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Left's Mr Angry died with his boots on, says McEwan

CHRISTOPHER Hitchens, the journalist, atheist and celebrated contrarian, fulfilled his promise to be "doing something when it comes for me" as he was writing right up to his death, it has been disclosed.

The British-born intellectual had a desk set up in his intensive care unit at his hospice and was meeting deadlines with only a few days to live, his friend the novelist Ian McEwan said.

McEwan said the 62-year-old essayist, who died late on Thursday, had to be helped on to a chair to work "with a pole and eight lines going into his body". But he still managed to finish his article and still had time to write an extra essay.

He described himself as an "essayist and a contrarian" and, as a journalist, critic, war correspondent and bon vivant, enjoyed a 40-year career as one of the world's most ubiquitous, prolific and provocative public intellectuals.

He began as a leading iconoclast of the Left and, during the 1970s, was a voluble member of a talented and raffish gang, with Julian Barnes, Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and James Fenton, which gave the 'New Statesman' magazine its glittery literary edge. But he got tired of British politics and, in 1981, moved to America where, despite occasional disagreements with his erstwhile comrades (as when he took Britain's side against the Argentine junta in the Falklands conflict), his repeated assaults on such hate figures as Ronald Reagan and Henry Kissinger continued to guarantee him a welcome in radical circles.

All this changed after the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, an event he interpreted as a turning point in "a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate". He became an outspoken opponent of "Islamofascism", forging a breach with the Left which became a permanent rift after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. While his erstwhile colleagues were out on the streets proclaiming "Not in Our Name" (a slogan he found nauseating in its "unstinting self-regard"), Hitchens emerged as one of the fiercest cheerleaders for George W Bush's strategy of "regime change". To the inevitable accusations of betrayal (George Galloway described him as the "first ever metamorphosis of a butterfly back into a slug"), Hitchens responded with characteristic gusto: such attacks, he said, washed off him "like jizz off a porn star's face".

But, as Hitchens confessed in his memoir 'Hitch-22' (2010), there had always been a "Janus-faced" side to his personality. When he was a child, his mother told his father, during an argument over whether they could afford to send him to private school: "If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be in it."

At the time this was more her aspiration than his, yet Hitchens acknowledged that alongside the donkey-jacketed revolutionary "Chris", veteran of the Aldermaston marches, there was the suave, good-looking and socially ambitious "Christopher" -- "Hypocritchens", as he was known at Balliol -- who enjoyed the company of "confident young men who owned fast cars" and frequented the Union and the Gridiron Club.

The young man spraying pro-Vietcong slogans on car plant walls or marching the streets toting some insurgent flag, might, the same evening, be found at a right-wing dining club happily gobbling up a pudding called "bombe Hanoi".

Though he claimed to keep "two sets of books" when it came to political purpose and social ambition, his "Mr Both Ways" approach was as much intellectual as social. He claimed to be faithful to the values of "Left opposition" heroes, such as Rosa Luxembourg, Leon Trotsky and George Orwell, but was always too sceptical and independent-minded to fall for the tedious dogmas of mainstream Marxism -- or any other "ism".

He took pride in "asking annoying questions at every opportunity" and, as a journalist, made a point of going out to see things for himself, whether it was a war zone or a convention of Civil War re-enactors.

The author or co-author of 17 books, as well as pamphlets and essays, Hitchens was a prolific columnist and, particularly in America, a formidable participant in public debates. He found it difficult to see a sacred cow without lobbing a hand grenade, and his more eminent targets included Mother Teresa (whom he portrayed as a fundamentalist Catholic bigot who gladhanded totalitarian regimes and was "a friend of poverty" rather than of the poor); Bill Clinton (the subject in 1999 of 'No-One Left to Lie to: The Triangulations of William Jefferson Clinton'); and God (the target in 2007 of 'God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything').

In the 1970s, as well as working as a freelance, he took various "mainstream" jobs, from being a researcher for the Insight team at the 'Sunday Times' to working as a foreign correspondent for the 'Daily Express', before joining the 'New Statesman' as a staff writer and editor under Anthony Howard. At the same time he became a regular at the famous Bloomsbury "Friday lunches" at which such luminaries as Clive James, Peter Porter, the Amises (pere et fils), Craig Raine and others would swap jokes and gossip.

As the decade wore on and Old Labour tottered towards the political graveyard, Hitchens became increasingly disillusioned with the British Left and confessed to harbouring an "odi et amo" complex about Mrs Thatcher, whom he felt was "right on essential matters". By the 1979 election (in which, for the first time, he did not vote Labour) he was starting to feel "the strong gravitational pull of the great American planet".

Hitchens's decision to settle in the United States was a turning point in his life. As a columnist for 'The Nation', he continued to fulminate against familiar targets -- American imperialism, military fascism, religious fundamentalism -- but his rightward political odyssey rolled inexorably on, driven by a disgust with the empty pieties of the Left and an appreciation of the dynamism of the American political tradition.

Gradually he expanded his columns to the pages of mainstream publications such as 'The Washington Post', 'The Boston Globe', 'Harper's Magazine', 'Newsday' and, appropriately, 'Dissent'. He also lectured and accepted visiting professorships at the universities of Pittsburgh and California and the New York School for Social Research.(©Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent