It has long been fashionable to criticize Christopher Hitchens for his appalling adherence to the gangsters of the Bush Regime, whom he has for many years painted in the kind of bold, heroic tones we’ve not seen since the heyday of Socialist Realism. And while Hitchens is now trying to get back to where he once belonged to some extent — washing his hands of a war whose failure he now blames largely on the anti-war left and instead shooting a few fish in the barrel of religious absurdities to regain his “contrarian” cred — he has remained a much-reviled figure in quarters where once he was feted as a prince. (Indeed, no less than Gore Vidal anointed Hitchens as his “dauphin” — but that was many years ago, and as we’ve seen, the indefatigable octogenarian shows no sign of needing a successor.)
But I think it’s time to give over the rancor surrounding Hitchens. Let us exercise compassionate conservatism toward him — by compassionately refusing to read his embarrassing outpourings, thereby conserving our eyesight and senses for more important tasks. I came to this conclusion after reading his recent piece in The Guardian, a florid — paean, I suppose he would call it — to the literary festival in the small Welsh border village of Hay-on-Wye.
For those who don’t know, the Hay Festival — or “Guardian Hay Festival,” as it’s now called, with the paper’s corporate branding — is Britain’s premier gathering of glittering literati. Although it’s probably interesting in many respects — some good discussions, lively debates — it is also a luvvy-fest of fearsome proportions, the Olympics of literary log-rolling. At least, that’s how the Guardian’s gushingly self-serving coverage of the event — more People Magazine than Paris Review — makes it seem. (I’ve never been to the festival, although I have been to Hay-on-Wye, out of season. It had a lot of nice little secondhand bookstores, although none of them offered the kind of treasures and rarities I used to unearth regularly at McKay’s Used Books in Knoxville way back in the last century. So the place was a bit of a let-down in that respect. Maybe they bring out the hard stuff when the big crowds come calling. But I digress.)
Hitchens has long been a regular at the Hay Festival, of course, coming from the small pool of chummy/backbiting Oxbridgeans that looms so large in British politics and culture. His Guardian was apparently meant to be an enticing curtain-raiser for the Festival, an ostensibly beguiling reminiscence of Hitchens’ first time at Hay, and the many dreamy times that followed. But take a gander at this prose, and see if you can find it in your heart to feel anything but pity and embarrassment for the poor creature who wrote it:
“Shall I soon forget the time that the whispering limo came to pick me up, at about midnight from a dinner at the Amis/Fonseca house, and disgorged a driver who said: “It’s time”? Through the flickering night we went, darting through an antique township or so, and crossing the Severn or the Bristol Channel at some point, until having been shown to a room in some stone-built hotel, I fell asleep only to wake to the sounds of bleating sheep. To this very day, I think of Hay-on-Wye as a place standing at some slight angle to the rest of the known universe: perhaps a sort of Brigadoon that isn’t really there for the rest of the twelvemonth…”
A “twelvemonth” is what everybody in Britain calls a “year,” by the way. They talk fancy like that over here. Also, all the limousines in Britain whisper, when they don’t actually purr. Just so you know. But back to the literary journalism:
“Led away from the tent and towards the well-stocked Green Room, I was at first astonished to find myself meeting friends I had not seen for 30 years, and then alarmed when shown to a lavatory that seemed half Lilliput and half Brobdingnag. (It turned out to be the bathroom of an infants’ school, which was some balm to my already disordered senses.) As I took my leave, I was asked if I would like to come back, and replied that I would be willing to risk the trip if I could be assured that it didn’t involve some kind of dream-state. Some fairy gold was then pressed into my hand, and I went back to Washington DC and the reign of the banal.”
Yes, no doubt it was all very banal back in DC when “Paul Wolfowitz and myself [needed] to go and convince the President to go to war,” as CounterPunch noted last year. For what is a few hundred thousand dead innocents when one can be transported each year to that magical Brigadoon of tiny toilets and dream states?
“They tell me that all this is now available on some digital system, but I don’t trust myself to check. Talking on stage with Martin Amis about his Welsh nanny? Dreamt it. Debating with Stephen Fry about faith? Come on. Discussing brain surgery with Ian McEwan, in front of a gigantic audience? What am I, some kind of name-dropper?”
With heroic forbearance, we’ll skip over that last remark, and move on to the amusing anecdote that closes the piece:
“On the Evelyn Waugh centennial, after doing a Vile Bodies/Black Mischief/Scoop panel with Stephen Fry and Lord Deedes — exhausting enough in itself — I was handed a late invitation to dinner at Madresfield Court, the country house said to have inspired Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited. It was made plain to me that a proper dinner jacket was a strict requirement. I murmured to [Hay director Peter Florence] that I had not a rag of formal dress to my name. With half an hour to go, he murmured in turn into a cellphone. From every quarter of the compass, there came the cummerbund, the shoes, the trousers and the rest of the kit.”
Really, should we not let Hitchens wander happily in his fairy land, where whispering limos whisk him off to country houses and cummerbunds magically appear? In fact, let’s encourage him to stay there — then maybe he and his good friend Wolfie won’t talk the president into any more invasions.
CHRIS FLOYD is an American journalist based in the UK. He writes the Empire Burlesque blog.