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British author Christopher Hitchens dies at 62

Published 16/12/2011

Faithless: Christopher Hitchens
Faithless: Christopher Hitchens
Archive photo of Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens, the author, essayist and polemicist who waged verbal and occasional physical battle on behalf of causes on the left and right, has died after a long battle with cancer at the age of 62.

A prolific and public intellectual who enjoyed his drink - enough to "to kill or stun the average mule" - and cigarettes, he announced in June 2010 that he was being treated for cancer of the oesophagus and cancelled a tour for his memoir Hitch-22.

Hitchens, a frequent television commentator and a contributor to Vanity Fair, Slate and other publications, became a popular author in 2007 thanks to God Is Not Great, a manifesto for atheists that defied a recent trend of religious works.

Cancer humbled but did not mellow him. Even after his diagnosis, his columns appeared weekly, savaging the Royal Family or revelling in the death of Osama bin Laden.

"I love the imagery of struggle," he wrote about his illness in an August 2010 essay in Vanity Fair. "I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient."

Eloquent and intemperate, bawdy and urbane, he was an acknowledged contrarian and contradiction - half-Christian, half-Jewish and fully non-believing; a native of England who settled in America; a former Trotskyite who backed the Iraq War and supported George W Bush.

But his passions remained constant and enemies of his youth, from Henry Kissinger to Mother Teresa, remained hated.

He was a militant humanist who believed in pluralism, racial justice and freedom of speech, big cities and fine art and the willingness to stand the consequences. He was smacked in the rear by then-prime minister Margaret Thatcher and beaten up in Beirut. He once submitted to waterboarding to prove that it was indeed torture.

Hitchens was an old-fashioned sensualist who abstained from clean living as if it were just another kind of church. In 2005, he recalled a trip to Aspen, Colorado, and a brief encounter after stepping off a ski lift.

"I was met by immaculate specimens of young American womanhood, holding silver trays and flashing perfect dentition," he wrote. "What would I like? I thought a gin and tonic would meet the case. 'Sir, that would be inappropriate.' In what respect? 'At this altitude gin would be very much more toxic than at ground level.' In that case, I said, make it a double."

An emphatic ally and inspired foe, he stood by friends in trouble (Satanic Verses novelist Salman Rushdie) and against enemies in power (Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini).

His heroes included George Orwell, Thomas Paine and Gore Vidal (pre-September 11, 2001). Among those on the Hitchens list of shame: Michael Moore, Saddam Hussein, Kim Jong Il, Sarah Palin, Gore Vidal (post September 11) and the Prince of Wales.

"We have known for a long time that Prince Charles's empty sails are so rigged as to be swelled by any passing waft or breeze of crankiness and cant," Hitchens wrote in 2010 after the heir to the throne gave a speech criticising Galileo for the scientist's focus on "the material aspect of reality".

"He fell for the fake anthropologist Laurens van der Post. He was bowled over by the charms of homeopathic medicine. He has been believably reported as saying that plants do better if you talk to them in a soothing and encouraging way. But this latest departure promotes him from an advocate of harmless nonsense to positively sinister nonsense."

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth in 1949. His father Eric, was a "purse-lipped" Navy veteran known as "The Commander". His mother Yvonne was a romantic who later killed herself during an extramarital rendezvous in Greece.

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Patrick Cockburn pays his tribute to the wit, warmth, and humanity of his friend

Young Christopher would have rather read a book. He was a "a mere weed and weakling and kick-bag" who discovered that "words could function as weapons" and so stockpiled them.

At Oxford, he met such long-time friends as authors Martin Amis and Ian McEwan and claimed to be nearby when visiting Rhodes scholar Bill Clinton did or did not inhale marijuana. Radicalised by the 1960s, Hitchens was often arrested at political rallies, was kicked out of the Labour Party over his opposition to the Vietnam War and became a correspondent for the radical magazine International Socialism. His reputation broadened in the 1970s through his writings for the New Statesman.

Wavy-haired, brooding and aflame with wit and righteous anger, he was a star of the left on paper and on camera, a popular television guest and a columnist for one of the world's oldest liberal publications, The Nation. In friendlier times, Vidal was quoted as citing Hitchens as a worthy heir to his satirical throne.

But Hitchens never could simply nod his head. He feuded with fellow Nation columnist Alexander Cockburn, broke with Vidal and angered liberals by stating that the child's life begins at conception. An essay for Vanity Fair was titled "Why Women Aren't Funny", and Hitchens was not kidding.

He had long been unhappy with the left's reluctance to confront enemies or friends. He would note his strong disappointment that Arthur Miller and other leading liberals shied from making public appearances on behalf of Rushdie after the Ayatollah Khomeini called for his death. He advocated intervention in Bosnia and the overthrow of Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

No Democrat angered him more than Clinton, whose presidency led to the bitter end of Hitchens's friendship with White House aide Sidney Blumenthal and other Clinton backers. As Hitchens wrote in his memoir, he found Clinton "hateful in his behaviour to women, pathological as a liar, and deeply suspect when it came to money in politics".

