I would say 'RIP' but he would have hated that for about three different reasons.
As he scorned hagiography so consistently, let's start with the bad stuff. His prose style, frequently and rightly praised, sometimes degenerated into pomposity and bombast, particularly in his later (pre-cancer) years. His enmity for certain people - Clinton, Kissinger - verged on obsessional, and meant that he failed to see or portray them as they really were. He brooked no uncertainty, even - especially - on big questions, such as the invasion of Iraq, where uncertainty was the only reasonable or responsible attitude to take. I've watched him, on one or two occasions, bully people in the audience, from the stage, in an unpleasant, jeering, deeply unattractive manner ('Listen, darling...').
Yet for all this, he was a great and hugely likeable man, at least from afar. 99% of what he wrote was better phrased than 99% of his contemporaries. This was an even greater achievement than it sounds, since he wrote 100% more than anyone else. He wasn't just a wonderful writer, he was a masterful talker (the two rarely go together). Anyone who listened to him speak extemporaneously - which seemed to be the only way he knew how -was enthralled, particularly because, glugging from a glass of red, he only appeared to get more eloquent the more he drank. Actually, 'eloquence' doesn't quite do it, because it wasn't the spinning out of elegant sentences that impressed so much as the command of his subject, whether the subject was the Middle East, World War II, or the poetry of John Milton. He seemed, as his friend Ian McEwan remarked, to have everything he'd ever read neurologically available to him at any one time. And he'd read an awful lot.
The fundamental things that made the Hitch an inspiration to me were these:
- His knowledge. Every column he wrote and every speech he gave was deeply rooted in history of some kind, whether it be Indian politics or the Enlightenment or the Vietnam War. When he destroyed an opponent in a debate it was usually because he knew more - and could more easily summon his knowledge into speech - than they did. And this is an amazing and admirable thing: his talent for writing and speaking fluently didn't make him lazy, as it might have done. He didn't only write and talk better than anyone else, he worked harder too.
- His internationalism. It wasn't really until I read Hitchens that I understood what it meant not to be parochial. He was deeply English in manner and yet deeply global in his thinking. His points of view were enriched and strengthened by first-hand knowledge of the place and people he was writing about, as well as by his reading of history. He hardly ever wrote about a country he hadn't visited, even if it was North Korea or a war zone in Bosnia. His views on the Iraq war were formed by his visits there and by his friendship with Iraqi dissidents, particularly amongst the Kurds. He made most commentators seem small-minded and timid of the world.
- Of course, his vigilance against received wisdoms, lazy habits of language and thought.
- Above all, his - and I can't, right now, do more than use a cliché he wouldn't have entertained - his appetite for life. I've only seen him up close a few times, at speaking events and once at a party, when he immediately told me some frivolous gossip about Gordon Brown's student days, not so much out of malice as mischief. He would always have a lit cigarette in his hand (often that meant rushing out of the theatre as soon as he'd finished talking) and would always be surrounded by a huddle of friends, acquaintances and admirers, to whom he freely dispensed stories, jokes, encouragement, and his email address. He loved being in the thick of others, just as his great bête noire Bill Clinton does.
That is what Hitchens's thin-lipped disapprovers never quite got. One could disagree with him about many things, but in the end what made him special weren't his opinions. It was the fierce pleasure he took in being free. That is what tied together his writing, his fecundity, his endless energy, his curiosity, his boisterous contrarianism, his drinking, and his hatred of fascism and fundamentalism. The Hitch worshipped no god but life itself.