Intellectual railed against fascism and stupidity and celebrated freedom of expression

Contrary to the very end, Christopher Hitchens had us reflecting on the death of an atheist in the week leading up to the Christian festival that celebrates the birth of Jesus Christ.

The Anglo-American writer, widely regarded as the greatest essayist and foremost public intellectual of his time, died last week, aged 62, of cancer of the oesophagus.

The illness struck not long after he'd cemented media stardom with his book God is not Great: How religion poisons everything and brought out the best and worst in believers: some prayed for his recovery; others hailed it as God's revenge and the prelude to eternal damnation.


Before that, his vehement support for the War on Terror had transformed him from a notable but relatively obscure journalist into a public figure. His advocacy was newsworthy because he was a man of the left, an admirer of Leon Trotsky and an arch-critic of American imperialism who'd devoted a book to arguing that Henry Kissinger should be tried as a war criminal for his actions in Indochina and elsewhere.

Many former comrades considered him a turncoat whose desire to be a participant rather than an observer caused him to shed his principles in return for an invitation to the Bush White House. Perhaps taking his lead from Winston Churchill, who declared that if Hitler invaded hell "I'd make at least a favourable reference to the devil in the House of Commons", Hitchens adopted the attitude that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. (He'd previously described George W. Bush as "unusually incurious, abnormally unintelligent, amazingly inarticulate, fantastically uncultured, extraordinarily uneducated and apparently quite proud of all these things.")

Hitchens' powers of recall, coolness under fire and mastery of the deadly put-down - all the more wounding, for some reason, for being delivered in a plummy drawl - made it easier and safer to accuse him of selling out than debate him, either face to face or in print. His greatest hits, known as "Hitch-slaps", gained him a large following on YouTube.

He said of the US televangelist Jerry Falwell, whom David Lange bested in debate at the Oxford Union in 1985 on the motion that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible, that if "he'd been given an enema, he could have been buried in a matchbox". Along with Lange's jibe that "I can smell the uranium on your breath", it constituted a one-two punch that would have flattened more substantial individuals than Falwell.

Hitchens' response to 9/11 shouldn't have come as a surprise to anyone with a passing familiarity with his work. He supported military action in the Falklands for much the same reason that he backed the invasion of Iraq. The fact that the Falklands war was short and clear-cut, with relatively few casualties and the happy consequence of bringing down an atrocious junta thereby paving the way for the restoration of democracy in Argentina may have persuaded him that the Iraqi campaign would be similarly contained.

The fact that, in their reflexive opposition to the Falklands action, many on the left seemed not to notice that it caused the collapse of a dictatorship may have persuaded him that the left's opposition to fascism was all talk.

And Hitchens made up his mind where he stood in the struggle between militant, theocratic Islam and the West on the day it began: in 1989, when Iran's Ayatollah Khomeini imposed a fatwa or sentence of death on novelist Salman Rushdie and got away with it.

"It was a matter of everything I hated versus everything I loved. In the hate column: dictatorship, religion, stupidity, demagogy, censorship, bullying and intimidation. In the love column: literature, irony, humour, the individual, and the defence of free expression."

An anti-eulogy by a former friend, which rather hilariously condemned Hitchens for his unsparing verdict on a recently deceased former friend, insisted that as a writer his prose was "limited in range". That begs the question: compared to whose? His wit, erudition and virtuoso style made him one of the very few writers who live up to the dust jacket hype: "incapable of writing a dull sentence".

His entrancing memoir Hitch-22 reveals both a radical and a boulevardier, an internationalist and an eternal English public schoolboy who delighted in obscene wordplay and experienced a mild thrill upon being spanked by Margaret Thatcher.

He was a brave man whose life and work amount to a resounding statement that those who love life should be celebrated while those who love death must be resisted and defeated. An atheist he may have been, but he would have enjoyed Christmas because the Christmas message is, above all, an affirmation of life.