Over the course of his 60 years, Christopher Hitchens has been a citizen of both the United States and the United Kingdom. He has been both a socialist opposed to the war in Vietnam and a supporter of the U.S. war against Islamic extremism in Iraq. He has been both a foreign correspondent in some of the world's most dangerous places and a legendary bon vivant with an unquenchable thirst for alcohol and literature. He is a fervent atheist, raised as a Christian, by a mother whose Jewish heritage was not revealed to him until her suicide.
In other words, Christopher Hitchens contains multitudes. He sees all sides of an argument. And he believes the personal is political.
This is the story of his life, lived large.
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Christopher Hitchens is a contributing editor to Vanity Fair and a visiting professor of liberal studies at the New School. He is the author of numerous books, including works on Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Mother Teresa, Bill and Hillary Clinton, Henry Kissinger, and his #1 New York Times bestseller and National Book Award nominee, God Is Not Great.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There is always a moment in childhood when the door opens and lets the future in . . .
— Graham Greene: The Power and the Glory
Something I owe to the soil that grew —
More to the life that fed —
But most to Allah who gave me two
Separate sides to my head.
— Rudyard Kipling: Kim
I OF COURSE do not believe that it is “Allah” who determines these things. (Salman Rushdie, commenting on my book god Is Not Great, remarked rather mordantly that the chief problem with its title was a lack of economy: that it was in other words exactly one word too long.)
But whatever one’s ontology may be, it will always seem tempting to believe that everything must have a first cause or, if nothing quite as grand as that, at the very least a definite beginning. And on that point I have no vagueness or indecision. I do know a little of how I came to be in two minds. And this is how it begins with me:
I am standing on a ferry-boat that is crossing a lovely harbor. I have since learned many versions and variations of the word “blue,” but let’s say that a brilliant if slightly harsh sunshine illuminates a cerulean sky-vault and an azure sea and also limns the way in which these two textures collide and reflect. The resulting tinge of green is in lambent contrast with the darker vegetation on the hillsides and makes an almost blinding combination when, allied with those discrepant yet melding blues, it hits the white buildings that reach down to the edge of the water. As a flash of drama and beauty and seascape and landscape, it’s as good an inaugural memory as one could wish.
Since this little voyage is occurring in about 1952 and I have been born in 1949, I have no means of appreciating that this is the Grand Harbor at Valletta, the capital of the tiny island-state of Malta and one of the finest Baroque and Renaissance cities of Europe. A jewel set in the sea between Sicily and Libya, it has been for centuries a place of the two-edged sword between the Christian and Muslim worlds. Its population is so overwhelmingly Roman Catholic that there are, within the walled city, a great plethora of ornate churches, the cathedral being decorated by the murals of Caravaggio himself, that seductive votary of the higher wickedness. The island withstood one of the longest Turkish sieges in the history of “Christendom.” But the Maltese tongue is a dialect version of the Arabic spoken in the Maghreb and is the only Semitic language to be written in a Latin script. If you happen to attend a Maltese Catholic church during Mass, you will see the priest raising the Communion Host and calling on “Allah,” because this after all is the local word for “god.” My first memory, in other words, is of a ragged and jagged, but nonetheless permeable and charming, frontier between two cultures and civilizations.
I am, at this stage, far too secure and confident to register anything of the kind. (If I speak a few phrases of Maltese, it is not with a view to becoming bilingual or multicultural but in order to address my priest-ridden nannies and the kitchen maids with their huge broods of children. This was the place where I first learned to see the picture of Catholicism as one of plump shepherds and lean sheep.) * Malta is effectively a British colony — its most heroic recent chapter the withstanding of a hysterical aerial bombardment by Hitler and Mussolini — and it has remained a solid possession of the Royal Navy, in which my father proudly serves, ever since the Napoleonic Wars. Much more to the immediate point, I am standing on the deck of this vessel in company with my mother, who holds my hand when I desire it and also lets me scamper off to explore if I insist.
* Everything about Christianity is contained in the pathetic image of “the flock.”
So, all things being considered, not too shaky a start. I am well-dressed and well-fed, with a full head of hair and a slender waist, and operating in a context of startling architectural and natural beauty, and full of brio and self-confidence, and on a boat in the company of a beautiful woman who loves me.
