Noah Richler on the Johnnie Walker afternoons he spent with the late Christopher Hitchens

Christopher and I knew each other from London. He had been one of the few Englishmen I knew who had the generosity of spirit to understand North America and its freedoms and so I was thrilled that he was among the first to write for me when, in 1998, I returned to Canada as the National Post’s first Books editor. He’d said yes, though our dollar was not worth much, he’d review—though agreed only after cautioning me that Conrad Black, its proprietor then, had approached him at a party in London after his purchase of The Spectator to say, “I bought the magazine to put shits like you out of work.” A year or so later, Black did give me trouble when I ran a long review Hitchens wrote of a memoir by Edward Said that the paper had me pull on dubious grounds. I telephoned Christopher and told him that it didn’t feel to me like a quitting offence, it was Black’s paper after all, but also that I knew he could handle himself, so what would he like to know?

Soon after, we had lunch in New York and discussed the pulled piece along with much else, managing to run up a bill of several hundred dollars in a Johnnie Walker of an afternoon in which, of course, food did not figure much. Without compunction, I billed the Post. A couple of days later Ken Whyte, who was then the editor and, much to his credit, an early fan of Christopher’s though also an employee of Black’s and hence in something of a difficult position, said to me, “I wish you hadn’t done that.” I thought for a moment he was referring to the expense of our extravagant lunch, my bit of revenge, but no, it was to my having been up front with Hitchens about what went on. As I’d anticipated, Christopher had called in and had his way and the piece ran, uncut. What I told Ken was what I had learned from Christopher, which is that I was not about to fib on anyone’s behalf. For refusing to do that I would gladly have been fired and, eventually, was.

Hitchens was, no surprise, one of the best read people I have ever met, and the facet of his reading that distinguished him was his voracious reading not just of history and biography, but literature and poetry. He understood its refinements, the irony and the sense of humour these provided him. It would be Hitchens, of course, after lunch at Toronto’s University Club, who would take me aside to point out to me what I should have been showing him—a small votive plaque on the wall commemorating Canadian soldiers sent to Siberia for whom the “Great War” ended not in 1918, but a year later. Another time, not long after the publication of his book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, he and my brother Daniel and I had lunch in the empty upstairs of Toronto’s Bistro 990, wanting a little privacy. I don’t remember the hotel he was staying at—I think it was the Windsor Arms—but he greeted my brother and I quite apologetically, though just a few minutes late, with a tumbler of scotch in hand. He’d had an unexpected piece to write and would be another few minutes. That was the beginning of another enjoyably long afternoon, during which the bartender, astute that he was, had obviously telephoned the news in but the next day it was reported not that Hitchens had lunch with us, but with Kissinger. That amused him.

The last time we had dinner together was at the house, with his family. He was very ill, and the way he stepped out and had a smoke anyway was familiar to me from my own father’s death, as too the irrational optimism in their loving faces. There did not seem much point in saying “Don’t,” and a lot more to being an uncomplicated companion, the fella to stand with him and have the ideas bounced off, when they came.

And, as always, they did. At one point in the evening, one I’ll not forget, the deaths from somewhere came up—Kurdistan, I think it was, me talking about an academic I’d interviewed who’d said of the Kurds that no archaeological trace existed and how furious I’d been that an intelligent, educated man would make himself complicit in tyranny and that, after reflection, I’d not hesitated to name him in the radio documentary I’d been making. To hell with the man, if the naming got him into trouble. Christopher turned, and with that unmistakable glint of a new idea in his eye, said, “I think everybody should kill a person once in their life.” He never wrote the piece—not as far as I know—but already my mind was whirling, considering all the angles he would take. And there was a small bit of solace, knowing that even as the cancer was sure to win, I’d been useful in some small way to his insatiable intellectual appetites. It’s a little English to say that I never knew him all that well, but true, as it is too, to say that I will miss him very much.

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