Christopher Hitchens RIP

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Christopher Hitchens RIP

Post  eddie on Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:11 pm

Christopher Hitchens: 'the consummate writer, the brilliant friend'

Ian McEwan writes of his close friend's last weeks, and how his love of journalism and literature sustained him to the end

Ian McEwan

guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 December 2011 20.48 GMT


Christopher Hitchens with Ian McEwan (left) and Martin Amis in Uruguay, posing for a picture which appeared in his memoirs, Hitch 22. Photograph: PR

The place where Christopher Hitchens spent his last few weeks was hardly bookish, but he made it his own. Close to downtown Houston, Texas is the medical centre, a cluster of high-rises like La Défense of Paris, or the City of London, a financial district of a sort, where the common currency is illness. This complex is one of the world's great concentrations of medical expertise and technology. Its highest building, 40 or 50 storeys up, denies the possibility of a benevolent god – a neon sign proclaims from its roof a cancer hospital for children. This "clean-sliced cliff", as Larkin puts it in his poem about a tower-block hospital, was right across the way from Christopher's place – which was not quite as high, and adults only.

No man was ever as easy to visit in hospital. He didn't want flowers and grapes, he wanted conversation, and presence. All silences were useful. He liked to find you still there when he woke from his frequent morphine-induced dozes. He wasn't interested in being ill, the way most ill people are. He didn't want to talk about it.

When I arrived from the airport on my last visit, he saw sticking out of my luggage a small book. He held out his hand for it – Peter Ackroyd's London Under, a subterranean history of the city. Then we began a 10-minute celebration of its author. We had never spoken of him before, and Christopher seemed to have read everything. Only then did we say hello. He wanted the Ackroyd, he said, because it was small and didn't hurt his wrist to hold. But soon he was making pencilled notes in its margins. By that evening he'd finished it.

He could have written a review, but he was due to turn in a long piece on Chesterton. And so this was how it would go: talk about books and politics, then he dozed while I read or wrote, then more talk, then we both read. The intensive care unit room was crammed with flickering machines and sustaining tubes, but they seemed almost decorative. Books, journalism, the ideas behind both, conquered the sterile space, or warmed it, they raised it to the condition of a good university library. And they protected us from the bleak high-rise view through the plate glass windows, of that world, in Larkin's lines, whose loves and chances "are beyond the stretch/Of any hand from here!"

In the afternoon I was helping him out of bed, the idea being that he was to take a shuffle round the nurses' station to exercise his legs. As he leaned his trembling, diminished weight on me, I said, only because I knew he was thinking it, "Take my arm old toad …" He gave me that shifty sideways grin I remembered so well from healthy days. It was the smile of recognition, or one that anticipates in late afternoon an "evening of shame" – that is to say, pleasure, or, one of his favourite terms, "sodality".

That must be how I came to be reading The Whitsun Weddings aloud to him two hours later. Christopher asked me to set the poem in context for his son Alexander – a lovely presence in that room for weeks on end – and for his wife Carol Blue, a tigress for his medical cause. She had tangled so ferociously with some slow element of the hospital's bureaucracy that security guards had been called to throw her out the building. Fortunately, she charmed and disarmed them.

I set the poem up and read it, and when I reached that celebrated end, "A sense of falling, like an arrow shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain," Christopher murmured from his bed, "That's so dark, so horribly dark." I disagreed, and not out of any wish to lighten his mood. Surely, the train journey comes to an end, the recently married couples are dispatched towards their separate fates. He wouldn't have it, and a week later, when I was back in London, we were still exchanging emails on the subject. One of his began: "Dearest Ian, Well, indeed – no rain, no gain – but it still depends on how much anthropomorphising Larkin is doing with his unconscious … I'd provisionally surmise that 'somewhere becoming rain' is unpromising."

And this was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature. Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd, he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton's Catholicism; Browning's Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Mann's The Magic Mountain – he'd reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions towards Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton's A German Requiem: "How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times."

While I was with him another celebration took place in faraway London, with Stephen Fry as host in the Festival Hall to reflect on the life and times of Christopher Hitchens. We helped him out of bed and into a chair and set my laptop in front of him. Alexander delved into the internet with special passwords to get us linked to the event. He also plugged in his own portable stereo speakers. We had the sound connection well before the vision and what we heard was astounding, and for Christopher, uplifting. It was the noise of two thousand voices small-talking before the event. Then we had a view from the stage of the audience, packed into their rows.

They all looked so young. I would have guessed that nearly all of them would have opposed Christopher strongly over Iraq. But here they were, and in cinemas all over the country, turning out for him. Christopher grinned and raised a thin arm in salute. Close family and friends may be in the room with you, but dying is lonely, the confinement is total. He could see for himself that the life outside this small room had not forgotten him. For a moment, pace Larkin, it was by way of the internet that the world stretched a hand towards him.

The next morning, at Christopher's request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker's biography of Chesterton. Whenever people talk of Christopher's journalism, I will always think of this moment.

Consider the mix. Chronic pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton's romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism, and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, his head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn't have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it's available, read the review.

His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater's famous phrase, he burned "with this hard gem-like flame". Right to the end.

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Re: Christopher Hitchens RIP

Post  eddie on Tue Dec 20, 2011 8:14 pm

Christopher Hitchens obituary

Maverick, polemical journalist whose career was a rollercoaster of love and loathing

Peter Wilby

guardian.co.uk, Friday 16 December 2011 06.11 GMT


Christopher Hitchens – 'one of the greatest conversationalists of our age'. Photograph: Catherine Karnow/Corbis

For most of his career, Christopher Hitchens, who has died of oesophageal cancer aged 62, was the left's biggest journalistic star, writing and broadcasting with wit, style and originality in a period when such qualities were in short supply among those of similar political persuasion. Nobody else spoke with such confidence and passion for what Americans called "liberalism" and Hitchens (regarding "liberal" as too "evasive") called "socialism".

His targets were the abusers of power, particularly Henry Kissinger (whom he tried to bring to trial for his role in bombing Cambodia and overthrowing the Allende regime in Chile) and Bill Clinton. He was unrelenting in his support for the Palestinian cause and his excoriation of America's projections of power in Asia and Latin America. He was a polemicist rather than an analyst or political thinker – his headteacher at the Leys school in Cambridge presciently forecast a future as a pamphleteer – and, like all the best polemicists, brought to his work outstanding skills of reporting and observation.

To these, he added wide reading, not always worn lightly, an extraordinary memory – he seemed, his friend Ian McEwan observed, to enjoy "instant neurological recall" of anything he had ever read or heard – and a vigorous, if sometimes pompous writing style, heavily laden with adjectives, elegantly looping sub-clauses and archaic phrases such as "allow me to inform you".

His socialism was always essentially internationalist, particularly since the British working classes responded sluggishly to literature he handed out at factory gates for the International Socialists, a Trotskyist group of which he was a member from 1966 to 1976. He had little interest in social or economic policy and, in later life, seemed somewhat bemused at questions about his three children being educated privately.

Hitchens travelled widely as a young man, often at his own expense, visiting, for example, Poland, Portugal, Czechoslovakia and Argentina at crucial moments in their anti-totalitarian struggles, offering fraternal solidarity and parcels of blue jeans. Later, he rarely wrote at length about any country without visiting it, sometimes at risk of arrest or physical attack. His loathing of tyranny was consistent: unlike many of the 1960s generation, he never harboured illusions about Mao or Castro. His concerns grew about the left's selective tolerance for totalitarian regimes – as early as 1983, he ruffled "comrades" by supporting Margaret Thatcher's war against General Leopoldo Galtieri's Argentina – but they did not initially threaten a rupture in his political loyalties.

