Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens June 20, 2010Posted by rationalskeptic in Christopher Hitchens.
Tags: Christopher Hitchens, Hitch-22
This is an excert from Christopher Hitchens’ new memoir Hitch-22 (originally posted at Slate.com):
A short footnote on the grape and the grain.
By Christopher Hitchens
Updated Monday, June 7, 2010, at 7:20 AM ET
An ancient piece of Judaic commentary holds that the liver is the organ that best represents the relationship between parents and child: it is the heaviest of all the viscera and accordingly the most appropriate bit of one’s guts. Only two of the six hundred and thirteen Jewish commandments, or prohibitions, offer any reward for compliance and both are parental: the first is in the original Decalogue when those who “honor thy father and thy mother” are assured that this will increase their days in the promised or stolen Canaanite land that is about to be given them, and the second involves some convoluted piece of quasi-reasoning whereby a bird’s egg can be taken by a hungry Jew as long as the poor mother bird isn’t there to witness the depredation. How to discern whether it’s a mother or father bird is not confided by the sages.
Commander Eric Ernest Hitchens of the Royal Navy (my middle name is Eric and I have sometimes idly wondered how things might have been different if either of us had been called Ernest) was a man of relatively few words, would have had little patience for Talmudic convolutions, and was not one of those whom nature had designed to be a nest-builder. But his liver—to borrow a phrase from Gore Vidal—was “that of a hero,” and I must have inherited from him my fondness, if not my tolerance, for strong waters. I can remember perhaps three or four things of the rather laconic and diffident sort that he said to me. One—also biblically derived—was that my early socialist conviction was “founded on sand.” Another was that while one ought to beware of women with thin lips (this was the nearest we ever approached to a male-on-male conversation), those with widely spaced eyes were to be sought out and appreciated: excellent advice both times and no doubt dearly bought. Out of nowhere in particular, but on some unusually bleak West Country day he pronounced: “I sometimes think that the Gulf Stream is beginning to weaken,” thereby anticipating either the warming or else the cooling that seemingly awaits us all. When my firstborn child, his first grandson, arrived, I got a one-line card: “glad it’s a boy.” Perhaps you are by now getting an impression. But the remark that most summed him up was the flat statement that the war of 1939 to 1945 had been “the only time when I really felt I knew what I was doing.”
This, as I was made to appreciate while growing up myself, had actually been the testament of a British generation. Born in the early years of the century, afflicted by slump and Depression after the First World War in which their fathers had fought, then flung back into combat against German imperialism in their maturity, starting to get married and to have children in the bleak austerity that succeeded victory in 1945, they all wondered quite where the years of their youth and strength had gone, and saw only more decades of struggle and hardship still to come before the exigencies of retirement. As Bertie Wooster once phrased it, they experienced some difficulty in detecting the bluebird.
My entire boyhood was overshadowed by two great subjects, one of them majestic and the other rather less so. The first was the recent (and terribly costly) victory of Britain over the forces of Nazism. The second was the ongoing (and consequent) evacuation by British forces of bases and colonies that we could no longer afford to maintain. This epic and its closure were inscribed in the very scenery around me: Portsmouth and Plymouth had both been savagely blitzed and the scars were still palpable. The term “bomb-site” was a familiar one, used to describe a blackened gap in a street or the empty place where an office or pub used to stand. More than this, though, the drama was inscribed in the circumambient culture. Until I was about thirteen, I thought that all films and all television programs were about the Second World War, with a strong emphasis on the role played in that war by the Royal Navy. I saw Jack Hawkins with his binoculars on the icy bridge in The Cruel Sea: the movie version of a heart-stopping novel about the Battle of the Atlantic by Nicholas Monsarrat that by then I knew almost by heart. The Commander, who had seen action on his ship HMS Jamaica in almost every maritime theater from the Mediterranean to the Pacific, had had an especially arduous and bitter time, escorting convoys to Russia “over the hump” of Scandinavia to Murmansk and Archangel at a time when the Nazis controlled much of the coast and the air, and on the day after Christmas 1943 (“Boxing Day” as the English call it) proudly participating as the Jamaica pressed home for the kill and fired torpedoes through the hull of one of Hitler’s most dangerous warships, the Scharnhorst. Sending a Nazi convoy raider to the bottom is a better day’s work than any I have ever done, and every year on the anniversary the Commander would allow himself one extra tot of Christmas cheer, or possibly two, which nobody begrudged him. (To this day, I observe the occasion myself.)