He wrote the anti-Clinton book No One Left To Lie To at a time when most liberals were supporting the president as he faced impeachment over his affair with Monica Lewinsky. Hitchens also loathed Hillary Clinton and switched his affiliation from independent to Democrat in 2008 just so he could vote against her in the presidential primary.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, completed his exit from the left. He fought with Vidal, Noam Chomsky and others who either suggested that US foreign policy had helped cause the tragedy or that the Bush administration had advanced knowledge. He supported the Iraq War, quit The Nation, backed Bush for re-election in 2004 and repeatedly chastised those he believed worried unduly about the feelings of Muslims.

"It's not enough that faith claims to be the solution to all problems," he wrote in 2009 after a Danish newspaper apologised for publishing cartoons of the prophet Mohammed that led Muslim organisations to threaten legal action. "It is now demanded that such a preposterous claim be made immune from any inquiry, any critique, and any ridicule."

His essays were compiled in such books as For The Sake Of Argument and Prepared For The Worst. He also wrote short biographies/appreciations of Paine and Thomas Jefferson, a tribute to Orwell and Letters To A Young Contrarian (Art Of Mentoring), in which he advised that "Only an open conflict of ideas and principles can produce any clarity".

A collection of essays, Arguably, came out in September this year and he was planning a "book-length meditation on malady and mortality". He appeared in a 2010 documentary about the topical singer Phil Ochs.

Survived by his second wife, author Carol Blue, and by his three children, Alexander, Sophia and Antonia, Hitchens had well crafted ideas about posterity, clarified years ago when he saw himself referred to as "the late" Christopher Hitchens in print. For the May 2010 issue of Vanity Fair, before his illness, Hitchens submitted answers for the Proust Questionnaire, a probing and personal survey for which the famous have revealed everything from their favourite colour to their greatest fear.

His vision of earthly bliss: "To be vindicated in my own lifetime."

His ideal way to die: "Fully conscious, and either fighting or reciting (or fooling around)."

Related articles
Richard Dawkins: Illness made Hitchens a symbol of the honesty and dignity of atheism

Patrick Cockburn pays his tribute to the wit, warmth, and humanity of his friend



The world according to Hitchens

On religion



"The main source of hatred in the world is religion, and organised religion."



On Mother Teresa



"A lying, thieving Albanian dwarf.... She was not a friend of the poor. She was a friend of poverty.... She has gigantically increased the amount of poverty and misery in the world. The vast sums of money she raised were spent mainly on building convents in her own honour."



On the Bible



"The Bible may, indeed does, contain a warrant for trafficking in humans, for ethnic cleansing, for slavery, for bride-price and for indiscriminate massacre, but we are not bound by any of it because it was put together by crude, uncultured human mammals."



On drinking and smoking



"Cheap booze is a false economy."



"My keystone addiction is to cigarettes, without which cocktails and caffeine (and food) are meaningless."



On Henry Kissinger:



"Henry Kissinger should have the door shut in his face by every decent person and should be shamed, ostracised and excluded. No more dinners in his honour; no more respectful audiences for his absurdly overpriced public appearances; no more smirking photographs with hostesses and celebrities; no more soliciting of his worthless opinions by sycophantic editors and producers.... Let this character at last be treated like the reeking piece of ordure that he is."



On George Galloway



"A thug and a demagogue, the type of working-class-wideboy-and-proud-of-it who is too used to the expenses account, cars and hotels – all cigars and back-slapping. He is a very cheap character and a short-arse like a lot of them are, puffed up like a turkey. He has managed to fuse being a Baathist with being a Muslim sectarian and a carpet-bagger in the East End."



This came shortly after the then-MP had responded to a Hitchens question by calling him "a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay". He added: "Your hands are shaking. You badly need another drink."



On George W Bush



"He is unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated and apparently quite proud of all these things."



On Bill Clinton



"A habitual and professional liar."



On the royal family



"The House of Windsor has achieved the near-impossible by way of its own negation. Its misery and frustration, which are inseparable from the hereditary principle of random selection – the same principle that undid the Cromwells and will undo Kim Il-sung – are such as to make Britain look more like a banana republic, not less."



On torture



"If waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture."



(After submitting himself to waterboarding to see what it was like.)



On cluster bombs



"Cluster bombs are perhaps not good in themselves, but when they are dropped on identifiable concentrations of Taliban troops, they do have a heartening effect."



On the execution of Saddam Hussein



"To watch this abysmal spectacle as a neutral would be bad enough. To know that the US government had even a silent, shamefaced part in it is to feel something well beyond embarrassment."



On writing



"Everybody does have a book in them, but in most cases that's where it should stay."



"Being a writer is what I am, rather than what I do."



On Christmas



"A moral and aesthetic nightmare."



On having cancer



"Sobering in one way and exhilarating in another... it has given me a more vivid idea of what makes life worth living, and defending."



On his atheism



"No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind. But I like surprises."



On death



"Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of paradise and the dread of hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more."



On himself



"I burned the candle at both ends... it often gave a lovely light."

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