Q: In your memoir, Hitch-22, you describe how you learned from your brother Peter that you had a Jewish grandmother, a fact your mother Yvonne wanted kept secret and of which you and your father were unaware. Do you think you can be shaped by a story you don’t know?
A: Well, it would depend on how much of a ton of bricks it was hitting you. If I’d had no interest at all in the question before that moment, I don’t really know. After all, a lot of people who are, if you like, however we want to put it, authentically 100 per cent Jewish—who’ve always known—seem to treat it not exactly as a matter of indifference, but very nearly, usually for liberal-ish reasons. But I’d always thought that Judaism was a great subject. I think part of having been a Marxist meant I could not help noticing how many thinkers and writers of the left were Jews. And I also used to find any hint of anti-Semitism absolutely repulsive. I took it personally in the way that one does something obscene—perhaps because anti-Semitism is something so anti-intellectual and, in a horrible way, pseudo-intellectual. It’s quasi-theoretical, a lot of it, and there’s something completely tainted and hateful about it, which I hope I would have felt anyway. Someone like Martin [Amis], for example, certainly does without any skin in the game. I hate the idea one would be thinking with—what, one’s blood—but the sentiment was there and some of it may well have come from things I had overheard from my mum—I never call her mum, why am I doing that?—from my mother when I was small. Maybe it stayed with me without my knowing, that could be. Or, in other words, perhaps it was something that, when I found out, in a strange way I had known all along.
Q: Did you feel any responsibility, almost as a scientist would, to revise what you’d said or who you’d been in light of what must have been, objectively, such an interesting revelation?
A: I did make haste to go and see my grandmother, who was still lucid then, and question her as far as I could about where we were from and what it had been like for her. That was fascinating but all rather a conventional script, actually—Poland, millinery and dentistry, low-level-but-not-horrible prejudice, the pressure to change their name. They all assimilated quite fast and there was minimal upkeep of the ritual—nothing very exciting, actually. It didn’t change my attitude to the texts, and politically and ideologically, no, because almost all the great critics of religion have been Jewish. My attitude toward Zionism had always been—and I’m sure always would have been—that I very much doubt it to be the liberation of the Jewish people.
Q: Do you consider anti-Semitism a religious phenomenon?
A: Yes, and this is where Tony Blair would make a point that I would agree with because he would say if you got rid of religion you still wouldn’t get rid of anti-Semitism. I’m sure that’s true, but the reason for its virulence is religious. As I say in my book, there were no Ukrainians at the Crucifixion, there were no Armenians, there were no druids. If the events as described took place at all—and I think that something like that probably did, that some charismatic rabbi was executed for blasphemy—then the Romans did it but it was the Jews who thought, “Here’s another false claimant.” They were the only ones who knew him, really, and they spat on him and turned away and for that they’re not going to be forgiven. That’s why it took the Church until 1964 to stop saying that all Jews were personally responsible. And still, most of them, in their hearts, haven’t really taken that back. It’s the same with the Muslims. The first people who meet Muhammad are the Jews and at first some of them are excited, thinking maybe this is the Messiah. But he is not, they decide. Private time with the Prophet is something that every Muslim in the world would give their all for, really to meet him, and this privilege was granted to a group who turned their backs. And they still, most of them, haven’t really in their hearts taken that back. It’s not going to be forgotten. Blair, in a banal sense, would be right about this—without religion there would still be anti-Semitism, I’m sure, but its roots are definitely religious.
Q: When did your love of speaking well begin?
A: It was partly when I was at school. I wasn’t going to make a name for myself on a playing field, but I was not bad in the classroom. I was interested in current affairs and there was a debating society, and I thought, “I’d like to do that.” At that time, also, I was prone to stutter and I was small and quite shy and I developed a stammer. That was acutely embarrassing to me, and I thought I might cure it if I forced myself to speak in public. As a writer, I don’t have musical capacity but, in compensation, I am a good reader and I talk and I think better than I write. I remember when I was working for the New Statesman, my test of a good article was how strongly it made the case, was it a good polemic, would it strengthen the left, essentially. Anyway, we were at some dinner somewhere in north London and Simon Hoggart, who was working for the Guardian then, said to me, “Liked your piece in the Statesman this week,” and I said, “Thank you.” And he said, “But I thought it was a bit dry, it was a bit dull—good argument and everything, and you made your case very well, but . . . ” And I bridled a little bit—well, quite a lot, in fact—and said, “What are you talking about?” And very mildly and disarmingly he said, “No, no, no. Just relax. It’s so much more fun hearing you talk than reading you. Why don’t you try and write more as you speak?” I couldn’t forget what he said and it’s worked on me. And now, really, the pleasure of writing is as if to consider myself trying to write a letter to an intelligent or amusing friend.
Q: What has your illness done for you, if I may put it that way?
A: Yes, you can. Well—and he’s always misquoted about this, he was talking about something else completely—but as Dr. [Samuel] Johnson famously said of the death penalty, it concentrates your mind. It does do that. But then, I’d like to think, mine was fairly concentrated anyway. Mostly, the thoughts that it sparks are ones that I think people in their early sixties have in any case—you know, “Where did all the time go?” and “What have I done with my life?”—but these have been hugely alleviated for me by the number of people who have written to me to say, “Don’t worry, you haven’t. You did this or that for me. I’m here to prove it.” I really have had so much more than I expected, and certainly more than I deserve, but it’s coincided with a very active period in my life, and a very satisfying one, and that’s both a nice thought and a very bitter one because you think, “Well, I’ve got to the point I wanted to get to, and I could claim I’ve worked bloody hard to do it, and here I was looking forward to some good sixties.” I really didn’t want more than that—a decade, basically, of dividend. It’s not that I would stop investing but I’d, you know, cash out a bit. And now I’m not going to get that, I don’t think—well, no, I’m not, because even if I do have them they won’t be carefree years in any sense. At best, the sickness will always be at bay. So I won’t get that, and of course this is exactly the period where my children are at their most intriguing and so, yes, that’s very bitter. To some extent, I can be jaunty on my own behalf, or phlegmatic, whatever you want to call it, and very occasionally a little bit more stoical than I feel—I can be those things, but not for them.
Q: After the debate, I heard one of your fans say, “Hitchens’s mind is the best argument for God.” His partner replied, “No, it’s an argument for science.”
A: Well, they’re both wrong, I think.
Pages: 1 2