Friday 18 October 2019

Deeply erudite, surprisingly humble, and with most unusual hands

John-Paul McCarthy recalls a dinner party spent sitting next to the huge intellect that was Christopher Hitchens

Christopher Hitchens

I was once on the periphery of a dinner at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford, flanking Christopher Hitchens, who died on Thursday.

I remember a polite, if intermittently demanding dinner companion, ever-alert to ideological slackness around the table.

Dinner, like life, was just another forum for confrontation. He was very much as I expected: self-regarding, well read, amusing, fluent. I was surprised, though, to find that he had a sublimated streak of humility when I told him how moved I was by his essay, The Ballad of Route 66, a road trip essay he penned while at the wheel of a red Corvette. Hitchens bowed gently when I quoted my favourite line back to him, the line describing how a modest bathroom in a Memphis motel was altogether "too small for the King's heartbreaking needs". This King, of course, was the bloated Elvis edging towards oblivion in 1976.

They say that Hitchens's talents were palsied by mere politics. I think that he did see politics as O Faolain's 'Siberia and chains', if only because he sounded much less encumbered when discussing problems that could not be neatly plotted on the Left-Right axis.

My longest exchange with him was about Conor Cruise O'Brien's book, Writers and Politics (this is the one with the famous essay '1890-1916' that analyses the unusual degree of mental activity in Ireland after the Parnell bloodbath) and about the US Supreme Court. Hitchens spoke elegantly about the way he mentally grouped O'Brien with the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm and (I think) Ernest Gellner, Britain's most original scholar of nationalism. I remember thinking that this nexus was meant to convey respect for the Cruiser and even fond indebtedness, regardless of the fact that Hitchens's faction of socialists never understood O'Brien's anti-Marxist analysis of unionism and partition in States of Ireland.

On the US Supreme Court, I asked Mr God is


Not Great what he made of the fact that the most relentless critic of religious fundamentalism in modern America was himself a deeply devout Irish Catholic, Justice William J Brennan, who exiled prayer from the public schools in 1963 and designed the ill-starred privacy rationale for the legalisation of abortion in 1973.

We were sitting in the Morse Bar of the Randolph hotel at this point, and as he explained quietly to me how 'liberal Catholicism' was all fur coat and no knickers, he ran his hands through his sandy hair.

I remember noticing how odd his fingers were, squat digits worthy of Prince Charles that did not bend even when he flexed his paws. Hands matter, I think. The art historian Arnold Toynbee got a 90-minute private lecture in 1936 from Hitler in Berlin and all he could remember for weeks after were the Fuhrer's beautiful, shapely hands.

Hitchens's hands were not beautiful, but battered; unlovely if worthy mitts for the brawling behemoth of letters he became. Vale.

JP McCarthy writes for

Sunday Independent

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