:: Article

The Carnival by the Sea

By Max Dunbar.


Hitch-22, A Memoir, Christopher Hitchens, Atlantic 2011

An easy way to compliment someone is to say that they are full of contradictions, and it’s a hell of a pretentious thing to say about oneself, and yet Hitchens carries it off. He seems like a man from another time, an ‘itinerant lecturer’ and English gentleman, the last gunslinger striding across the wasteland of a world that has moved on. The Blackadder style Oxbridge nicknames (‘Gully’, ‘Spratling’) the archaic, yet somehow stylish, phrasing and punctuation (‘Co-Op’, ‘non-speakers’, ‘drink-shop’) even the drinking itself: in the service of the war against cliche I wasn’t going to talk about Hitchens’s talent for booze, since it’s something that appears in every article about him, but his easy and happy relationship with alcohol makes him stand out in an age of miserable puritanism, where every unit counts and all pleasures must be guilty, or else.

When the original of Hitch-22 came out last year there was some cod-psychological speculation on Hitchens’s relationship with his father, a naval officer he refers to as ‘the Commander’. Talking about ‘left-wing men of a certain age’ who backed the Iraq war, the Guardian writer Decca Aitkenhead mused that ‘their palpable thrill about military might suggested that, deep down, they secretly feared progressive principles were for pussies. Now here was their chance, before it was too late, to prove their manhood.’ The clunky inference being made here is that Hitchens, too much of a physical coward to join the army, is subconsciously trying to please his father by fighting with words. To Aitkenhead ‘it is quite clearly the Commander’s legacy that haunts Hitchens today.’

Yet Hitchens’s dad comes off as a sad, compromised figure, a man who was ripped off out of his pension and never complained, someone who followed the rules and never asked for anything and never got it. There is admiration and respect and love, but not the desire to emulate. ‘It is a terrible thing to feel sorry for one’s mother or indeed father,’ Hitchens writes, and his parents appear as two people flung together in a wartime romance who never really understood each other and lived quite unhappy lives as a result.

Yvonne Hitchens was as vibrant and kooky as the Commander was staid. ‘What she wanted,’ Hitchens remembers, ‘was the metropolis, with cocktail parties and theater trips and smart friends and witty conversation, such as she had once had as a young thing in prewar Liverpool… What she got instead was provincial life in a succession of small towns and villages’. She later left the Commander for an ex-Anglican vicar and Maharishi devotee, with whom she committed suicide in an Athens hotel. I don’t want to get into cod-psychology myself, but Yvonne appears to be the greater parental influence. ‘The one unforgiveable sin is to be boring,’ she told him. I’m reminded of the suicide note left to Morvern Callar, in Alan Warner’s magical novel: ‘Keep your conscience immaculate and live the life people like me have denied you. You are better than us.’

His background wasn’t as wealthy and stable as his style suggests and for Hitchens the UK seemed like ‘one long antechambe​r to a room that had too many barriers to entry’. Sick of British meanness, snobbery and parochialism – the example of this he always quotes is that in English pubs you had to pay for matchboxes – he headed to America and found it as rich and special as he’d always dreamed. ‘There was, rather, a tensile excitement in the air that made one think – that made me think for many years – that time spent asleep in New York was somehow time wasted.’ Hitchens has that rare talent, the ability to capture the feel of hectic youth. You feel like you’re there, a drink in your hand, laughing maenad voices all around and the air warm and busy on your face.

America contradicted itself and contained multitudes. It was founded on secularist principles and had an openness and transparency striking to Hitchens – the Watergate hearings would never have been allowed in Britain’s banana monarchy. And yet at the same time the US had a government ‘that in the last resort guaranteed the forces of reaction.’ The 9/11 overthrow of the elected Allende government, Iran/Contra, El Salvador death squads, Reagan’s defence of apartheid South Africa and visit to SS graves – in Hitchens’s phrase, America was bagmen and wiretappers at home, murder and coup d’etat abroad.

One fall day he was giving a talk at Washington State university on Henry Kissinger, who Hitchens had stalked for decades. He told the audience that Kissinger was going to be the subject of a lawsuit from the family of a murdered Chilean army officer. Hitchens finished his speech by saying that ‘tomorrow – September 11th 2001 – will long be remembered as a landmark day in the struggle for human rights.’ The next morning came a call from his wife: ‘If you turn on the TV… you may find that the war-crimes trial of Henry Kissinger has been slightly postponed.’

