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Christopher Hitchens

“I think the first time I met Christopher was at the occupation of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. It was 1968 and we were almost certainly drunk and perhaps a little high. When we started at Oxford University it was still a cross between Brideshead Revisited and 1950s austerity. The doors were locked at midnight and you were expelled if you had a girl in your room. By the time we left all the rules were disappearing – it was a huge upheaval.

Even back then, Christopher had this ability to throw words up in the sky and watch them come down in a perfect pattern. He could make linkages throughout history and to what was happening elsewhere in the world, and he’d do it all with some of the dirtiest jokes you could imagine, and plenty of outraged scorn. The worldwide events of 1968 seemed to confirm to Christopher, who was a Trot at the time, that change was possible. He was always talking about the tanks rolling into Prague, the Paris movements, the occupations on the West Coast. And he was always this Cyrano de Bergerac figure. ‘Panache’ was the key word, whether he was speaking or writing. If you met Christopher for a drink – and I can’t think of any occasion with him that didn’t involve a drink – you were going to end up laughing. He was like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, with a talent for making those around him feel wittier. When I think of Christopher Hitchens, I think of the jokes.

At Oxford we’d sit with another friend, Martin Walker, the Guardian journalist, and Christopher and Martin would compete at reciting huge volumes of Browning, Kipling, Orwell and so on. If Christopher read something once it was stored permanently. It was as if he had Google for a mind. There were a lot of impressive people at Oxford but so many glistening butterflies became dull old moths in a decade or less. Christopher never stopped growing.

He always claimed to be a great ladies’ man. I was in a relationship with Carol Barnes, the TV presenter, for a number of years and at a party once Carol told me Christopher greeted her with a kiss and stuck his tongue right down her throat. Truth be told, whenever Christopher did drinks and dinner, all the friends who came were men. He was very, very masculine. He certainly loved women and he was flattering to them but in a traditional English public school sense he thought the serious business was to be done by the chaps.

Christopher moved to the States at the time when if you had a posh Oxford accent, America just loved you. I used to go and have dinner in his flat in DC and around would come some big cheese of US politics and some guy in exile from Iraq or Kosovo or Tibet, and the hospitality would be fantastic and the conversation would be such fun, even if we were just talking bollocks. He’d murder whole bottles of whiskey, enough to knock me or anybody else out, and then you’d hear the tip-tap of the typewriter and you knew a perfectly formed 1,000 words was on the way to The Nation or Vanity Fair.

“He was like Shakespeare’s Falstaff, with a talent for making those around him feel wittier”

I used to go to DC a lot around the period the smoking ban took hold and it almost got to the point of parody. Christopher and I would spend hours hunting for restaurants where he could smoke his stupid cigarettes. There was one Italian restaurant which must have been the last place in America where they allowed smoking, and then it changed its rules, and this made Christopher miserable.

I took my kids to Washington when they were about 12 and Christopher was utterly charming. He remembered many children’s books so he could latch onto what a ten-year-old child was reading and speak to them and make them feel like adults. Little babies, forget it – you would never catch him changing nappies – but if they were old enough to talk and engage with him they could be his friend.

I’d hoped to see him when I visited DC at a time after he’d been diagnosed with cancer. He sent me a message saying “sorry comrade, not today, so sorry”. And the sweetest thing was that just a couple of days before he died, his brother Peter phoned me up to say that he’d just been with Christopher in Texas and he’d asked him to convey his affection and best wishes to me. It was a sign-off message.

Towards the end I thought about making a pilgrimage to see Christopher but you never knew how he’d be. Friends who visited would say that he sometimes couldn’t appear for three days because he was in such distress, and then there would be a lunch and it would be the old Hitch for a couple of hours. I’m happy with my memories. He’s one of the best people I’ve had as a friend. No doubt about it.”

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