Patrick Cockburn: A fond farewell to a free thinker and godfather

Christopher Hitchens. Photo / Supplied
Christopher Hitchens. Photo / Supplied

I first met Christopher Hitchens when we were students in the 60s. I found him intelligent, quick-witted, funny, engaging and warm-hearted. In the decades that followed, he became a central part of the landscape of my life.

But my strongest memories of him revolve around the relations between Christopher and my son Henry who, at the age of 20, almost drowned trying to swim Newhaven estuary in midwinter in 2002. He was rescued by some fishermen, taken by the police to hospital and diagnosed as having paranoid schizophrenia. Christopher was Henry's godfather - though how this had happened, given Christopher's atheistic beliefs, was something of a mystery. From the time Henry became ill and started his long, miserable years in hospitals interrupted by disappearances and police searches, Christopher was assiduous in keeping in touch with him.

I went to stay with Christopher in Washington in November last year when he first discovered he was ill. Even when he was sick, Christopher's literary output was large - something he attributed to the freelancer's instinct never to turn down a commission and to never watching television.

He was already very sick, but it varied from day to day. He was still almost compulsively social. He was then, as he had always been, extraordinarily good company. Unlike many people who are at ease in small gatherings, he was also equally effective on a public platform, where his quick-wittedness gave him an advantage in any confrontation. Ill though he was at this time, he was still energised by appearing in public, in this case debating the existence of God with ex-Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In February I was back in the US, this time with Henry. He was more fragile than he had been, but he spent hours making Henry feel at home. In a letter he wrote this year about Henry to my wife, there was touchingly so little about himself and so much that is so perceptive about Henry.

I am struck by the degree to which Christopher's quickness of mind, originality and perceptiveness about people remained with him until his last days. I saw him at the end of May. He was stoic, but, even though he was taking heavy doses of morphine, I sensed he was suffering extreme pain. I thought I would never see him again but he was so much part of the thread of my own life that today I can scarcely believe that he is gone.


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