Teachers escorted kids from public schools. ‘Look, the birds are on fire,’ one child is reported as saying, pointing up into the sky. Around two hundred people jumped from the towers, running from unbelievable temperatures. Many were burning as they fell. The ruins smouldered for months on end. The WTC collapse released thousands of contaminants, and many rescue workers reported serious respiratory illnesses in later years. Others simply ran into the inferno. The carnival by the sea was under attack.

Hitchens told an interviewer that his initial reaction to 9/11 was ‘a feeling of exhilaration. Here we are then, I was thinking, in a war to the finish between everything I love and everything I hate. Fine. We will win and they will lose.’ People saw that as insensitive and bloodthirsty, but in his analysis Hitchens was right. Ian Buruma and Avishai Margalit devote a chapter of their book Occidentalism to the occidental city. They identify the city as a great demon in fundamentalist thought:

Hubris, empire building, secularism, individualism, and the power and attraction of money – all these are connected to the idea of the sinful City of Man. Myths of their destruction have existed as long as men built cities in which to trade, accumulate wealth, gain knowledge, and live in comfort… All these cities inspired fear as well as envy and, like New York two centuries later, came to stand for something particularly hateful in the eyes of those who sought to eradicate the impurities of urban civilisation with dreams of spiritual or racial purity.

The cosmopolitan, liberal and multicultural heaven for which Hitchens had fled had been given a declaration of war by the forces of sameness, uniformity and purity. And it became clear that many of the commentariat were on the other side. Fundamentalist tubthumper Jerry Falwell went on the Christian broadcast network and said that ‘I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way – all of them who have tried to secularize America – I point the finger in their face and say, ‘You helped this happen.”

Left wing intellectual celebrities echoed this when they argued that al-Qaeda was an inevitable retribution for US war crimes, even an inchoate blow of vengeance from the oppressed Muslim world. Two days after the attacks the Guardian’s comment editor Seamus Milne argued that rescue workers should ‘make the connection between what has been visited upon them and what their government has visited upon large parts of the world… If it turns out that Tuesday’s attacks were the work of Osama bin Laden’s supporters, the sense that the Americans are once again reaping a dragons’ teeth harvest they themselves sowed will be overwhelming.’

‘Here was an unexampled case of seeing all one’s worst enemies in plain view,’ Hitchens declared, ‘the clerical freaks and bigots of all persuasions and the old Charles Lindbergh isolationist Right, the latter sometimes masquerading as a corny and folksy version of a Grassy Knoll conspiracist ‘Left’.’ A month after the Hitch-22 paperback came out, Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy SEALS. When New Yorkers showed a natural inclination to dance in the streets, liberal commenters condemned their vulgarity. But the true vulgarity was in the pious hand-wringing and equivocation of British religious leaders. Dr Giles Fraser, Canon Chancellor of St Paul’s, invoked the son of God when he said that the execution was against ‘the clear teachings of Jesus, who urged his followers not to respond to the violence of the other in the same manner. In essence, Jesus was warning that violence is dangerously mimetic, that if we respond in kind then we will gradually turn into our enemy.’ (Also over here in sophisticated Britain, we had just, er, celebrated the Royal Wedding.)

As well as his passionate critiques of religion, Hitchens will probably be remembered best for his aggressive advocacy for the Iraq war. Everything on this has been said and he adds little new in this book (although he talks of witnessing the emptying of a mass grave, and there is a fascinating, moving tribute to Mark Daily, a US casualty of the war who was also a Hitchens reader). The signs are now that after all the blood and horror, Iraq has become a fledgeling secular democracy. A delegate to the Kurdish area claims that ‘There may be only one country in the world today where a majority – the vast majority – of the population still support the invasion of Iraq: but that country is Iraq itself.’ Readers of the books pages might have noticed a series of reports on Iraq’s booming literature and poetry scene. This couldn’t have happened under Saddam’s death-cult regime.

It was rumoured in a Hitchens anthology of political writing that he had said in around 2000 that he would stop writing about politics and stick to literary criticism. Hitchens was pulled back in for very obvious reasons but literature is his first love and, if you’re new to him, I would always recommend Unacknowledged Legislation over God Is Not Great. The criticism – also the Americana travelogues in Love, Poverty and War – really is a joy to read, for the obvious care over every word in every line, the obvious love of fiction and poetry, the sense of being in a good pub with an old and well-travelled friend, who has lived a full and interesting life. ‘I had fair years to waste,’ he writes, ‘years that I can’t honestly say I regret, in seeking the eternal Carnival by the Sea.’


Max Dunbar was born in London in 1981. He recently finished a full-length novel and his short fiction has appeared in various print and web journals. He is reviews editor of 3:AM.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, June 12th, 2011.