Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. News accounts of the details abound, the best coverage is from his last magazine, Vanity Fair, and you can read their article here. The NY Times has a good article too. He was a socialist who didn’t believe in God and someone who I disagreed with on most topics. He was, however, a wonderful author and debater, and he will be missed. You can read his final VF column here, see him jousting with Jon Stewart here, and see some more interesting video here. My recollection is of a very funny chapter in his memoir, Hitch, where he talks about drinking. He had somewhat of a reputation as a big drinker and didn’t mind joking about it.
The chapter, titled A Short Footnote on the Grape and the Grain, is paraphrased below. It’s a great example of his style, without really getting into his strong social of political beliefs, which many find objectionable.
In the continuing effort to gain some idea of how one appears to other people, nothing is more useful than exposing oneself to an audience of strangers. Very often, for example, sitting anxiously in the front row are motherly-looking ladies who, when they later come to have their books inscribed, will say such reassuring things as: “It’s so nice to meet you in person: I had the impression that you were so angry and maybe unhappy.” I hadn’t been at all aware of creating this effect.
More affecting still is the anxious, considerate way that my hosts greet me, sometimes even at the airport, with a large bottle of Johnnie Walker Black Label. It’s almost as if they feel that they must propitiate the demon that I bring along with me. Interviewers arriving at my apartment frequently do the same, as if appeasing the insatiable. I don’t want to say anything that will put even a small dent into this happy practice, but I do feel I owe a few words. There was a time when I could reckon to outperform all but the most hardened imbibers, but I now drink relatively carefully…….
I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half of bottle of red wine: not always more but never less. Then back to the desk and ready to repeat the treatment at the evening meal. No “after dinner drinks” – most especially nothing sweet and never, ever and brandy. “Nightcaps” depend on how well the day went, but always the mixture as before. No mixing: no messing around with a gin here and a vodka there.
Alcohol makes other people less tedious, and food less bland, and can help provide what the Greeks called entheos, or the slight buzz of inspiration when reading or writing.
…. I once paid a visit to… Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. There wasn’t an unsupervised moment on the whole trip, and the main meal we ate – a heavily caloric affair that was supposed to demonstrate how well-nourished the detainees were – was made even more inedible by the way that water (or Sprite) flowed like wine. Yet a few days later I ran into a friend at the White House who told me half-admiringly: “Way to go at Guantanamo: they say you managed to get your own bottle and open it down on the beach and have a party.” This would have been utterly unfeasible…but it was completely and willingly believed. Publicity means that actions are judged by reputations and not the other way about.
“Hitch: making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic,” as Martin Amis once teasingly said to me. Of course, watching the clock for the start-time is probably a bad sign, but here are some simple pieces of advice for the young. Don’t drink on an empty stomach: the main point of the refreshment is the enhancement of food. Don’t drink if you have the blues: it’s a junk cure. Drink when you are in a good mood. Cheap booze is a false economy. It’s not true that you shouldn’t drink alone: these can be the happiest glasses you ever drain. Hangovers are another bad sign, and you should not expect to be believed if you take refuge in saying you can’t properly remember last night. (If you really don’t remember, that’s an even worse sign.) Avoid all narcotics: these make you more boring rather than less and are not designed – as are the grape and the grain – to enliven company. Be careful about up-grading too far to single malt Scotch: when you are voyaging in rough countries it won’t be easily available. Never even think about driving a care if you have taken a drop. It’s much worse to see a woman drunk than a man: I don’t know quite why this is true but it just is. Don’t ever be responsible for it.
Hitchens appeared with William F. Buckley on Firing Line. He credits Buckley with launching his part-time television career by inviting him onto the show. It’s a terrible loss that we won’t be able to see, like we did with Buckley, how Christopher Hitchens’ opinions would mature as he reached old age. He was only 62. I guess about now he’s realizing he was wrong about God, heaven and a lot of other things that stemmed from his believe in neither.