Against it

Ross McKibbin

  • For the Sake of Argument by Christopher Hitchens
    Verso, 353 pp, £19.95, May 1993, ISBN 0 86091 435 6

Christopher Hitchens may not be ‘the nearest thing to a one-man band since I.F. Stone laid down his pen’, but he comes close. For the Sake of Argument records a life of action, of being in the right place at the right time. Thomas Mann could never find the revolution: Hitchens cannot help tripping over it. This is, no doubt, the privilege of the foreign correspondent, but some are clearly more privileged than others. He turns up in Central America, in Central Europe, in Eastern Europe, in the Middle East, always at the crucial historical moment; he can extract from these moments a tragic episode or a comic anecdote which illuminates the whole. He really has heard – as most of us would like to hear – a neo-conservative speaker say (in English) ‘that it was no accident that the Russian language contained no word for détente.’ The life of action can also he used to subvert discreetly the academic couch-potato – the sort of person who might be expected to review this book. Of a visit to Prague in the last days of Communism, a visit which ended in his arrest, he writes that he has ‘seldom been arrested by such pitiable people’. It’s the ‘seldom’ that makes it so good.

Recording, as they do, the life of a working journo, the essays have more than a touch of the Street of Shame. There are many encounters in various ‘hell-holes’, in restaurants and bars in Charlotte Street and elsewhere which might or might not have now vanished. There is much wining and dining: perhaps more wining than dining to judge by the essay ‘Booze and Fags’ – a cheerful piece in praise of things which HM Government thinks very bad for your health. The price of what Susan Sontag has praised as Hitchens’s ‘high velocity’ can be the occasional slip: Disraeli did not ‘become’ prime minister in 1876, nor did Queen Victoria become Empress of India ‘within a few years’ (it was actually 1876); nor did Eden resign over Munich. The essays are knowing, in the literal sense. Hitchens knows lots of well-known persons – many of them individuals who the reader would also like to know. He is often very funny. There are hilarious set-pieces at the expense of, for example, John Braine and Paul Johnson.

For the Sake of Argument is not an easy book to précis. There are eight parts and 72 essays, the allocation of which is somewhat random. Most of the pieces in ‘Rogues’ Gallery’, for instance, could go equally well into ‘Studies in Demoralisation’. Nearly all the essays are, broadly speaking and in different ways, political. Some are political travelogues; others close studies of the inner workings of the American and British political systems; others still devoted to writers and artists – Goya, James Baldwin, Updike, Greene, George Eliot and, alas, P.G. Wodehouse. None of the essays is uninteresting and many of them have the virtues of the best kind of journalism – they tell you things you did not know and are unlikely to find out in more conventional quarters.

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