Why Writing Matters

It’s one of those times, when you feel like getting drunk and running out onto the street, shouting: ‘He’s dead! He’s dead! O Discordia! The world grows dark!’ And what’s that line from Auden? Stop all the clocks… I mean, there’s nothing more I can say, beyond my own personal sadness at this: those who knew and loved him are the best at articulation of this loss. In particular, I found Peter Hitchens’s tribute incredibly moving and heartfelt. As reactionary as his brother was radical, the avatar of silo England and the Daily Shriek, Peter reflects on two lives that took drastically different directions from ‘the small, quiet, shabby world of chilly, sombre rented houses and austere boarding schools, of battered and declining naval seaports.’ He adds: ‘I see in my mind’s eye a narrow, half-lit entrance hall with a slowly-ticking clock in it, and a half-open door beyond which somebody is waiting for news of a child who long ago left home.’

After this news broke, Hitchens’s book God is Not Great began trending. The Huffington Post reports that Twitter yanked the hashtag after death threats against its creators and ‘a storm of protests by the religious’. Can you hear laughter from the grave? As he said: they don’t care if they’re boring. They don’t care that they’re cliched. Same for the Radio 4 reporter who described Hitchens as an alcoholic on the 7am bulletin yesterday. Francis Wheen: ‘Only one life and one mind; but they contained multitudes. England itself may have been too small to accommodate them, as the puritanical small-mindedness of that BBC report yesterday confirmed; but he was, for all that, a great Englishman.’ Even in death he stands tall and apart from the parochial, bien-peasant, trilling, beard-stroking mediocrities – face-timers and time-servers of the writing life, men and women who have never written a good line of prose or provided a single insight into our universe or touched a human heart. Fuck them.

I wrote about Hitchens’s memoirs, and his penultimate collection of journalism (there will be a posthumous collection, of his articles on cancer and mortality, published next year). I have been reading him for around five years, probably longer. Stephen King said that writing is telepathy. He was underrating his own craft. Writing is not just telepathy. Writing is time travel and faster than light travel. It is also an intimate conversation. We feel closer to our favourite writers than we do to family or friends. To read someone is to get a sense of themselves. I remember the first time I began reading Unacknowledged Legislation, between shifts on the scorching and febrile summer of 2006, on the balcony of the bar where I then worked – and feeling myself overwhelmed with wit and laughter and generosity and warmth, and the texture of other worlds and lives. To read him was to be transported. As well as writing well, he lived well and to the full. You feel like you have become a better person for having read him – he taught us a way to write, and he also taught us a way to live. And so it’s no insult to his intimates to say that I who never met him too grieve.

They say that he was a controversialist. As if it’s controversial to write against nasty totalitarian dictators and nasty totalitarian belief systems. But it’s the timeless fire of the prose that will call younger generations to Hitchens’s writing as Hitchens himself was called to Orwell. His Slate colleague Jacob Weisberg writes about ‘his generosity to young people. He sought them out and befriended them. He responded when they called with requests to speak at their college, contribute to a symposium, or stand with any oppressed minority… Here’s what I learned from Christopher Hitchens in the 25 years I knew him. Don’t let anyone else do your thinking for you. Follow your principles to the end.’ To which I think you can add: never sacrifice adventure for security, don’t let anyone lower your expectations, and do your best to live life to the full, for this life is the only one we can be sure of.

1949. 2011. O lost, and by the wind grieved, ghost, come back again.

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