Thursday, 8 July 2010

Book Review: Hitch-22

Hitch-22:A Memoir by Christopher Hitchens
Atlantic Books, 2010
352 pages Hardcover ISBN: 978-1843549215

From LSHG Newsletter #39 (July 2010)

Christopher Hitchens will be known to many readers of this Newsletter as a socialist who turned
warmonger and became a vociferous defender of the Iraq War and an Islamophobe. He is part of a
group of formerly left leaning British intellectuals such as Martin Amis and Ian McEwan who have made
something of the same journey, although no doubtnot holding identical views.
Hitchens’ book has already been much reviewed— for example see Terry Eagleton’s view in the New Statesman — and it is not the intention here toprovide another general comment on it. Rather it is
to ask what, if anything, it can tell historians as a memoir.
After all, Hitchens was a leading left wing figure during some of the more momentous periods of recent history and Hitch 22 does provide some comment on this.
The first thing to be said is that the book is most definitely a partial memoir not a biography and
certainly not scholarly. There are no end notes or references, although there are some discursive
pieces, for example on suicide [in relation to his mother Yvonne] and on the process whereby someone abandons left wing politics.
The opening chapters on Hitchens’ upbringing, schooling and parents do provide an interesting
context to the man, although very obviously in a framework that he himself has set. His background was petit-bourgeois — his father a naval officer, subsequently retired and finding employment as an
accountant; his mother an aspiring ‘society’ woman whose aspiration it was to get the young Hitchens to
boarding school and to university so that he could get on in the world.
The thought occurs certainly to this comprehensive, polytechnic and university-educated reviewer that
Hitchens would have been amongst the last generation that would need to take this specific route. With the arrival of the new universities post- Robbins and the comprehensive schools post Circular 10-65 it was no longer entirely necessary to have money to ‘get on’ in the world in educational terms.
Hitchens claims that his family had little money, but however we judge these things working class or
lower middle class they were not. At Oxford Hitchens became involved in left wing
politics around the International Socialists and he provides some accounts of his various arrests and
demonstrations that he went on, complete with photographs.
Historically we don’t learn a great deal, although there is an interesting and inaccurate reference to the young Michael Rosen [p84]. Indeed, historians looking for original material would do much better to consult David Widgery’s The Left in Britain 1956- 68 [1976].
To his credit, Hitchens disavows neither his politics of the time, nor the arrests or the demos. He
merely notes that what might have appeared to have been the new flowering of a revolutionary politics was in fact its swansong. Though Hitchens is not very specific, it would appear that his break with IS came over the
Portuguese Revolution of 1974/5 where he seems to have felt that the revolutionary prospects were less
than suggested. Certainly there is a photograph in the book of his membership card for Islington Labour Party from 1977. It may be that he ultimately left IS with the Workers League split at the end of 1976, though he doesn’t mention this. Indeed, for historians looking for any real insights into the history of IS or its leading figures Hitchens here provides no clues.
Hitchens’ move to the right is well known enough, and it is the earlier chapters of the book that
provide material of interest for the socialist historian. Even so, a couple of incidental pieces entertain. He tells us that he was at Oxford with Clinton [and when Christopher Hill was Master at his college, Balliol] and points out that the to-be US President did not inhale cannabis because he preferred eating it in dope cakes. Later Hitchens gives an account of his own drinking, where he claims to have cut down intake to a whiskey before lunch and half a bottle of wine with lunch and dinner, or perhaps a bit more, certainly not less, and that apparently is it.
Keith Flett

No comments:

Post a Comment