I didn’t call her by this name at the time, but “Yvonne” is the echo with which I most piercingly and yearningly recall her memory to me. After all, it was her name, and it was what her friends called her, and my shell-like ear detected quite early on a difference between this and the various comfortable Nancys and Joans and Ethels and Marjories who — sterling types all — tended to be the spouses and helpmeets of my father’s brother-officers. Yvonne . A bit of class there: a bit of style. A touch or dash of garlic and olive and rosemary to sweeten the good old plain English loaf from which, the fact must be faced, I was also sliced. But more of this when I come to Commander Hitchens. I mustn’t pretend to remember more than I really do, but I am very aware that it makes a great difference to have had, in early life, a passionate lady in one’s own corner.
For example, noticing that I had skipped the baby-talk stage and gone straight to speaking in complete sentences (even if sometimes derivative ones such as, according to family legend, “Let’s all go and have a drink at the club”), she sat me down one day and produced an elementary phonetic reading-book, or what used to be known to the humble as “a speller.” This concerned the tedious adventures of a woodland elf or goblin called Lob-agob (his name helpfully subdivided in this way) but, by the time I was done with it, I was committed for life to having some sort of reading matter within reach at all times, and was always to be ahead of my class in reading-age.
By this period, however, our family had left Malta and been posted to the much more austere surroundings of Rosyth, another naval base on the east coast of Scotland. I think Malta may have been a sort of high point for Yvonne: all British people were a cut above the rest in a semicolony and there was that club for cocktails and even the chance of some local “help.” Not that she longed to wallow in idleness but, having endured a girlhood of scarcity, slump, and then war, she couldn’t have minded a bit of color and Mediterranean dash and may well have felt she’d earned it. (On our way back from Malta we stopped for a few hours at Nice: her and my first taste of the Riviera. I remember how happy she looked.) The grayness and drabness of “married quarters” in drizzle-flogged Fifeshire must have hit her quite hard.
But she and my father had first been thrown together precisely because of drizzle and austerity, and the grim, grinding war against the Nazis. He, a career Navy man, had been based at Scapa Flow, the huge, cold-water sound in the Orkney Islands which helped establish and maintain British control over the North Sea. She was a volunteer in the Women’s Royal Naval Service or, in the parlance of the day, a “Wren.” (My most cherished photograph of her shows her in uniform.) After a short wartime courtship they had been married in early April 1945, not long before Adolf Hitler had shoved a gun into his own (apparently halitosis-reeking) mouth. One young and eager girl from a broken Jewish home in Liverpool, wed to one man twelve years her senior from a sternly united if somewhat repressed Baptist family in Portsmouth. Wartime was certainly full of such improvised unions, in which probably both at first counted themselves fortunate, but I know for a fact that while my father never stopped considering himself lucky, my mother soon ceased to do so. She also decided, for a reason that I believe I can guess, to engage in the not-so-small deception of not mentioning to anyone in the Hitchens family that she was of Jewish descent.
She herself had wanted to “pass” as English after noticing some slight unpleasantness being visited on my grandmother, who in the 1930s toiled in the millinery business. And Yvonne could pass, too, as a light brunette with hazel-ish eyes and (always to my fancy and imagination) a “French” aspect. But more to the point, I now feel sure, she did not want either me or my brother to be taxed with die Judenfrage — the Jewish question. What I do not know is quite what this concealment or reticence cost her. What I can tell you something about is what it meant for me.
The paradox was this: in postwar Britain as in Britain at all other times, there was only one tried and tested form of social mobility. The firstborn son (at least) had to be educated at a private school, with an eventual view to attending a decent university. But school fees were high, and the shoals of class and accent and social position somewhat difficult for first-timers to navigate. Neither of my parents had been to college. One of my earliest coherent memories is of sitting in my pajamas at the top of the stairs, eavesdropping on a domestic argument. It was an easy enough one to follow. Yvonne wanted me to go to a fee-paying school. My father — “The Commander” as we sometimes ironically and affectionately called him — made the heavy but obvious objection that it was well beyond our means. Yvonne was having none of this. “If there is going to be an upper class in this country,” she stated with decision, “then Christopher is going to be in it.” I may not have the words exactly right — could she have said “ruling class” or “Establishment,” terms that would then have been opaque to me? — but the purport was very clear. And, from my hidden seat in the gallery, I silently applauded. Thus a further paradox discloses itself: my mother was much less British than my father but wanted above all for me to be an English gentleman. (You, dear reader, be the judge of how well that worked out.) And, though she wanted to keep me near, she needed to argue hotly for my sake that I be sent away.
