Writer Christopher Hitchens first met Peter Wilmoth in 1989, covering the Romanian revolution. In 2010, two weeks before Hitchens was diagnosed with oesophageal cancer, the pair caught up for lunch in Sydney. Hitchens died 18 months later, and the tape of that conversation was missing until now. “I know I get very oppressed by the way that every day is more and more subtracted out of less and less.” By Peter Wilmoth.
Christopher Hitchens: The lost interview
Peter Wilmoth Writing can be a consolation, or dare I say some form of therapy.
Christopher Hitchens I was going to say, “Please don’t say therapy.”
PW I nearly didn’t – I now wish I hadn’t.
CH For me it is recreational. I’m lucky that way, I think. I mean, I don’t find writing painful. And I say to my students in my writing class, “If you can talk, you can write”, and they cheer up. And then I let them down again – I say, “Well, how many of you enjoy listening to the others talk?” and they get all downcast again. Because actually, how many people do you know who can talk? Not that many. So I’m trying to write as if I’m speaking to the reader, and every now and then I get people writing to me saying that they feel they’re being personally addressed, and I think, well, that’s success then.
PW In your writing classes are you finding or seeing the rise of some good young polemicists?
CH Yes. I’ve had some very brilliant graduate students. This is at The New School in New York – I have a regular gig there. People who sign up for it are often people who wanted help because they want to become journalists or they want to write. I’m full of admiration for them, by the way. I mean I’d hate to be starting in journalism now.
PW You’ve said that you’re paid to be interested in practically everything and in Vanity Fair the topic list is hugely wide-ranging … from waterboarding to ridiculous laws in New York.
CH Graydon Carter is, well, I don’t have to flatter him, and he doesn’t expect it of me, but he’s obviously going to be remembered as one of the great editors. He already is. And his great gift is he’s interested in a huge number of things and you never know what he’ll come up with next, and so the deal we have is he can ask me to do anything.
PW People talk about your opposition to the first Iraq war and your support for the second [Iraq war] as a transition, or an about-face, but your response is based on the evidence at hand and that circumstances change, that opinions are not static or in a vacuum. Why do you think people are so affronted by your new views?
CH Well, because it could be made to look as if I’d somehow fallen in love with George Bush. Not only did most people I knew in America find him untakeable, but everyone outside the airspace of the United States, without exception, finds him untakeable, practically without exception. Unbearable – which I should say, in many ways, he is, was. So that’s why I write this long chapter about Iraq saying, “Look I’ve been going there since just before Saddam seized power and I’ve seen it in various phases.” And in the end I couldn’t go on maintaining the position that the regime had the right to carry on, and the root cause of the problem was Saddam and the crime family. And I used to think that could be contained or in other ways dealt with, and that we didn’t really have the right to interfere there. But I just found it impossible to go on saying that.
PW People have been shocked by your views that don’t square with views from 20 years ago, and I think that your support on certain views of Margaret Thatcher falls into that category.
PW Were you surprised perhaps yourself by your belief that she might have got some things right?
CH Well, you see, most people, a lot of people, don’t subject themselves to this kind of pain, they just don’t. And as a result they lead a double life, as do I. But they don’t admit to themselves that’s what they’re doing. So you’ll still hear people talking about Thatcher and Reagan in very disobliging ways, but if you asked them… if you woke them up and gave them a truth serum and said, “Do you wish that Reagan and Thatcher had never been elected?”, they would not in fact say, “Yes they do.” They know they’re better off in many ways. They just thought that it wasn’t the smart thing to say. They weren’t opposed to a lot of those policies but they just had the luxury of saying, you know, “I’m not really one of that lot.” I thought, that’s not really honest.
First, even I secretly wanted her to win that election in ’79, but I would never have voted for her. And for a long time I couldn’t even admit it to myself. I didn’t tell anybody else. So I know what people are going through. You’d rather do anything than admit you were a Thatcherite, but that was hypocritical. They were glad that she broke up some of the union monopolies, they were glad that she took on so much of the old establishment – they were. They don’t wish the Argentines had won the war or kept the islands. But they don’t want to say, “Okay, that means that she was right.” I thought, you know, I’m 61, why would I lie? I mean, why don’t I just say what it’s like to go through a dilemma like that and how I resolved it myself?