But he would then become glum, because he had most decidedly not taken the King’s Commission in order to end up running guns to Joseph Stalin (he had loathed the glum, graceless reception he got when his ship docked under the gaze of the Red Navy) and because almost everything since that great Boxing Day had been headed downhill. The Empire and the Navy were being wound up fast, the colors were being struck from Malaya in the East to Cyprus and Malta nearer home, the Senior Service itself was being cut to the bone. When I was born in Portsmouth, my father was onboard a ship called the Warrior, anchored in a harbor that had once seen scores of aircraft carriers and great gray battleships pass in review. In Malta there had still been a shimmer or scintilla of greatness to the Navy, but by the time I was old enough to take notice the Commander was putting on his uniform only to go to a “stone frigate”: a non-seagoing dockside office in Plymouth where they calculated things in ledgers. Every morning on the BBC until I was six I would hear the newscaster utter the name “Sir Winston Churchill,” who was then prime minister. There came the day when this stopped, and my childish ears received the strange name “Sir Anthony Eden,” who had finally succeeded the old lion. Within a year or so, Eden had tried to emulate Churchill by invading Egypt at Suez, and pretending that Britain could simultaneously do without the U.N. and the United States. International and American revenge was swift, and from then on the atmosphere can’t even be described as a “long, withdrawing roar,” since the tide of empire and dominion merely and sadly ebbed.
“We won the war—or did we?” This remark, often accompanied by a meaning and shooting glance and an air of significance, was a staple of conversation between my father and his rather few friends as the decanter went round. Later in life, I am very sorry to say, it helped me to understand the “stab in the back” mentality that had infected so much of German opinion after 1918. You might call it the politics of resentment. These men had borne the heat and burden of the day, but now the only chatter in the press was of cheap and flashy success in commerce; now the colonies and bases were being mortgaged to the Americans (who, as we were invariably told, had come almost lethargically late to the struggle against the Axis); now there were ridiculous, posturing, self-inflated leaders like Kenyatta and Makarios and Nkrumah where only very recently the Union Jack had guaranteed prosperity under law. This grievance was very deeply felt but was also, except in the company of fellow sufferers, rather repressed. The worst thing the Navy did to the Commander was to retire him against his will sometime after Suez, and then and only then to raise the promised pay and pension of those officers who would later join up. This betrayal by the Admiralty was a never-ending source of upset and rancor: the more wartime service and action you had seen, the less of a pension you received. The Commander would write letters to Navy ministers and members of Parliament, and he even joined an association of “on the beach” ex-officers like himself. But one day when, tiring of his plaintiveness, I told him that nothing would change until he and his comrades marched in a phalanx to Buckingham Palace and handed back their uniforms and swords and scabbards and medals, he was quite shocked. “Oh,” he responded. “We couldn’t think of doing that.” Thus did I begin to see, or thought I began to see, how the British Conservatives kept the fierce, irrational loyalty of those whom they exploited. “He’s a Tory,” I was much later to hear of some dogged loyalist, “but he’s got nothing to be Tory about.” My thoughts immediately flew to my father, whose own devoted and brave loyalism had been estimated so cheaply by what I was by then calling the ruling class.
