Popular writer, journalist and public speaker, Christopher Hitchens, died yesterday at the age of 62 at University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. He was being treated by Francis Collins, an American physician and genealogist, for oesophageal cancer which he was diagnosed with in June 2010. In a memoriam published by Vanity Fair it was noted he died in the presence of friends.
Throughout his life Christopher Hitchens was known for his fierce intellect, quick wit, charm and controversial arguments. The publication of “God Is Not Great” in 2007 fervently introduced Christopher Hitchens into the public arena alongside Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris (duly labelled ‘Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’). Media appearances over the last four years have acknowledged his firm secular stance in an opacity who could almost forget his political involvements which began at Oxford University.
There is no denying that Christopher Hitchens’ lifestyle made himself a candidate for cancer. As noted by the journalist, Graydon Carter, “Pre-lunch canisters of scotch were followed by a couple of glasses of wine during the meal and a similar quantity of post-meal cognac. That was just his intake. After stumbling back to the office, we set him up at a rickety table and with an old Olivetti, and in a symphony of clacking he produced a 1,000-word column of near perfection in under half an hour.” Excessive drinking and smoking throughout Hitchen’s career even had him admit that he had been burning the candle at both ends, but he noted it did give off a lovely light. Despite undergoing intensive chemotherapy treatment Christopher Hitchens was still producing articles, giving talk and partaking in debates. To hear of the fog which blights those who battle cancer with chemotherapy perhaps suggests the intensity and determination of the man.
His admiration of Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and George Orwell provided a welcomed intellectual oasis for my fifteen year old mind when only C.S Lewis, Nicky Campbell or self-help religious books provided anything near to stimulating. Therefore I consider the rectitude of my intellectual interest not only delayed but only forthcoming thanks to Christopher Hitchens. Knowledge is not a requirement for dusty professors and do not necessarily require a tweed jacket. They stand alone, often far away from secondary education and greet you when the time is right. When one’s mind awakes a world can change and in my case Christopher Hitchens was the catalyst. To this very day a copy of his book “Letters to a young Contrarian” lies on my desk as a bible for not what TO think but instead HOW to think. The book is constructed from a series of letters in 2000 between Christopher Hitchens and among his students in New School, New York. Distilling the letters into chapters has created the illusion of a one-to-one conversation which has Christopher Hitchens pitch himself against some of the ideologies through the ages to ensume a generation of “radicals, gadflies, mavericks, rebels and angry young (wo)men”. It is one of many books which has constructed a small part of who I am today, you should read it.
Which follows to a confession which could easily be presumed from the title of this memoriam; I did not know Christopher Hitchens personally. His closest friends consisted of Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton and Julian Barnes; some of the greatest literature minds of the 21st Century. There is no doubt that apart from Hitchen’s intellectual porosity he was indeed a great friend to those near him. This morning Salman Rushdie tweeted, “Goodbye, my beloved friend. A great voice falls silent. A great heart stops”. As I write this many others are adding their words of love and loss to the passing of this great man.
As I reach the end of this article I can’t help but notice a single tear forming in my left eye. Inside the fifteen year old boy who first fell in love with this literacy genius has lost a dear teacher. As the Greek oracle proclaimed the supreme wisdom of the age, “Nothing too much” — that is how I will remember Christopher Hitchens. His writings will live on but what I will never forget is how he shaped me. What I will always regret is that I never managed to write that letter to him.