nutritious. Try to eat something, indeed, at every meal. Take lots of fresh or distilled water. Don’t mix from different bottles of red wine: Dance with the one that brung ya. Avoid most white wine for its appalling acidity and banality. (Few things make me laugh louder than the ostentatious non-drinkers who get plastered when they condescend to imbibe a glass of toxic Chardonnay, and who have been fooling themselves for so long.) Avoid Pernod and absinthe and ouzo. Even if it makes you look like a brand snob, do specify a label when ordering spirits in particular. I once researched this for a solemn article and found that if you just ask for, say, vodka-and-tonic the barman is entitled to give you whatever he has on hand, which is often a two-handled jug labeled “Vodka” under the bar. It can be even worse with scotch, where imitation blends are rife. Pick a decent product and stay with it. Upgrade yourself, for Chrissake. Do you think you are going to live forever?

04 Jan 2012

Hitchens… and Victor Davis Hanson!?

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Postmortem tributes to the late flamboyant journalist Christopher Hitchens became so prolific and fulsome that they actually provoked satirical parody from Neal Pollack in Salon.

Hitchens spoke out against war, and also for war. In a span of five years, he bore witness to the fall of the Berlin Wall, the explosion of the Eiffel Tower, and the construction of the new holographic Eiffel Tower. He had acid in his pocket, acid in his pen and acid in his veins. Then Darkness fell, on Sept. 11, 2001. We’d all moved to America and gotten totally rich.

Hitchens changed that day. For months, he’d wander the streets at night, looking to drunkenly berate someone who disagreed with him about the evils of Islamofascism. Occasionally he’d attempt to strangle young journalists, who admired him unquestioningly, with their own neckties. But he was right. He was always right. Even when he was wrong.

The night they killed Osama bin Laden, he showed up at my apartment, drunk but lucid, quoting T.S. Eliot, Longfellow and, of course, himself. We stayed up watching CNN, which was actually pretty boring. In the morning, over a breakfast of corn flakes and whiskey, I said, “Well, I guess that’s the end of Islamofascism. Good job!”

Hitchens went into my kitchen, took a cutting board off the counter, and threw it into my forehead, drawing blood.

“Don’t be an imbecile,” he said. “The struggle never ends. Also, you must remember that there is no God.”

I needed four stitches that day. Hitch put them in himself, with his teeth. What a friend he was.


I thought that the funereal commemorations, at that point, had gone about as far as they could go, but, no, life was still able to top art.

Along came an essay from (of all people) paleocon classicist Victor Davis Hanson (the California Cato) informing us that he, too, had been a friend of Hitch. Did anyone who writes in Britain or America not drink with Hitchens (–or worse)?

Provoking the question: which is the wilder and funnier story, the fictional parody above or the actual testimony of a live eyewitness?

Christopher once asked me whether the classics community, my readers, and my Democratic family had become disgusted with me in the same way that the far greater global literary and left-wing world had with him over Iraq. I could only answer, “Well, yes, of course, but it is a matter of degree, since I am not sure how much they knew or cared.” He smiled, “Well, if they did, at least, that’s good news, Victor. We are judged better by our enemies than our friends.” I disagreed about that.

Like many Englishmen, Christopher had a great reverence for classics; he made it a point once to have me over to dine with the great Sophoclean scholar Bernard Knox, and on another occasion a Latin-quoting Jerry Brown (who remembered that I had written him a note in classical Greek in 1976). Christopher’s daughter was a gifted Latin student, and he often peppered me with academic questions about Thucydides and Aristophanes. He oddly seemed interested in the scholarly minutiae that others considered the equivalent, to paraphrase Dr. Johnson, of a dog walking on two legs (impressive, but for what purpose?): Could the average Greek have followed Pericles’ Funeral Oration as it is “transcribed” by Thucydides? How did the parabases actually work on stage in Aristophanes’ plays? For a radical, Mr. Hitchens had great reverence for traditional education, especially its emphasis on rote, grammar, and syntax.

I was more surprised about Christopher’s interest in agriculture, but then, in my experience, the English — and Christopher seemed to me as English as anyone born in Britain — seem to treat farming with the same special reverence they extend to dogs and Greek. He once asked to visit me for a weekend on our farm, and was fascinated about raisin production, tree fruit, tractors, and the economy of rural central California. I kidded him that out here driving a Massey Ferguson with a tandem disk was seen as far more impressive than reciting a stanza of Kipling, and he flared up and answered, “But why, man, one at the expense of the other?” But often of course they are.

When he arrived in rural Selma, out of drink and angry that he had exhausted his usual favorites, I warned him there was no way I could buy all his accouterments out here, and I was not going to drive all the way up to Fresno to find them. He rattled off a number of carbonated-mineral-water brands that he apparently knew well from Mexico, and announced, “Victor, there is a global brotherhood of quality drinkers that reaches even here that you are apparently not aware of.” He then insisted that we drive into the local barrio and find a “good” liquor store. Finally at one of the most run-down places imaginable we found two dusty bottles of exactly what he was looking for. “Why the surprise?” he scoffed.

29 Dec 2011

“Such, Such Were the Joys!”

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A great anecdote from Christopher Hitchens’ Hitch-22: A Memoir.

At Stanford, back in 1987, Christopher Hitchens was introduced by the egregious Edward Said to the estimable critic of the novel Ian Watt.

