Christopher Hitchens and I weren’t close friends—I was a lesser planet in his orbit. Every so often I felt the rhetorical lash of his published words on my back, and then I tried to make him feel mine, and you can guess who got the better of those exchanges. They usually had to do with Iraq. We both supported the war, but I supported it in an ambivalent, liberal way, while Christopher supported it in a heroic, revolutionary way. The more I saw of the war, the deeper my despair became. Christopher made it a point of honor never to call retreat.
I know of many friendships that ended in those years, including a few of mine. But something strange happened between Christopher and me. For every time he called me a split-the-difference bien-pensant, and for every time I called him a pseudo–Lord Byron, we seemed to become better friends. We would say rude things about each other in print, and then we’d exchange tentatively regretful emails without yielding an inch, and then we’d meet for a drink and the whole thing would go unmentioned, and somehow there was more warmth between us than before. Exchanging barbs was a way of bonding with Christopher.
After he got sick, I received an email that told me we were friends:
I know that either Rayner Heppenstall or possibly Richard Rees said of Orwell that he was too preoccupied with “the dirty handkerchief side of life”. But I find I must know exactly who said it and what the precise words were. Looking at my huge Orwell shelf I suddenly felt too exhausted to comb through it (which would once have been a pleasure) so I am employing you as a short cut.
Incidentally, because my library is loosely arranged by alphabet, I noticed last night that where the Orwell runs out there is a novel called The Half Man ... [This was the title of my justly obscure first novel.]
Ingratiatingly, then, and in hopes of a swift lifeline, and with fraternal regards as usual.
The ability to be brutal in print and decent in person was a quality I very much admired in Christopher. It went to the heart of his values as a writer and a human being. It belonged to an old-fashioned code, and for all his radicalism, he was old-fashioned. He once said to me, “I’m a Paine-ite,” meaning Thomas Paine. That sounded right. Christopher was born a couple of centuries too late. He was a figure of the Enlightenment, a coffee-house pamphleteer, a ready duelist, an unreasonable fighter for reason, an émigré from England come to the New World to tell us what the universal words of our Declaration meant, and hold us to them.