Further Left

R.W. Johnson

  • Prepared for the worst: Selected Essays and Minority Reports by Christopher Hitchens
    Hogarth, 357 pp, £9.99, July 1990, ISBN 0 7012 0903 8
  • Blood, Class and Nostalgia: Anglo-American Ironies by Christopher Hitchens
    Chatto, 398 pp, £18.00, July 1990, ISBN 0 7011 3361 9

Many years ago it was the habit of the PPE tutors in Magdalen College, Oxford to hold a discussion group for their undergraduates. At one such meeting we were somewhat disconcerted to find we had been gatecrashed by an extremely loud and talkative outsider of Marxist bent who laid down the law about everything, referred to the dons as ‘comrade’ – he did not know my name, so I was ‘the red-headed comrade’ – and rather capsized the whole evening. Not long after, the discussion group was disbanded. The gatecrasher’s name, we learnt, was Christopher Hitchens, and he apparently did this sort of thing rather often, being famous for a sort of pyrotechnic brashness. Looking back, one realises that these were entirely apposite qualities for the successful journalist, which is very much what Hitchens has become.

Both these books are essentially the product of his residence in Washington, a transplantation which has served him very well and not merely because brashness is a necessary virtue there. He writes well, is extremely witty, and while he may or may not still be a Marxist, he certainly enjoys an opinionatedly radical cutting-edge quite sufficient to place him apart from the general run of American journalism. Moreover, he goads Americans by a scathing de haut en bas contempt for their vulgarity and at the same time titillates them with an equal scorn for the conventional symbolism of Anglo-culture, dismissing Princess Di as a bimbo, mocking the Rhodes Scholarship with Balliol disdain and generally slaughtering sacred cows like a pocket Rambo let loose with a gun in the cow-shed. For readers of the Nation, and more particularly for the American televiewers before whom Hitchens frequently performs, this has proved a rich and entertaining diet.

There is no doubt that he possesses a considerable talent. But there is also a question of context. In some ways, American newspapermen are the world leaders in their field: they have pioneered news magazines, photo news, muck-raking, investigative reporting and most of the other great innovations of 20th-century journalism. But while in their way the New York Times and the Washington Post are magnificent, if lonely achievements, they are also prone to self-importance and full of acres of leaden prose – the deliberately dull reportage of ethical journalism. In that context someone like Hitchens shines forth like a naughty deed on a grey day.

Hitchens appears to best advantage in Prepared for the worst, a collection of his journalism first published last year and mainly drawn from the Nation, the Spectator and the New Statesman. The pieces stand up well. They are often witty, invariably acute and it is a pleasure to watch Hitchens slash merrily away at figures who are conventionally exempt from tough criticism. Barbara Tuchman, ‘a contented liberal’, is assailed for her appalling prose and the crass obviousness of many of her judgments and then pityingly dismissed as ‘the doyenne of the middlebrow American talk circuit’. He is even tougher on the Kennedy caravan of intellectuals, who hyped up their man to such a degree that it is hard for them now to explain that JFK was also a cheat, who faked authorship of his books and lied over Cuba and his war record, and a tireless philanderer. This discrepancy is due, he writes, to the ‘myths and fabrications which have been popularised by courtiers and toadies like Arthur Schlesinger’, whom he refers to as ‘a sycophant’. He is similarly tough with Stanley Hoffman for being too respectful of Henry Kissinger.

Hitchens is at his best when on the attack. He can’t stand Cyril Connolly, whom he sees as a precious old reactionary: ‘another dose of the familiar compound ... some rackety travelling, a tincture of furtive sex (with much sniggering about lesbians), and the business of voyaging long distances the better to fret about some spoiled darling left behind in the Home Counties’. But his most furious barbs are reserved for Norman Podhoretz, the reactionary editor of Commentary. Hitchens seems almost obsessed by him, returning to the attack over and over again. It is a curious fact that Podhoretz, an immodest man who has much about which to be modest, so got under the skin of intellectuals in the Eighties. He was definitively despatched by Gore Vidal some long while ago. Conor Cruise O’Brien then took his furious turn at the coconut shy. And here is Hitchens, lobbing adjectives like grenades in the same cause. It’s all too much. One can’t easily imagine anyone wasting so much ink and anger over, say, Bernard Levin – Britain’s answer to Podhoretz, roughly speaking.

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