Watt pointed out the window to the large number of Japanese students visible on Stanford’s campus, and remarked thoughtfully: “I know it’s silly to say so, but it still makes me feel odd sometimes.”

[Ian Watt, you see, was ] one of the few survivors of The Bridge On The River Kwai, The Burma Railroad, Changi Jail in Singapore, and other Hirohito horrors that I still capitalize in my mind. He admitted later that, detecting other people’s reserve after returning home from these wartime nightmares, he had developed a manner of discussing them apotropaically, as it were, so as to defuse them a bit. And he told me the following tale, which I set down with the hope that it captures his memorably laconic tone of voice:

    Well, we were in a cell that was probably built for six but was holding about sixteen of us. There wasn’t much food and we hadn’t been given any water for quite a while. The heat was absolutely ferocious. Dysentery had begun to take its toll, which was distinctly disagreeable at such close quarters…

    Added to this unpleasantness, we could hear one of our number being rather badly beaten by the Japanese guards, with rifle-butts it I seemed, in their guardroom down the corridor. At this rather trying moment one of my young subalterns, who’d managed to fall asleep, started screaming and flailing and yelling. He was shouting: “No, no—please don’t… Not any more, not again, Oh God please.” Hideous noises like that. I had to take a snap decision to prevent panic, I so I ordered the sergeant to slap him and wake him up. When he came to, he apologized for being a bore but brokenly confessed that he’d dreamed he was back at Tonbridge.

18 Dec 2011

Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011


Christopher Hitchens (center), between friends Ian McEwan (left) and Martin Amis.

Electronic and print media are absolutely filled with tributes to Christopher Hitchens, who died this week of esophageal cancer aged 62. Hitchens seems to have known, and won extravagant admiration for his wit, his writing, and his panache from just about everyone in the international republic of letters.

David Berlinski (father of the lovely and talented Claire), I thought, delivered the most poetical, comparing Hitch’s conspicuously gallant departure, conducted deliberately on the record and before his enormous readership in print (final example), to that of the great William Marshall.

Christopher Hitchens chose to greet death publicly. Had he thought of it, he might well have invited an orchestra. We signed books together after our appearance in Birmingham, and to admirers on his very long line inquiring after his health, Hitchens replied that he was dying. It was a response that inevitably took his interlocutor aback, the more so since it was true. I followed his interviews and read his essays about cancer and death. I found them moving. But they do not evoke the man. In his portrait of William Marshall (Guillaume Maréchal), The Flower of Chivalry, Georges Duby describes William “advancing calmly toward death” in full public view, his friends and retainers at his side, “proud of having been the instrument of the final, the fugitive, the anachronistic triumph of honor.”

Having contracted a terrible illness in the twenty first century, Christopher Hitchens returned to the thirteenth century in order to have it be seen to its end.

05 Aug 2010

Hitchens and Cancer

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Christopher Hitchens shares his current near-death experience.

The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application in my case. In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by a gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read—if not indeed write—the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the best-seller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?

Hitch writes wittily and one admires his courage, but I must say I do find myself a bit puzzled by the eagerness of professional literati like Hitchens not merely to share, but to avidly harvest, process, package, and market such close-to-the-bone experiences as a personal fatal illness.

My own natural inclination is to regard broad areas of personal life and experience, particularly this kind, as completely private. I would no more desire to tell an audience of strangers what I thought when I learned I had a fatal condition than I would care to disrobe in public.

It seems certain to me that my attitude must be a residual feature of my primitive, ordinary American, working class origins. Nothing could be more characteristic of membership in the Ivy League, elite world of high achievement, celebrity, and success than rushing, as quickly as possible following any notable experience, to the keyboard and hurrying one’s account of myself and whatever into print.

All experience was once considered useful for the forging of the human character. Today, all experience is simply more fodder for publication.

True members of the community of fashion are always marketing themselves. One can picture Hitchens arguing with Charon about not being permitted to retain his Blackberry and the lack of Wifi access from the River Styx. There would be such a huge opportunity for a major feature on exactly what a chap sees, and everything he experiences, as he is drawn irresistibly in the direction of that bright white light. How frustrating it would be!

Let’s hope Hitchens beats the odds and can go on writing and self-revelating for a long time yet.

28 Jun 2008

“None of These People Should Be President”

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The ineffable Christopher Hitchens trashes the lot of them.

Hillary Clinton & Michelle Obama: “The rage of the entitled on how they didn’t get it all, handed to them on a skewer… with a dollop of Béarnaise Sauce on it.”

Barack Obama: “If you have a candidate whose is as obviously suave and pretty coldly…well, let’s say ‘coolly’ (to be neutral) calculating, and politically as intelligent as the Senator, if he ties such a huge can to his tail, such a big, dirty, rattling can, and he can’t get rid of it, wait a minute! which is it? is he very crass or is he very suave?

The GOP: “If the Republican Party was, what?.. a dog, it should be shot.

Bill Clinton: “A horrible primate.

5:02 video

Hat tip to Charles Johnson.

05 Oct 2007

Remembering Lieutenant Daily

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2nd LT Daily in Mosul, January, 2007

Christopher Hitchens read in the LA Times that his own writings had inspired Mark Daily, a young graduate of UCLA, to change his mind about the war and enlist as an officer in the US Army in order to serve in Iraq, where he was killed last January by an IED.

A must read.

Hat tip to Karen L. Myers.

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