After the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington in 2001, however, Hitchens announced he was no longer on the left – while denying he had become any kind of conservative – and "swore a sort of oath to remain coldly furious" until "fascism with an Islamic face" was "brought to a most strict and merciless account".

To the horror of former allies, he accepted invitations to the George W Bush White House; embraced the deputy defence secretary and Iraq war hawk Paul Wolfowitz as a friend ("they were finishing each other's sentences", was one account of an early meeting); and resigned from the Nation, America's foremost leftwing weekly. In 2007, after living in the US for more than 25 years, he took out American citizenship in a ceremony presided over by Bush's head of homeland security. Long friendships with the aristocracy of the Anglo-American left – Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, Alexander Cockburn, Edward Said – ended in harsh exchanges. Gore Vidal once named Hitchens as his inheritor or dauphin. The relevant quotation appeared on the dustjacket of Hitch-22, Hitchens's memoir published in 2010, but was overlain by a red cross with "no, CH" inscribed beside it.

Hitchens was born in Portsmouth to parents of humble origins who progressed to the fringes of what George Orwell (a Hitchens role-model) would have termed the lower-upper-middle-classes. His father was a naval commander of "flinty and adamant" Tory views who became a school bursar. Father and son were never close; nor were Christopher and his younger brother, Peter. The first love of Hitchens's life was his mother, "the cream in the coffee, the gin in the Campari". She insisted (at least according to Hitchens) he should go to boarding school because "if there is going to be an upper class in this country, then Christopher is going to be in it".

He was already a Labour supporter at school, organising the party's "campaign" in a mock election, and joining a CND march from Aldermaston. At Balliol College, Oxford, where he read philosophy, politics, and economics, he "rehearsed", as he put it, for 1968. But he led a curiously dualistic life. By day, "Chris" addressed car workers through a bullhorn on an upturned milk crate while by night "Christopher" wore a dinner jacket to address the Oxford Union or dine with the warden of All Souls. (He did not, in fact, like being called "Chris" – his mother would not, he explained, wish her firstborn to be addressed "as if he were a taxi-driver or pothole-filler" – and found "Hitch", which most friends used, more acceptable.) While not exactly a social climber, Hitchens wished to be on intimate terms with important people.

Equally dualistic was his sex life. He was almost expelled from school for homosexuality and later boasted that at Oxford he slept with two future (male) Tory cabinet ministers. But also at Oxford, he lost his virginity to a girl who had pictures of him plastered over her bedroom wall and he eventually became a dedicated heterosexual because, he said, his looks deteriorated to the point where no man would have him.

The "double life", as he called it, continued after he left university with a third-class degree – he was too busy with politics to bother much with studying – and found, partly through his Oxford friend James Fenton, a berth at the New Statesman. He supplemented his income by writing for several Fleet Street newspapers, but also contributed gratis to the Socialist Worker.

It was while working for the Statesman that he experienced a "howling, lacerating moment in my life": the death of his adored mother in Athens, apparently in a suicide pact with her lover, a lapsed priest. Only years later did he learn what she never told him or perhaps anyone else: that she came from a family of east European Jews. Though his brother – who first discovered their mother's origins – said this made them only one-32nd Jewish, Hitchens declared himself a Jew according to the custom of matrilineal descent.

Later in the 1970s, Hitchens became a familiar Fleet Street figure, disporting himself in bars and restaurants and settling into a literary set that included Fenton, Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Clive James and others. It specialised in long lunches and what (to others) seemed puerile and frequently obscene word games. But he was hooked on America as a 21-year-old when he visited on a student visa and tried unsuccessfully to get a work permit. In October 1981, on a half-promise of work from the Nation, he left for the US. It was the making of his career: Americans have always had a weakness for plummy voiced, somewhat raffish Englishmen who pepper their writing and conversation with literary and historical allusions.