He was quite a small man and, when he took off his uniform (or had it taken away from him) and went to work as a bookkeeper, looked very slightly shrunken. For as long as he could, he took jobs that kept him near the sea, especially near the Hampshire-Sussex coast. He would work for a boatbuilder here, a speedboat-manufacturer there. We finally drifted inland, nearer to the center of my mother’s beloved Oxford, where there was a boys’ prep school that needed an accountant, and he seized the chance to acquire a dog. I hadn’t realized until then quite how much he preferred the predictability and loyalty of animals to the vagaries and frailties of human beings. Late in life the landlords of the apartment building where he lived were to tell him that he couldn’t keep his red-setter/retriever mix, a lovely animal named Becket. The now-beached Commander couldn’t afford to move house again, so instead of protesting, he meekly gave the dog away. But not before mooting with me a plan to establish Becket somewhere else, “so that I could go and visit him from time to time.” Again I had the experience of a moment of piercing pity, of the sort I could only now imagine feeling for a child of mine whom it was beyond my power to help.
I do have a heroic memory of him from my boyhood, and it happens to concern water. We were at a swimming-pool party, held at the local golf and country club that was almost but not quite out of our social orbit, when I heard a splash and saw the Commander fully clothed in the shallow end, pipe still clamped in his mouth. I remember hoping that he had not fallen in, in front of all these people, because of the gin. Then I saw that he was holding a little girl in his arms. She had been drowning, quietly, just outside her depth, until someone had squealed an alarm and my father had been the speediest man to act. I remember two things about the aftermath. The first was the Commander’s “no fuss; anyone would have done it” attitude to those who slapped him on the back in admiration. That was absolutely in character, and to be expected. But the second was the glare of undisguised rage and hatred from the little girl’s father, who should have been paying attention and who had instead been quaffing and laughing with his pals. That hateful look taught me a lot about human nature in a short time.
Otherwise I am rather barren of paternal recollections, and shall have to settle for the memory of a few walks, and for the strange cult of golf. Seafarer though he was, my father loved the downlands of Hampshire and Sussex and later Oxfordshire and could stride along with his trusty stick, pointing out here a steading and there a ridgeway. He was a Saxon in his own way, and still had the attitude, now almost extinct, that there had been such a thing as “the Norman yoke” imposed upon this ancient landscape and people. A favorite joke on his side of the family concerned the Hampshire yeoman in dispute with his squire. “I suppose you know,” observes the squire loftily, “that my ancestors came over with William the Conqueror.” “Yes,” responds the yeoman. “We were waiting for you.” (In an alternative version once offered by the rogue Marxist Welshman Raymond Williams, the yeoman tries to be witty and says: “Oh yes, and how are you liking it over here?”) I mention this because a certain kind of British conservatism is quite closely connected with this folk memory of populism and ethnicity, and because it became important for me to comprehend this later on.
The golf game must have taken place when I was about thirteen. I had taken up the sport, and even got myself a few clubs, with the idea that I ought to have something in common with my reticent old man, who loved golf and treasured a pewter mug he had once won in a Navy tournament held on the deck of an aircraft carrier. My effort paid off, if only once. We had a round of nine holes that somehow went well for both of us, and then he treated me to a heavy “tea” in the clubhouse where, if nothing much got said, there was no tension or awkwardness, either. It was the closest I ever came, or felt, to him. There was a very soft and beautiful dusk, I remember, as we drove slowly and quietly home through the purple-and-yellow gorse of the moors.
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From: Christopher Hitchens
Subject: Fragments From an Education
Posted Thursday, June 3, 2010, at 6:49 PM ET
I often have difficulty convincing my graduate students that I really did go off to prep school at the age of eight, from station platforms begrimed with coal dust and echoing to the mounting “whomp, whomp, woof, woof” of the pistons beginning to turn, as my own “trunk” and “tuck box” were loaded into a “luggage car.” Not only that, but that I wore corduroy shorts in all weathers, blazers with a school crest on Sundays, slept in a dormitory with open windows, began every day with a cold bath (followed by the declension of Latin irregular verbs), wolfed lumpy porridge for breakfast, attended compulsory divine service every morning and evening, and kept a diary in which—in a special code—I recorded the number of times when I was left alone with a grown-up man, who was perhaps four times my weight and five times my age, and bent over to be thrashed with a cane.
