He was the son of a servant of the Crown from a well-heeled South of England background, who shone at prep school but proved something of an academic flop later on. A passionate left-wing polemicist, he nonetheless retained more than a few traces of his public-school breeding, including a plummy accent and a horde of posh friends. He combined cultural Englishness with political cosmopolitanism, and detested political personality cults while sedulously cultivating a public image of himself. From a vantage-point of relative security, he made the odd foray into the lives of the blighted and dispossessed, partly to keep his political nose to the ground and partly because such trips furnished him with precious journalistic copy. Coruscatingly intelligent though not in the strict sense an intellectual, he had the ornery, bloody-minded streak of the independent leftist and idiosyncratic Englishman, as adept at ruffling the feathers of his fellow socialists as at outraging the opposition. As he grew older, this cussedness became more pronounced, until his hatred of benighted autocratic states led him in the eyes of many to betray his left-wing views altogether.
Such, no doubt, is how Christopher Hitchens will be remembered. The resemblances to George Orwell, on whom Hitchens has written so admiringly,[*] are obvious enough, though so are some key differences. Orwell was a kind of literary proletarian who lived in dire straits for most of his life, and began to earn serious money from his writing only when he was approaching death. This is not the case with Hitchens, unless Vanity Fair is a lot meaner than one imagines. Some of Orwell’s impoverishment, to be sure, was self-inflicted: while a few of his fellow Etonians (Cyril Connolly, Harold Acton) were bursting precociously into print, Orwell chose to slave away in Parisian kitchens even when he was coughing up blood, sleep in dosshouses while cadging the odd ten shillings off his bemused parents, put in a spot of portering at Billingsgate, and ponder how to get himself put in prison for Christmas. Like Brecht, he always seemed exactly three days away from a shave, a minor physiological miracle.