English by birth and upbringing, and Oxford-educated, the late Christopher Hitchens (1949- 2011) ultimately made his home in America, where he was a regular guest on TV and radio shows. A contrarian and tireless polemicist, he was sought after because he gave good copy.
He attained a fair degree of notoriety for his mischievous yet fearless public comment about everything from Mother Teresa, to the war in Iraq, to the wearing of the burka, to the blasphemy or not of Danish cartoons, to religious extremism of all sorts. Although a devout atheist himself, he took religion more seriously than some who claim to be religious.
Nevertheless, religious belief continues as an immense source of strength and consolation to millions, who regard it as a private affair, irrespective of Hitchens' intense endeavours.
Reproduced here is his Vanity Fair attempt to update, and indeed dispense with some of the Ten Commandments. Contrary to what some might expect, it is in fact a generally serious piece and admirable for that. His humour, on the other hand, can sometimes be locker room, blokey, ultimately dull.
There is an example here of what used to be called "lavatorial humour" which deals with the practice known as "cottaging" in public conveniences. You read it and you kind of wonder why he bothered. Or that piece called As Real as American Pie, sad and infantile really (I won't bother you with the details.)
I would have been much more interested in what Hitchens thought about sacred music, but he didn't seem to write about that class of thing. His friend and fellow atheist Stephen Fry, on the other hand is immensely interested in sacred art, architecture and music. He has admitted some dismay that Hitchens couldn't share his enthusiasm and passion for the divinely-inspired in art.
He was a provocative opinion-monger, many of whose bear-baiting pieces appeared in periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic, including Vanity Fair, New Statesman, Slate, Atlantic Monthly, and the Times Literary Supplement as well as The Guardian newspaper.
This vast compendium, his fifth collection of journalism, runs to almost 800 pages. It includes his personal account, first published in Vanity Fair, of “water boarding” in the North Carolina hills, at the hands of hardened veterans, who agreed to administer the frightful dunking to him on condition of their anonymity.
He had to produce a doctor’s certificate to say that he did not suffer from asthma. Then lying awake in the small hours, prior to the experience, he wondered whether he should tell them about the “15,000 cigarettes I had inhaled every year for the last several decades.”
Ultimately, after his breathless, panicky sensation of drowning, which is used by the US authorities in the interests of extracting answers from captives under interrogation, he concludes, as the title of the piece proclaims: `Believe Me, It’s Torture.’
He is perceptive and engaging on writers as diverse as PG Wodehouse, Isabel Allende, the late Stieg Larsson (The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo). JK Rowling’s Harry Potter he writes about but probably because he was asked to. Like Harry, he says, he went to boarding school on a steam train, at the tender age of eight.
He is familiar in a kind of desultory way with loose, unfinished plot threads as the Potter sequence finishes, having enjoyed reading the books to at least one of his three children. But after seven books, he finds the last Deathly Hallows volume “tedious” and recommends Philip Pullman instead, although there is no essay on Pullman here.
In an article entitled Fleet Street’s Finest, he laments the passing of the old ink and hot metal journalism in which he once laboured, as celebrated in novels by Evelyn Waugh (Scoop) and Michael Frayn (Towards the End of the Morning.) “The mindlessness of the opinon poll and the reader survey is coming to replace news and analysis,” he complains.
The Guardian was once celebrated for misprints, he recalls, aware of nostalgia for a time "when the opera critic Phillip Hope Wallace, for example, could wake up to find he had reviewed last night's Covent Garden performance of Doris Godunov."
In another light piece, he berates those waiters who interrupt convivial conversation to top up people’s wine glasses. That's whether they want it or not, in the interests of swelling the bill, as another bottle is inevitably ordered. Fair point.
Also published by Atlantic in hardback is Mortality, Hitchens' fascinating account of cancer of the oesophagus which eventually killed him. Running to a mere 100 pages, and fuelled by a certain gallows humour, Mortality is easy to read somehow, despite the acute physical suffering which the author endured while undergoing treatment in a hospital in Houston, Texas. This short work ends with his final few scraps of writing and a heartfelt afterword by his wife Carol Blue.