One night in pre-gentrified Notting Hill, circa 1979 or 1980, Christopher Hitchens was walking home from dinner at our house when he saw a man beating up a woman. Never one to back away from battle, physical or verbal, Christopher took a swing at the woman’s attacker. He was pleased to have spared her further savagery from the brute, until the woman told him to mind his own business and offered succour to her boyfriend. I think Christopher ended up with a black eye, but I forget which of the pair administered it.
The neighbourhood lost a vital element when he moved to New York (and later Washington) not long afterwards. He’d have hated the new Notting Hill anyway, and London wasn’t big enough to contain his wit, his ambition and his interest in the great globe. As an anti-imperialist, he had to be at the centre of the real empire. From Washington, he savaged it and wrote a book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, that should stand as an indictment for Kissinger’s crimes against humanity. Later, to the disappointment of many of his friends (including myself), he saw the virtues of imperial expeditions to Afghanistan and Iraq. Yet I won’t be unfair to him. He saw in the Taliban and Saddam Hussein the oppressiveness that he had always railed against, and he must have believed the empire had somehow changed sufficiently since the Vietnam War to do some good. He might have felt the same about Britain intervening on the side of the Republic to defeat Franco in Spain, when he would undoubtedly have taken up arms against the military rebels of 1936.
Christopher never resisted attacking his chosen enemies, but he would assail friends as well. As Christopher Buckley recalls on the New Yorker website, in a touching reminiscence of their friendship, he unleashed several thousand words in the Atlantic against his closest friend, Martin Amis, on the subject of Stalin. He also criticised another friend Edward Said, who was himself dying of leukaemia at the time, in the same magazine. It was the only time Christopher and I had a falling out. I thought it was bad form, but he reminded me that Edward was too honest a man to expect a free ride because he was ill. (I see that Edward’s daughter, the actress Najla Said, forgave Christopher and now laments his passing.) Yet most of Christopher’s friendships survived, including the one with me. It did not matter that he hated my Catholicism and I was indifferent to his atheism. Each of us believed the other was wrong about the American invasion of Iraq and said so. Life would be duller than it is if friends agreed on everything.
I shall miss long, boozy lunches and dinners that began in 1977 with James Fenton at the Gay Hussar and continued to my last visit to Washington almost two years ago. He never bored. He had charm and wit and knowledge. Who would not hang onto such a friend, right or wrong?