The Reading Room

Christopher Hitchens scribbles about cancer

I remember watching Christopher Hitchens debate with his brother Peter in Conway Hall, London, when I first moved to the capital in my early twenties. I can’t remember what they were debating but I remember a room full of names like Salmon Rushdie and Tony Benn who all seemed to be burbling with delight at the prospect of seeing this great orator.

At the time I didn’t know much about Hitch but he made an immediate impression. He didn’t just tease and taunt his younger sibling (Peter was clearly as red as beetroot within an hour) he also seemed interested in teaching Peter a lesson or two in the process. Hitch was forensic: he seemed to know everything about the subject and would get Peter lost down long dark alleyways of knowledge. Most of all I realized then how wonderful the English language could sound if spoken properly.

Hitch has been such a relentless, promiscuous scribbler for most of his 61 years that it’s hard to imagine any staunching of the flow. But now it appears the words of his roaring may be coming to an end. This spring, he was diagnosed with metastasized oesophageal cancer and has placed his very thin hopes for survival on an onerous regime of chemotherapy.

Of course, he’s writing about it all. As usual, an American magazine is getting the best of Hitch and possibly the last (He has a monthly book review column for the Atlantic).The latest Vanity Fair features a full report on the onset of the disease, the diagnosis, the prospects, the hair loss and Hitch’s characteristically mordant response to his mortality. Furiously atheistic in the days when he could sleep little and consume much (wine, liquor, cigarettes), Hitch in his infirmity doesn’t appear to be reaching out to Jesus Christ. At least not yet. “To the dumb question ‘Why me?’,” he writes, “the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?” In the meantime, he takes exception to the combat imagery that accumulates around cancer patients. The struggle, he observes, is not especially heroic; “You feel swamped with passivity and impotence; dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.” PS

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