The strange thing, or so I now think, was the way in which it didn’t feel all that strange. The fictions and cartoons of Nigel Molesworth, of Paul Pennyfeather in Waugh’s Decline and Fall, and numberless other chapters of English literary folklore have somehow made all this mania and ritual appear “normal,” even praiseworthy. Did we suspect our schoolmasters—not to mention their weirdly etiolated female companions or “wives,” when they had any—of being in any way “odd,” not to say queer? We had scarcely the equipment with which to express the idea, and anyway what would this awful thought make of our parents, who were paying—as we were so often reminded—a princely sum for our privileged existences? The word “privilege” was indeed employed without stint. Yes, I think that must have been it. If we had not been certain that we were better off than the oafs and jerks who lived on housing estates and went to state-run day schools, we might have asked more questions about being robbed of all privacy, encouraged to inform on one another, taught how to fawn upon authority and turn upon the vulnerable outsider, and subjected at all times to rules which it was not always possible to understand, let alone to obey.
I think it was that last point which impressed itself upon me most, and which made me shudder with recognition when I read Auden’s otherwise overwrought comparison of the English boarding school to a totalitarian regime. The conventional word that is employed to describe tyranny is “systematic.” The true essence of a dictatorship is in fact not its regularity but its unpredictability and caprice; those who live under it must never be able to relax, must never be quite sure if they have followed the rules correctly or not. (The only rule of thumb was: whatever is not compulsory is forbidden.) Thus, the ruled can always be found to be in the wrong. The ability to run such a “system” is among the greatest pleasures of arbitrary authority, and I count myself lucky, if that’s the word, to have worked this out by the time I was ten. Later in life I came up with the term “micro-megalomaniac” to describe those who are content to maintain absolute domination of a small sphere. I know what the germ of the idea was, all right. “Hitchens, take that look off your face!” Near-instant panic. I hadn’t realized I was wearing a “look.” (Face-crime!) “Hitchens, report yourself at once to the study!” “Report myself for what, sir?” “Don’t make it worse for yourself, Hitchens, you know perfectly well.” But I didn’t. And then: “Hitchens, it’s not just that you have let the whole school down. You have let yourself down.” To myself I was frantically muttering: Now what? It turned out to be some dormitory sex-game from which—though the fools in charge didn’t know it—I had in fact been excluded. But a protestation of my innocence would have been, as in any inquisition, an additional proof of guilt.
There were other manifestations, too. There was nowhere to hide. The lavatory doors sometimes had no bolts. One was always subject to invigilation, waking and sleeping. Collective punishment was something I learned about swiftly: “Until the offender confesses in public,” a giant voice would intone, “all your ‘privileges’ will be withdrawn.” There were curfews, where we were kept at our desks or in our dormitories under a cloud of threats while officialdom prowled the corridors in search of unspecified crimes and criminals. Again I stress the matter of sheer scale: the teachers were enormous compared to us and this lent a Brobdingnagian aspect to the scene. In seeming contrast, but in fact as reinforcement, there would be long and “jolly” periods where masters and boys would join in scenes of compulsory enthusiasm—usually over the achievements of a sports team—and would celebrate great moments of victory over lesser and smaller schools. I remember years later reading about Stalin that the intimates of his inner circle were always at their most nervous when he was in a “good” mood, and understanding instantly what was meant by that.
