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Changing Places | The Nation

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Changing Places

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And so Hitchens arrived at Balliol College, Oxford, in 1967 not with "the tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority" that Herbert Asquith said was the mark of a Balliol man but with chips on both shoulders. One was a burning sense of social inferiority. Yvonne had drummed into her son the importance of not sinking "one inch back down the social incline we had so arduously ascended. That way led to public or 'council' housing...to people who dropped the 'H' at the beginnings of words and used the word 'toilet' when they meant to go to the lavatory" (an index also much remarked on by Nancy Mitford). At the same time, and in what a more supple casuist might describe as "dialectical" counterpoise to this fierce, fear-driven social ambition, he adopted an equally ferocious commitment to radical politics, specifically Trotskyism, more specifically still the "International Socialist groupuscule."

Hitch-22
A Memoir.
By Christopher Hitchens.
Buy this book

About the Author

D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan
D.D. Guttenplan, who writes from The Nation's London bureau, is the author of American Radical: The Life and Times of I...

Also by the Author

The referendum result may have settled the question of Scottish independence. But the cost of winning it was to expose the ramshackle nature of the whole country’s constitutional arrangements.

If Scotland wakes up on Friday still bound to England, it will not be because solidarity or shared vision prevailed but rather fears of job loss, higher prices and higher taxes.

Hitchens went to Oxford already a member of IS—a tiny sect that differed from other Trotskyist sects chiefly in its belief that the Soviet Union was a "state capitalist" society rather than, as Trotsky maintained in The Revolution Betrayed, a "degenerated workers' state." From the outside it's hard to see this dispute as anything more than the narcissism of small differences, but in an essay a few years ago devoted to the campaigning journalist and former IS comrade Paul Foot, Hitchens summed up the IS catechism:

That the capitalist system had only temporarily stabilised itself, and that the stabilisation was not by means of Keynesian welfarism but by reliance on a permanent war economy which proved the continuing irrationality of this mode of production. That the Soviet Union and its satellites were not the affirmation but the negation of socialism, resting on a system of 'state capitalism'. That while the globe was ruled in this way, it was idle and romantic to expect anything of peasant and Third World revolutions.

This last reservation is crucial, since it allowed IS-ers to dismiss with contempt the romantic third-worldism of their comrades in the various solidarity campaigns of the time. IS's goal was not so much to make the revolution as to be thoroughly wised-up about the conditions that made revolutionary change unlikely. "In the case of Vietnam," Hitchens recalled, "one should openly declare for the Vietcong while regretfully bearing in mind that their revolution could only produce an emaciated and regimented mutation of Stalinist autarchy. I found that I rather liked the pessoptimism of this, with its implication that one could with perfect honesty keep two sets of books." Might it be precisely this pre-emptive cynicism, a thickening of the skin to protect the political animal from the sting of anticipated defeat, that so formidably equips former Trotskyists for their eventual shuffle to the right?

But two sets of books? "I use the words 'double life' without any shame," Hitchens explains. "To be sure, I had hoped to re-make myself into a serious person and an ally of the working class and was educating myself with that in view. But I also wanted to see a bit of life and the world and to shed the carapace of a sexually inhibited schoolboy.... In any case, I was determined as far as I could to have it both ways."

At Oxford Hitchens proceeded to have it both ways with a vengeance, racing from a hard day's picketing at "French and Collet's non-union auto-parts factory" back to his room, "scrambling into a dinner jacket and addressing the Oxford Union."

It was through the Union, in fact, that I found myself becoming socially involved with an altogether different "set".... I found myself...invited to dine in restaurants which featured tasseled menus and wine lists. This was wholly new to me and potentially very embarrassing, too, since I had virtually no money.... However without a word being actually spoken, it was subtly conveyed to me by my new friends that I wasn't expected to reciprocate. I was, instead, expected to sing for my supper. This could have been corrupting, but I justified it to myself by saying that I was learning from, and perhaps even teaching, the enemy camp.

In the course of his pedagogical round Hitchens often crossed paths with another young man on the make: "I didn't much like what little I knew of [Bill] Clinton, and this may have had something to do with my suspicion that he, too, was trying to have things both ways." Oxford also introduced Hitchens to his great friend James Fenton. The two men shared lodgings and a fondness for word games, and Hitchens later recruited the poet to contribute film reviews to the Socialist Worker. Fenton, in turn, introduced Hitchens to Fleet Street, the New Statesman and Martin Amis, who in all senses but the carnal serves as the love interest of these pages.

Hitchens was still foreign editor at the Statesman when he and I first met in 1979 at the suggestion of Amy Wilentz, then The Nation's assistant literary editor. The "fragrant and tempestuous" Amy, as Christopher invariably described her, isn't in Hitch-22, but devoted readers may recognize her tag as a sign of the "Hitch-O-Matic" on cruise control, furnishing the deadline-harried hack with a fund of ready-made yet distinct verbiage: "louche," "farouche," "factor" (as in "The Fenton Factor"), "effusions," "cheap effusions," "I now find," "I should perhaps confess," "mark the sequel." Sometimes, as in "I choose to think," with its emphasis on the agency involved in cognition, Hitchensisms can even be said to serve a serious purpose. But there is something dispiriting about the way any woman who enters the narrative is assigned a diminishing epithet: "the beguiling Raimonda Tawil," "the lovely Barbara Kopec," "the fragrant and lofty" Antonia Phillips, even "the nasty but pulchritudinous" Angela Davis.

Susan Sontag is a significant exception, figuring in several episodes without benefit of dis-qualifying adjective, so I don't think the issue here is simply misogyny. Privilege also influences the calculations. "An aristocracy," Henry James once observed, "is bad manners organized," and the organizing principle here seems to be one set of rules for Hitchens and his mates and another for the rest of us. Sontag is gently scolded for her failure to take a properly patriotic line after 9/11; her "co-thinkers" (to use the proper Hitchensism) on the "gutless Left" are damned for their "moral imbecility." The divide between those to whom anything is permitted and those of whom nothing much is expected reveals itself most starkly when Hitchens describes a visit to a Polynesian-themed massage parlor with Amis, gathering material for "what was to become his breakout novel Money." Hitchens compares the task of having to pretend sexual "interest in someone who was being paid...to feign a contemptuous interest in me" to the experience of being waterboarded, and then goes on to complain that the "avaricious bitch" named a price higher than his liking. Of course, "the cynical little witches at the 'Tahitia' were not to know that they were being conscripted into the service of literature."

While Hitchens and Amis share "a love whose month is ever May," mutual admiration apparently has its limits. I would have been perfectly happy not to know what Hitchens feels compelled to tell us about Gore Vidal's favored mode of sexual gratification—an anecdote that also involves the British journalist and politician Tom Driberg, a man described both as a "legend on the journalistic and cultural left" and "the old cocksucker," whose sin, apart from developing "a fondness for me which I don't think was especially sexual," was to have introduced Hitchens to Vidal. But by what possible standard of sexual candor or delicacy does Hitchens write that Fenton, for decades a happily out gay man, "was the only one of us who didn't at the time have a female companion," remarking that Fenton later had "a walk-out with a Valkyrie look-alike"? Though we are assured that the regard of Hitchens for Amis "was the most heterosexual relationship that one young man could conceivably have with another," their friend Fenton's actual affectional life is never acknowledged.

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