Lifestyle & Belief

Britain mourns the loss of a brilliant native son


Christopher Hitchens in combative pose at a book festival in Los Angeles in 2004

News of Christopher Hitchens death late yesterday was not a surprise - after all his condition has been well known for a year and a half.  But the fact that he continued to publish voluminously up to the end of his life gave out hope that he would last a while longer.  His passing has left this country's intellectual and artistic establishment bereft.  They made their feelings known in many different media.

Most British newspaper websites are featuring a selection of tributes from the twitterverse led by novelist Salman Rushdie:

"Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops. Christopher Hitchens, April 13, 1949-December 15, 2011."

The idea of being dead and trending - Christopher Hitchens would have been the man to revel in the new way in which tributes are paid to eminent public intellectuals: 140 characters at a time. Hitchens was an old-fashioned freelance - paid by the word, which suited his capacious style and encyclopedic mind.

Novelist Ian McEwan spoke movingly on the BBC's Today program:

"Right at the very end when he was feeble when his cancer overwhelmed him, he insisted on a desk by his window. There he was, a man with only a few days to live, turning out 3,000 words to meet a deadline."

The most interesting tribute comes from Britain's deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, leader of the Liberal Democrats. Turns out Clegg was an intern for the Hitch back when the late controversialist was editor of the left-wing weekly, The New Statesman. The Daily Mirror quotes him:

"Christopher Hitchens was everything a great essayist should be: infuriating, brilliant, highly provocative and yet intensely serious.

"I worked as an intern for him years ago. My job was to fact check his articles. Since he had a photographic memory and an encyclopedic mind it was the easiest job I've ever done.

But when you try to pay tribute to one of the supreme wordsmiths of the last three decades it is hard to outdo the man himself.  This conversation with the BBC's Jeremy Paxman from a year ago, after he had gone public about his grave condition, shows the man being himself.  It is worth watching in full as a portrait of courage in the face of imminent death.

Finally, the Christmas issue of the New Statesman has his exit interview.  He gave it to fellow radical atheist Richard Dawkins. Here's a sample quote:

"I have one consistency, which is [being] against the totalitarian – on the left and on the right. The totalitarian, to me, is the enemy – the one that's absolute, the one that wants control over the inside of your head, not just your actions and your taxes. And the origins of that are theocratic, obviously. The beginning of that is the idea that there is a supreme leader, or infallible pope, or a chief rabbi, or whatever, who can ventriloquise the divine and tell us what to do."

Whatever your view of Hitchens, and it was possible to have many different ones, you have to quote Shakespeare to find the right tribute:  "Nothing became his life like the leaving of it."