And yet it still wasn’t fascism, and the men and women who ran this bizarre microcosm were dedicated in their own weird way. The school, Mount House, was on the edge of Dartmoor—the site of the famously grim prison in Waugh’s Decline and Fall—and haggard, despairing escaped convicts were more than once recaptured after hiding in the sheds on our cricket grounds. Yet the natural beauty of the region was astonishing, and our teachers were on hand all day and at weekends, many of them conveying their enthusiasm for birds and animals and trees. We were all of us compelled to sit through lessons in the sinister fairy tales of Christianity as well, and nature was sometimes enlisted as illustrating god’s design, but I can’t pretend that I hated singing the hymns or learning the psalms, and I enjoyed being in the choir and was honored when asked to read from the lectern on Sundays. In fact, as you have perhaps guessed, I was getting an early training in the idea that life meant keeping two separate and distinct sets of books. If my parents knew what really went on at the school, I used to think (not being the first little boy to imagine that my main job was that of protecting parental innocence), they would faint from the shock. So I would be staunch and defend them from the knowledge. Meanwhile, and speaking of books, the school possessed its very own library, and several of the masters had private collections of their own, to which one might be admitted (not always without risk to these men’s immortal souls) as a great treat.
This often feels as if it happened to somebody else yet I can be sure it did not because I can recall the element of sadomasochism so well. Awareness of this is no doubt innate in all of us, and I suppose a case could be made for teaching it to children as part of “sex education” or the facts of life, but I had to sit in a freezing classroom at first light, at a tender age, and hear my silver-haired Latin teacher Mr. Witherington approach the verge of tears as he digressed from the study of Caesar and Tacitus and told us with an awful catch in his voice of the way in which he had been flogged at Eastbourne School. And that same brutish academy, we thought as we squirmed our tiny rears on the wooden benches, was one of those to which we were supposed to aspire. I think I wish I had not been introduced so early to the connection between obscure sexual excitement and the infliction—or the reception—of pain.
Again come the two sets of books: I would escape to the library and lose myself in the adventure stories of John Buchan and “Sapper” and G.A. Henty and Percy Westerman, and acquaint myself with imperial and military values just as, unknown to me in the England of the late 1950s that lay outside the school’s boundary, these were going straight out of style. Meanwhile and on the other side of the ledger, I would tell myself that I wasn’t really part of the hierarchy of cruelty, either as bully or victim. I wasn’t any use at sports, I didn’t have the kind of “keenness” that made one even a junior prefect, but on the other hand I did need to protect myself from being a mere weed and weakling and kick-bag. Sometimes there was a fatso or freak toward whom I could divert the attention of the mob, but I can honestly claim to have become ashamed of this tactic. There came a day when, without exactly realizing it in a fully conscious manner, I understood that words could function as weapons. I don’t remember all the offenses and hurts that had been inflicted on me, but I do recollect exactly what I said as I whirled on my playground tormentor, an especially vile boy named Welchman who was a snitch and a stoolpigeon as well as the embodiment of the (not invariably reliable) maxim that all bullies are cowards at heart. “You,” I said in fairly level but loud tones through my split lips, “are a liar, a bully, a coward, and a thief.” It was amazing to see the way in which this lummox fell back, his face filling with alarm. It was also quite something to see the tide of playground public opinion turn so suddenly against him.
Looking back, it is the masochistic element that impresses me more than the sadistic one. It’s relatively easy to see why people want to exert power over others, but what fascinated me was the way in which the victims colluded in the business. Bullies would acquire a personal squad of toadies with impressive speed and ease. The more tyrannical the schoolmaster, the more those who lived in fear of him would rush to placate him and to anticipate his moods. Small boys who were ill-favored, or “out of favor” with authority, would swiftly attract the derision and contempt of the majority as well. I still writhe when I think how little I did to oppose this. My tongue sharpened itself mainly in my own defense.
