Obituary: Christopher Hitchens
- 16 December 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
Author, commentator and polemicist Christopher Hitchens was born in Portsmouth in 1949, the son of a naval officer and a former Wren.
His early years were privileged and traditional. Packed off to boarding school at the age of eight, he went on to Oxford University, where he mingled with emerging members of British establishment at student cocktail parties, while discovering the socialist ideals that would remain with him throughout the 60s and 70s.
Drinking, arguing and a third-class degree were the stepping stones to a career in journalism - and the start of a lifelong friendship with author Martin Amis.
The late Anthony Howard, who hired Hitchens for The New Statesman in 1973, told journalist George Eaton in 2010: "He was a very quick writer... Hitch could produce a front-page leader, which would take me a couple of hours, in half an hour."
For his part, Hitchens claimed to have started writing professionally "because I didn't have to specialise... and I've got good memory retention".
He later added: "I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn't ever have to rely on the press for my information."
"Hitch" quickly gained a reputation for fierce opinion and scathing critique - with the Vietnam War and the Roman Catholic Church both within his sights.
Religion, or rather his complete rejection of it, would remain a target throughout his life. After being diagnosed with cancer in 2010, he told one interviewer: "No evidence or argument has yet been presented which would change my mind. But I like surprises."
A penchant for travel, and his decision to go at least once a year to "a country less fortunate than [his] own", saw Hitchens exploring political change in countries as varied as Poland, Argentina and Greece - where he found himself in 1973, following the suicide of his mother, and from where he reported on the fall of the military junta, his first leading article for The New Statesman.
Working as a foreign correspondent in Cyprus, he met his first wife Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot, whom he married in 1981. They had two children, Alexander and Sophia.
Wherever he was, he wrote and argued, smoked and drank prodigiously. Writing in Vanity Fair in 2003, he described his daily intake of alcohol as being enough "to kill or stun the average mule", noting that many great writers "did some of their finest work when blotto".
A job offer from the left-leaning magazine the Nation persuaded him to move to the United States in 1981 - and the country became his adopted home.
Presidents Reagan and Clinton both bore the brunt of Hitchens' withering scorn. The latter was the subject of a full-length essay entitled No One Left To Lie To - where the writer labelled him "a cynical, self-seeking ambitious thug".
His targets also included Mother Teresa, whom he accused of indulging the rich and powerful "while preaching obedience and resignation to the poor".
He wrote: "Mother Teresa's global income is more than enough to outfit several first-class clinics in Bengal.
"The decision not to do so... is a deliberate one. The point is not the honest relief of suffering, but the promulgation of a cult based on death and suffering and subjection."
He laid out his theories in a book - provocatively titled The Missionary Position - which caused outrage in the Christian community.
In 1992, he became a contributing editor for Vanity Fair - the publication for which he was still writing at the time of his death, and with which he became most closely associated.
It was here that he met his second wife Carol Blue, who once remarked of him: "I was just glad such a person existed in the world." The couple had one daughter, Antonia.
But it was his defining stance on the invasion of Iraq in 2003 that was to make Hitchens a household name.
His support for the war followed the 11 September 2001 attacks, which he branded the work of "Islamic fascism". His stance led him to fall out with many of his allies, most particularly US author Gore Vidal, who had previously hailed him as some kind of personal successor.
It also saw him leave The Nation, where his views were increasingly at odds with those of his colleagues.
Hitchen's volte-face to the right had, in fact, been germinating since the 1989 fatwa issued against his friend Salman Rushdie, which he denounced as "using religion to mount a contract killing".
In a column for The Nation published less than 10 days after the attacks, on 20 September 2001, Hitchens wrote: "What they [the 9/11 attackers] abominate about 'the West'... is not what Western liberals don't like and can't defend about their own system, but what they do like about it and must defend: its emancipated women, its scientific inquiry, its separation of religion from the state."
His position saw him trading insults with the likes of Noam Chomsky, George Galloway - who famously called him "a drink-soaked former Trotskyist popinjay" - and his own brother, fellow journalist Peter Hitchens.
In fact, he and Peter had long endured a bitter rivalry, having little in common in political terms. A journalistic spat prompted a protracted falling-out between the pair, but they later reconciled.
The publication of God is Not Great in 2007 saw Hitchens expand his distaste for Christianity to all religion, calling it "violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry".
The book sold more than 500,000 copies - and put Hitchens at the forefront of anti-religious discussion.
A religious debate with Tony Blair saw the Roman Catholic former prime minister argue that religion was a force for good, while Hitchens countered that religion required that we "are created sick and then ordered to be well".
The pair shook hands afterwards, but an audience poll (albeit one taken before the debate started) showed that 57% of those attending took Hitchens' side.
He continued to travel - to Uganda, Romania, Nicaragua - and to post-war Iraq. In 2007, he became an American citizen.
The cancer diagnosis was delivered as he was promoting his memoirs, Hitch-22, in 2010. He continued to work ruthlessly, maintaining: "Being a writer is what I am, rather than what I do."
He died at the age of 62, having produced 12 books and five collections of essays on issues as diverse as George Orwell, the Elgin Marbles and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.