Hitch’s Drinking

Dec 20 2011 @ 4:42pm

Katha Pollitt hated it:

His drinking was not something to admire, and it was not a charming foible. Maybe sometimes it made him warm and expansive, but I never saw that side of it. What I saw was that drinking made him angry and combative and bullying… Drinking didn't make him a better writer either–that's another myth. Christopher was such a practiced hand, with a style that was so patented, so integrally an expression of his personality, he was so sure he was right about whatever the subject, he could meet his deadlines even when he was totally sozzled. But those passages of pointless linguistic pirouetting? The arguments that don't track if you look beneath the bravura phrasing? Forgive the cliche: That was the booze talking.

It was actually a problem for me, since I don't really drink much and don't actually enjoy alcohol (apart, go figure, from an occasional Jager shot). So my visits chez Hitch were never quite as rollicking as they might have been – because his addiction kept us apart. But what struck me about alcohol and Hitch was that it was a kind of rocket fuel. What killed him was not the alcohol as such or the many years of smoking, but the force of will that simply didn't rest, and seemed to punish his body with ludicrously brutal days and nights of sleepless drive. He seemed unable to turn down any speaking engagement or cable news appearance or party or dinner … or any chance to increase social interaction. In this, we were totally alien.

But I sometimes wondered about this compulsion always to be on the move, always to say yes, always to file on time, always to take that trip, when a little restful weekend might have been healthier. And this reminiscence of his last days haunts me:

The next morning, at Christopher’s request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton.

Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. 

He literally died writing. Like his hero:

His face looked practically dead, Muggeridge recorded, oddly like a picture he had once seen of Nietzsche on his death-bed. He detected a kind of rage in his friend's expression, as though the approach of death made him furious. They talked about Orwell's exploits in the Home Guard, his time in Spain in the civil war, the prospect of Switzerland, "and all the while the stench of death was in the air, like autumn in a garden"… There was a chance that the doctors might let him start writing again, Orwell explained, and he was anxious to get on with the novella and the Conrad book. "I shall go to Switzerland next Wednesday," Symons recalled him saying, laughing as he did so, "if I don't catch cold."

(Hat tip: Fallows)