Last week Christopher Hitchens lost his life to cancer of the oesophagus. Although the news wasn't wholly unexpected, it sparked a grief in me that was surprising.
Hitchens was referred to as many things: a writer, journalist, polemicist, author, critic... and that's not even touching on the adjectives.
I vividly remember the first time I became aware of Hitchens. Soon after his cancer diagnosis, he was interviewed by Paxman for the BBC. I was amazed at not only his outlook, but the way he communicated it so beautifully, thoughtfully and understated. What was really touching was Paxman's expression - brimming with reverence.
He talked about his diagnosis in such an understated way, neither hopeful nor pessimistic. He said that his diagnosis had made him sober and objective, and one of the first things he said about the cancer was that he hated the idea of getting up in the morning and not being able to read the day's newspapers.
When asked what he wanted to see before he died, without contemplation he said that he would have liked to see the World Trade Centre reopened and Bin Laden dead. Such a question would usually conjure up a bucket list, something a bit less selfless. But that's how Hitchens saw the world - it was the world he lived in and he wanted to be as involved as possible. He casually said that he'd always known that we're born into a losing struggle - yet he said it so calmly, so matter-of -factly that he could have been talking about toast.
To me, Hitchens was like a classic piece of literature. Ferociously, albeit implicitly intelligent. It's tempting for everyone to give their opinions, to review, interpret and give reason for its ways. No matter how luminous he may be, someone will always pick up on the negative, say that he was compelled by malevolent means, the way that a story could have an evil river running through it. For Hitchens, who was as delicate, deep and as tempting to analyse as the best literature there is, it was said that his drinking and smoking was his dark twist. Yet, others argue that his habits were what made him compelling.
There are many different types of clever. In my opinion, Hitchens was the most enviable kind of clever. He may not have invented or cured anything, but he absorbed everything around him that contributed to his time on earth. During his time with cancer, it was obvious that he had such an unwillingness to never give up. He said that he wasn't afraid of dying - it wasn't his life he was afraid of losing, but his mind. His passion for knowledge and writing was so deeply ingrained that it grew stronger in the face of an early death.
Hitchens was outstandingly fluent. His witty, passionate, unpretentious and unfalteringly sharp demeanour just isn't replicated by anyone else.
In the aforementioned interview that first sparked my interest with Hitchens, he said that part of the ongoing revision of being a writer is looking back and regretting the way you said something or what you said. With such strong opinions, it's rare to see self-awareness and modesty paired with such confidence.
I will admit that I'm, in comparison, extremely ignorant and uninformed. I have little knowledge on most of what Hitchens spoke and wrote about throughout his life. But I would give anything to have the same depth of passion, the constant hunger to fill my brain and not be scared of it exploding. He saw the world through the eyes of a writer, and everything a writer stands for - he questioned, contemplated and re-contemplated both that around him and himself. As a writer, I can't think of a better role-model. To become half as indefatigable, half as observant would be more than fulfilling.
Some people are happy with the ins and outs of everyday life, being safe, comfortable and unquestioning. I'm not - and Hitchens is proof of how far that this mindset can get you. Talking about his cancer, he said:
"The worst days are when you feel foggy in the head – chemo-brain they call it. It's awful because you feel boring. As well as bored. And stupid. And resigned. You don't have any motive, which is bad."
I struggle to get the thoughts whirring round in my mind onto this blog. He had the ability to regurgitate his thoughts coherently and succinctly, albeit sometimes in a less than calm manner. He did piss people off, and that fact isn't going to evaporate now that he has passed away. However, even his most infamous comments had clever reasoning behind it, including his 'women aren't funny' comment.
Christopher Hitchens: funny, irreverent, au courant,offensive and charming. He was born to write and that he did.
"In Walter Pater's famous phrase, he burned "with this hard gem-like flame". Right till the end": Ian McEwan