He became the Nation's Washington correspondent, contributing editor of Vanity Fair from 1982, literary essayist for Atlantic Monthly, a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and a talking head on innumerable cable TV shows. He authored 11 books, co-authored six more, and had five collections of essays published. The targets included Kissinger, Clinton and Mother Teresa ("a thieving fanatical Albanian dwarf"); his books on Orwell, Thomas Jefferson and Thomas Paine were more positive, and less widely noticed. His most successful book, which brought him international fame beyond what Susan Sontag called "the small world of those who till the field of ideas", was God Is Not Great, a mocking indictment of religion which put him alongside Richard Dawkins as a leading enemy of the devout.

Hitchens was also, to his great pleasure, a liberal studies professor at the New School in New York and, for a time, visiting professor at Berkeley in California, as well as a regular on the public lecture and debate circuit. Hitchens loved what he called "disputation" – there was little difference between his public and private speaking styles – and America, a more oral culture than Britain's, offered ample opportunity. When his final break with the left came, it seemed to some as though the pope had announced he was no longer a Catholic. His support for Bush's war in Iraq – which he never retracted – and his vote for the president in 2004, were even bigger shocks, and some suspected a psychological need, as the first male Hitchens never to wear uniform, to prove his manhood. But Hitchens, in many respects a traditionalist, was never a straightforward lefty. He abstained in the UK's 1979 election, admitting he secretly favoured Thatcher and hoped for an end to "mediocrity and torpor".

The Ayatollah Khomeini's fatwa, issued in 1989 against his friend Salman Rushdie, was, in Hitchens's mind, as important in exposing the left's "bad faith" as 9/11. He supported, albeit belatedly, the first Gulf war, demanded Nato intervention in Bosnia, and refused to sign petitions against sanctions on Saddam Hussein's Iraq. Hitchens, though, did not deny he had changed. He became, if truth be told, a bit of a blimp and ruefully remarked – with the quiet self-irony that often underlay his bombastic style – that he sometimes felt he should carry "some sort of rectal thermometer, with which to test the rate at which I am becoming an old fart".

But, he insisted, he wasn't making a complete about-turn. Though no longer a socialist, he was still a Marxist, and an admirer of Lenin, Trotsky and Che Guevera; capitalism, the transforming powers of which Marx recognised, had proved the more revolutionary economic system and, politically, the American revolution was the only one left in town. He remained committed to civil liberties. After voluntarily undergoing waterboarding, he denounced it as torture, and he was a plaintiff in a lawsuit against Bush's domestic spying programme. He never let up in his "cold, steady hatred … as sustaining to me as any love" of all religions.

Other things were unchanging. Hitchens's life was full of feuds with old friends. He broke with the Clinton aide Sidney Blumenthal who, before a congressional committee, denied spreading calumnies about Monica Lewinsky. Hitchens, earning himself the sobriquet "Snitchens", signed affidavits testifying that Blumenthal had, in his hearing, indeed smeared the president's lover. His rightwing brother, Peter, also a journalist, was put on non-speakers for several years after revealing a pro-red joke that Christopher once made in private. But his friendship with Amis never wavered. "Martin … means everything to me," he once said, while "more or less" acquitting himself of carnal desire. Amis, in turn, spoke of "a love whose month is ever May" and described his friend as a rhetorician of such distinction that "in debate, no matter what the motion, I would back him against Cicero, against Demosthenes".

Hitchens's love affairs with alcohol and tobacco were equally constant. He smoked heavily, even on public occasions and even on TV, long after the habit – for everyone else – became unacceptable. Despite reports in 2008 that he had given up, a reporter found him getting through two packets of cigarettes in a morning in May 2010. As for alcohol, he drank daily, on his own admission, enough "to kill or stun the average mule". Technically, he was probably an alcoholic but, he pointed out, he never missed deadlines or appointments. Regardless of condition, he wrote fast and fluently, if with erratic punctuation. Only rarely did alcohol make him a bore, blunt his wit or cloud his arguments. The journalist Lynn Barber rated him "one of the greatest conversationalists of our age". Inebriated or sober, he could charm almost anybody. He could also, with what the New Yorker's Ian Parker called "the sudden, cutthroat withdrawal of charm", wound deeply and unnecessarily.

