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Remembering Hitch

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It is hard to convey to people just what a pleasure it was to spend time in Christopher Hitchens' company. He was not just brilliant, funny, and provocative, with a vast store of anecdote and insight -- he was also warm and affectionate, with a slightly 18th-century flourish.

Spending time with him could be a bit like being transported to one of Patrick O'Brian's novels (which he loved). And if you were in a group sitting in a bar with him or talking away the early hours in the kitchen of the apartment he shared with Carol Blue and their daughter Antonia, it felt like being in the attendance of Dr. Samuel Johnson. Like Johnson (at least according to Boswell, Hitch spoke in the most wonderful complete sentences, and he had an almost superhuman memory.

I don't think I ever saw him unable to recall a fact or name or date in the way that most of us do.

Many, many people who never met Hitch felt they knew him because they read his essays, and to an unusual degree they were right. He spoke as he wrote and wrote as he spoke. The words he chose and the rhythms in which they flowed perfectly expressed his thoughts and attitudes and sensibility, whether delivered in a public hall or to friends over a cigarette and a glass.

My favourite memories involve poetry. He knew an amazing amount of verse by heart. The evenings and brunches and late nights merge together, but I particularly remember him reciting Kipling's "Recessional," Chesterton's "Lepanto," and to my surprise John Cooper Clarke's "Evidently Chicken Town" -- delivered speedily just the way the Liverpool punk poet recites it.

Unlike so many of the people who attacked him in print or on the internet, Hitch was remarkably tolerant of people who held views he despised. (He might in fury storm out of a dinner but he could remain friends even with people like Charles Glass who were arguably "objective" allies of the Baathists in Syria or Iraq.)

It was always others who broke off friendships with him for ideological reasons. Partly, this was because his views were personal rather than tribal. He was never going to adopt a point of view simply because it was a shibboleth favoured by all the other contributors to the Nation, or by those who embraced him from the right.

I first met Hitch on a windswept balcony at a wedding party in the late 90s; he had gone outside for a smoke. But we bonded properly for the first time at a conference of Kurdish exiles. A decade later, he almost got me and another mutual friend killed by a mad act of anti-fascist bravado on Beirut's Hamra street. We loved him too much and were too upset by the blood on his face and shirt after the incident to be angry for long.

I only knew Hitch as a friend and mentor and someone whom I admired long before I met him. So like most in his legion of friends from around the world I can only guess what he was like behind closed doors as a husband or father.

I always wondered how someone could put so much energy into work and friendship and still have anything left for family. But then his energy and constitution were prodigious.

The first time I went up to his spacious apartment in the Wyoming building in Washington, D.C. was after a mutual friends' dinner-dance. It was already about 1 a.m. His wife Carol Blue went to bed and three of us, all younger than Hitch by up to two decades, sat with him at the kitchen table in fierce, wine-fueled (for us; he was on sterner stuff) laughter-filled debate.

By 4 a.m. we were exhausted; he showed no sign of flagging. Every sentence was still perfectly formed, the recall faultless. A few hours later while the rest of us were asleep or too hungover to function, he wrote another brilliant essay. As he was quick to point out, whatever anyone said about his drinking, he never missed a deadline.

It is one reason why it's so very hard to accept that he has gone. Like many of his friends, I half-believed that he would somehow beat his cancer -- or at least be around a lot longer. After all, his writing during this last year seemed as brilliant and morally astringent as ever, including superb pieces on Pakistan, and that last stunning essay for Vanity Fair about illness, death, and Nietszche.

Knowing now that he wrote those pieces in conditions of physical misery and raging pain makes them all the more astonishing.

Now that he has gone, the world feels like a darker and less intelligent place. He had no equal among public intellectuals working in the English language. And on a personal level, the knowledge that I will never again hear that deep, dry voice live, never again be in the presence of his mischievious smile, is even more painful than I expected.

How I wish I had spent more evenings with him, corresponded more. The times I did spend seem all the more precious, all the more a privilege. There is perhaps consolation for those who miss Hitch in that so much of the man is preserved in books and on the internet, though right now it feels impossible to read him or watch him debate without lamenting a future where that unique voice is silent.