I registered this contradiction very acutely as, alternating between the beams and smiles of maternal encouragement and the hot tears of separation, she escorted me to my boarding school at the age of eight. I shall always be slightly sorry that I didn’t make more of an effort to pretend that I was desolated, too. I knew I would miss Yvonne but I suppose by then I’d had the essential experience of being loved without ever being spoiled. I was eager to get on with it. And at the school, which I had already visited as a prospective boarder, there could be found a library with shelves that seemed inexhaustible. There was nothing like that at our house, and Yvonne had taught me to love books. The cruelest thing I ever did, at the end of my first term away from home, was to come home for Christmas and address her as “Mrs. Hitchens.” I shan’t forget her shocked face. It was the enforced etiquette to address all females at the school, from masters’ wives to staff, in this way. But I still suspect myself of having committed a mean little attention-getting subterfuge.
This perhaps helps explain the gradual diminution of my store of memory of Yvonne: from the ages of eight to eighteen I was to be away from home for most of the year and the crucial rites of passage, from the pains of sexual maturity to the acquisition of friends, enemies, and an education, took place outside the bonds of family. Nonetheless, I always somehow knew how she was, and could generally guess what I didn’t know, or what was to be inferred from between the lines of her weekly letters.
My father was a very good man and a worthy and honest and hardworking one, but he bored her, as did much of the remainder of her life. “The one unforgivable sin,” she used to say, “is to be boring.” What she wanted was the metropolis, with cocktail parties and theater trips and smart friends and witty conversation, such as she had once had as a young thing in prewar Liverpool, where she’d lived near Penny Lane and briefly known people like the madly gay Frank Hauser, later director of the Oxford Playhouse, and been introduced by a boyfriend to the work of the handsome Ulster poet Louis MacNeice, contemporary of Auden and author of Autumn Journal and (her favorite) The Earth Compels . What she got instead was provincial life in a succession of small English towns and villages, first as a Navy wife and then as the wife of a man who, “let go” by the Navy after a lifetime of service, worked for the rest of his days in bit-part jobs as an accountant or “bursar.” It is a terrible thing to feel sorry for one’s mother or indeed father. And it’s an additionally awful thing to feel this and to know the impotence of the adolescent to do anything at all about it. Worse still, perhaps, is the selfish consolation that it isn’t really one’s job to rear one’s parents. Anyway, I knew that Yvonne felt that life was passing her by, and I knew that the money that could have given her the occasional glamorous holiday or trip to town was instead being spent (at her own insistence) on school fees for me and my brother, Peter (who had arrived during our time in Malta), so I resolved at least to work extremely hard and be worthy of the sacrifice.
She didn’t just sit there while I was away. She tried instead to become a force in the world of fashion. Perhaps answering the call of her milliner forebears, but at any rate determined not to succumb to the prevalent dowdiness of postwar Britain, she was forever involved in schemes for brightening the apparel of her friends and neighbors. “One thing I do have,” she used to say with a slightly defensive tone, as if she lacked some other qualities, “is a bit of good taste.” I personally thought she had the other qualities too: on those official holidays when parents would visit my boarding school and many boys almost expired in advance from the sheer dread of embarrassment, Yvonne never did, or wore, anything that I could later be teased about (and this was in the days when women still wore hats). She was invariably the prettiest and brightest of the mothers, and I could always kiss her gladly, right in front of everyone else, without any fear of mushiness, lipstick-stains, or other disasters. In those moments I would have dared anyone to tease me about her, and I was small for my age.
However, the dress-shop business didn’t go well. If it wasn’t for bad luck, in fact, Yvonne would have had no luck at all. With various friends and partners she tried to float a store called Pandora’s Box, I remember, and another called Susannah Munday, named for an ancestress of ours on the paternal Hampshire side. These enterprises just didn’t fly, and I couldn’t think why not except that the local housewives were just too drab and myopic and penny-pinching. I used to love the idea of dropping by as I went shopping, so that she could show me off to her friends and have a general shriek and gossip over some coffee, but I could always tell that business wasn’t good. With what a jolt of recognition did I read, years later, V.S. Naipaul’s uncanny diagnosis of the situation in The Enigma of Arrival . He was writing about Salisbury, which was close enough to Portsmouth:
A shop might be just two or three minutes’ walk from the market square, but could be off the main shopping track. Many little businesses failed — quickly, visibly. Especially pathetic were the shops that — not understanding that people with important shopping to do usually did it in London — aimed at style. How dismal those boutiques and women’s dress shops quickly became, the hysteria of their owners showing in their windows!
I might want to quarrel with the choice of ...
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