Hugh Wortham, my huge and dominating headmaster and introducer to the dark arts of corporal punishment, was a lifelong bachelor, but some of the local mothers found him handsome, and Yvonne gaily said that he put her in mind of Rex Harrison. His huge, brawny, furry arms and his immense horseshoes of teeth made him seem almost gorilla-like to me and a bold contrast to the rather slight figure of the Commander. His rages would shake the windows and make small boys turn white: his “good moods” were a hell to endure and a challenge to manipulate. Heaven knows what he’d been through sexually: he himself didn’t stoop to “fiddling” with any of us but if you were occasionally favored, as I occasionally was, you would be given a copy of David Blaize or one of the Jeremy novels and asked if you’d care to read it “in your free time.” Though I didn’t have the vocabulary for this in those days, I now know quite a lot about E.F. Benson and Hugh Walpole and I sensed even then that this was the world of the smoldering and yearning and repressed adult homosexual, fixated on his own schooldays and probably most attracted to those who are themselves blithely unaware of the intensity of the attention.
There were also some masters, twitchy and sad and at the end of their tethers and the close of their careers, who by the same herd instinct we knew to be fair game. Poor old Mr. Robertson—”Rubberguts,” with his decrepit Austin car and his equally decrepit wife Lydia—could not keep order and made the fatal mistake of trying to curry favor with the boys by little acts of kindness and bribery with sweets. He was childless and pathetic and he taught the unmanly subject of geography, and we somehow knew that the real authorities in the school didn’t respect him either, so we felt free to make his life a misery. There was more satisfaction to be had in teasing and torturing a feeble member of the Establishment than there was in cornering some hapless and pustular bedwetter of our own cohort. Rubberguts eventually left the school and for all I know died in poverty in some seaside boardinghouse, but before we broke him the poor childless chap swooped on me one day in the changing rooms, caught me under the armpits, held me up and gave me, or to be exact my forehead, the most chaste possible kiss. Then he put me down and silently, sadly mooched away. At first I thought I had a good tale to share with my fellow gloating little beasts, but then I found myself admitting that there had been nothing so creepy about it, merely something melancholy, and I never said a word to a soul. It is strange how the boundary between the knowing and the innocent is subconsciously patrolled: one may be apparently quite “wised up” while being in reality quite naïve, or entirely unaware of the grosser aspects of existence while yet possessing some intuition of what lies on the other side of the adult veil. I couldn’t make this encounter seem dirty while there were boys more advanced than myself who could make even the word “clean” sound suggestive. I suspected that they sometimes pretended to know more than they really did.
And this is partly why I can’t entirely second or echo his own great memoir of prep-school misery. For me, the experience of being sent away at a tender age was, at any cost, finally an emancipating one. I knew I hadn’t been dispatched to boarding school to get me out of the way (an assurance that I don’t think the young Orwell shared). I knew it was my only eventual meal ticket for a decent university: that undiscovered country to which no Hitchens had yet traveled. I knew that I owed my parents the repayment of a debt. True, I did get pushed around and unfairly punished and introduced too soon to some distressing facts of existence, but I would not have preferred to stay at home or to have been sheltered from these experiences, and it was probably good for me to be deprived of my adoring mother and taught—I can still remember the phrase—that I wasn’t by any means “the only pebble on the beach.” Why, I once inquired, was the school boxing tournament into which I had been entered against my will called “The Ninety Percent”? “Because, Hitchens, the fight involves only ten percent skill and ninety percent guts.” This seemed even then like a parody of a Tom Brown story, and I had the socks knocked off me in the ring, but why do I remember it after half a century? The school motto was Ut Prosim (“That I May Be Useful”), and when one has joined in the singing of “I Vow to Thee My Country”—especially on 11 November by the war memorial—or “The Day Thou Gavest, Lord, Is Ended” (“To sing is to pray twice,” as St. Augustine put it) then one may in fact be very slightly better equipped to face that Japanese jail or Iraqi checkpoint.