So I wanted to show not what I thought, which was easy, but how I reasoned it. And in the end I had to drop my view that we had no business interfering in Iraqi internal affairs. Couldn’t keep that up.
PW In the US, they were more comfortable with allowing someone to celebrate their own success.
CH Yes, you don’t get the “crab in a barrel” thing you can get in Britain … It’s a bit like the tall poppy syndrome – when they’re all writhing around and climbing over each other and every now and then one of them gets nearly to the end, and they all pull it back down. In America you get the more even break. And also America as a subject is such an enormous one: it’s so interesting that you can never get bored there, and I was getting a little bored with London.
PW You’ve always travelled to “go and get the smell of the place”, to see for yourself. Do you believe that many commentators or writers don’t travel enough?
CH I certainly think that a lot of commentators don’t go to have a look at the places they write about, no, and I think that they should. I don’t think that it’s an absolute requirement. I mean if you had to go to North Korea to have an opinion, well, it would put me in an elite group. But no, I don’t think you do need to. You know enough about North Korea to know. If you’ve looked at the pictures of the Korean peninsula from the air, at night, have you ever seen them? A blaze of lights, then a total blackness – that gives you an idea. And if you know that a South Korean is six inches taller than a North Korean, you know a lot right there. But I think smell is important. You remember that morgue in Timişoara?
PW I can still smell it – the formaldehyde as we walked through. The carpet was spongy, wasn’t it, with blood.
CH Yes. And the tackiness on the floor. You can’t get that from CNN. You can often see more on CNN in a shorter time than you would on the ground, but you go to a refugee camp now and you think, Oh I’ve seen this before, but then you go a bit nearer and you’re – no, no, this is quite a different experience. You can smell it – mass grave, bomb city – it’s in the nostrils. Very important.
PW You don’t write fiction – why not?
CH I realised early on that I should give up any ambition of writing fiction or poetry. Which, I think, saved me some time, and probably saved the reading public a bit of time, too. I didn’t waste their time trying any of that.
PW Why did you feel that?
CH Because I knew that whatever the stuff was you need for it, I don’t have. I can quote poetry. I could run you up a sonnet if you want to; if you got married or something I could probably do a mock sonnet for you. I’m going to try and develop this into an essay: that the difference between those who can write poetry and fiction and those who can’t is to do with music. It’s in the book in my discussion of Salman Rushdie, that’s what made me think of it first. All of my mates in that world, they all have some musical ability or capacity, which I absolutely don’t have. It’s one of the first things I found out about myself when I was young. I wanted to play. Not that I was bad at it – I couldn’t do it at all.
PW You left behind some great friends in London, Martin Amis and Ian McEwan among others, who you say, with a little bit of sadness, see each other a lot together and you don’t have that opportunity.
PW You talked about Martin Amis as “the only blond I’ve ever loved”. Do you sometimes wish people could be as interesting as him?
CH I do. But it’s made up for by the fact that both he and Ian, as most of my friends, English friends, are the sort of people who you can rely on to come to the States quite often, it’s very much part of their horizon. So we’re in a kind of Anglo-American world, it’s just that I don’t see them every week as they see each other. Salman has moved to New York. That’s good. I love that, I see quite a bit of him. I don’t know whether he’s become a citizen or not. He said he’d become a New Yorker.
PW Your Friday lunch was a wonderful rhythm in the lives of the group that attended?
CH Oh yeah.
PW It faded off to each month, didn’t it, and now it’s much less regular?
CH After I left, it kept going. But now and then I think it sort of stopped. It’s resumed now as an annual dinner, a sort of reunion, but that’s too much like getting old for me.
PW Well, at 61 now, do you ever fear that time’s running out and there’s much to write? Do you sometimes feel there’s so many more things to address in a writing sense or in broader life?
CH I’ve so many more things to read and also so many more places to visit that I haven’t been to yet, or haven’t been to enough. I know I get very oppressed by the way that every day is more and more subtracted out of less and less – yeah, I do.
I’m in real danger of being overrated, too – not by everybody, lots of people don’t like my stuff at all – but I’ve read reviews of myself that I think are undeservedly good. So I’ve lived to see that much.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 17, 2018 as "The lost interview".
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