I have just looked up the gleaming new website of Mount House, and realized that if I have set all this down in my turn, it is because I was among the last generation to go through the “old school” version of Englishness. The site speaks enthusiastically of the number of girls being educated at the establishment (good grief!), of the availability of vegetarian diets and caterings for other “special needs,” and of its sensitivity to various sorts of “learning disability.” Now I cannot say I am completely sorry to think that there will be no more “eat that mutton, Hitchens” or “bend over that chair, Hitchens,” or “shall we call him Christine, boys, he’s so feeble?” but something in me hopes that it hasn’t all become positive reinforcement, with high marks constantly awarded for mere self-esteem.
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From: Christopher Hitchens
Subject: A Short Footnote on the Grape and the Grain
Posted Sunday, June 6, 2010, at 6:03 AM ET
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 in a bookstore or a lecture hall. 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. (One of them, asking me to sign her copy of my Letters to a Young Contrarian, said to me wistfully: “I bought a copy of this to give to my son, hoping he’d become a contrarian, but he refused.” Adorno would have appreciated the paradox.)
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 that 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. This ought to be obvious by induction: on average I produce at least a thousand words of printable copy every day, and sometimes more. I have never missed a deadline. I give a class or a lecture or a seminar perhaps four times a month and have never been late for an engagement or shown up the worse for wear. My boyish visage and my mellifluous tones are fairly regularly to be seen and heard on TV and radio, and nothing will amplify the slightest slur more than the studio microphone. (I think I did once appear on the BBC when fractionally whiffled, but those who asked me about it later were not sure whether I was not, a few days after September 11, a bit angry as well as a bit tired.) Anyway, it should be obvious that I couldn’t do all of this if I was what the English so bluntly call a “piss-artist.”
It’s the professional deformation of many writers, and has ruined not a few. (I remember Kingsley Amis, himself no slouch, saying that he could tell on what page of the novel Paul Scott had reached for the bottle and thrown caution to the winds.) I work at home, where there is indeed a bar-room, and can suit myself. But I don’t. At about half past midday, a decent slug of Mr. Walker’s amber restorative, cut with Perrier water (an ideal delivery system) and no ice. At luncheon, perhaps half a 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 any 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. The only worthwhile miracle in the New Testament—the transmutation of water into wine during the wedding at Cana—is a tribute to the persistence of Hellenism in an otherwise austere Judaea. The same applies to the Seder at Passover, which is obviously modeled on the Platonic symposium: questions are asked (especially of the young) while wine is circulated. No better form of sodality has ever been devised: at Oxford one was positively expected to take wine during tutorials. The tongue must be untied. It’s not a coincidence that Omar Khayyam, rebuking and ridiculing the stone-faced Iranian mullahs of his time, pointed to the value of the grape as a mockery of their joyless and sterile regime. Visiting today’s Iran, I was delighted to find that citizens made a point of defying the clerical ban on booze, keeping it in their homes for visitors even if they didn’t particularly take to it themselves, and bootlegging it with great brio and ingenuity. These small revolutions affirm the human.
At the wild Saturnalia that climaxes John Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat, the charismatic Danny manages to lay so many women that, afterward, even the females who didn’t receive his attentions prefer to claim, rather than appear to have been overlooked, that they were included, too. I can’t make any comparable boast but quite often I get second-hand reports about people who claim to have spent evenings in my company that belong to song, story, and legend when it comes to the Dionysian. I once paid a visit to the grotesque holding-pen that the United States government maintains at Guantánamo Bay in Cuba. There wasn’t an unsupervised moment on the whole trip, and the main meal we ate—a heavily calorific affair that was supposed to demonstrate how well-nourished the detainees were—was made even more inedible by the way that water (with the option of a can of 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 Guantánamo: 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 in that bizarre Cuban enclave, half-madrassa and half-stockade, but it was still completely and willingly believed. Publicity means that actions are judged by reputations and not the other way about: I never wonder how it happens that mythical figures in religious history come to have fantastic rumors credited to their names.
“Hitch: making rules about drinking can be the sign of an alcoholic,” as Martin Amis once teasingly said to me. (Adorno would have savored that, as well.) 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 car 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.