In the summer of 2010, during a promotional tour for Hitch-22, he was diagnosed with terminal oesophageal cancer, a disease that had killed his father at a much more advanced age. He inhabited "Tumourville", as he called it, with rueful wit and little self-pity. "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be," he wrote, "I have abruptly become a finalist." In the same Vanity Fair article, he observed that "I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me". But he never repented of his convivial lifestyle – on the contrary, he continued to take his beloved whisky, having received no medical instructions to the contrary – and nor did he turn his rhetorical skills to persuading others to eschew his example, confining himself, in a TV interview, to the observation that "if you can hold it down on the smokes and cocktails, you may be well advised to do so".

He continued, as well as giving valedictory newspaper and magazine interviews, to write, broadcast and participate in public debates with no discernible diminution of vigour or passion. He confronted the Catholic convert Tony Blair before an audience of 2,700 in Toronto and, by general consent, won with ease. He gave early notice that there would be no deathbed conversion to religion. If we ever heard of such a thing, he advised, we should attribute it to sickness, dementia or drugs. When believers prayed for him, he politely declared himself touched, but resolute in his atheism. He was as severe with the conventional cliches of terminal illness as he was, throughout his life, with any other form of convention.

"To the dumb question 'Why me?'," he wrote, "the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply, 'Why not?'" All the same, his many friends and admirers, who do not, as one of them put it, "relish a world without Hitchens", will be asking "why him?" today.

Hitchens was married, first, to Eleni Meleagrou, a Greek Cypriot, and then, after they divorced, to Carol Blue, an American screenwriter. Both survive him, as do one son and two daughters.

• Christopher Eric Hitchens, journalist, born 13 April 1949; died 15 December 2011

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Re: Christopher Hitchens RIP

Post  eddie on Mon Dec 26, 2011 7:14 am

Christopher Hitchens: one man's service in the war against delusion

Last October, Christopher Hitchens received the Atheist Alliance of America's Richard Dawkins award. This is an edited version of his acceptance speech

Christopher Hitchens

The Observer, Sunday 18 December 2011


Christopher Hitchens accepts the AAA's Richard Dawkins award.

Well, I'm overwhelmed ladies and gentlemen, and I did promise Richard [Dawkins, who presented his eponymous award] that if my voice didn't go to rags I would try and speak to you a bit if that's all right.

A few years ago a group of us met in my house. I'm afraid we got called the Four Horsemen. I have to plead partly guilty of that myself: I thought I'd better come up with something before anyone else did and it was supposed to be the Four Horsemen of the Counter-Apocalypse. But there it is… we got saddled with it. Of course, long may this illusion flourish, it's promoted me to parity with Professors Dawkins and Daniel Dennett and Sam Harris –and I have set my whole life, I'd like to think, against the spread of delusion. It is nice to be associated in that company.

How else were we going to reply to the rising menace of Islamic jihad? How were we going to have, for example, to deal with the emergence of probably the most reactionary papacy since the mid-19th century? A very reactionary eastern Orthodox church if it comes to that, as well the eastern Catholic forces now ranged behind the dark and sinister figure of Vladimir Putin? Then one mustn't exempt of course the millennial settlers in Palestine who believe that by bringing in as many fanatics of Jewish origin as they can and forcing out as many Palestinian Arabs as they can they may bring on the Messiah and indeed the apocalypse, and look forward to the destruction of our species with relish.

At this present moment I have to say that I feel very envious of someone who is young and active and starting out in this argument. Just think of the extraordinary things that are happening to us. Go for example to the Smithsonian museum, to the new hall of human origins which shows among other things the branches along which three, maybe four if you count Indonesia, humanoid – shall we say, anthropoid – species died out within measurable distance of 75,000 years or so. Possibly destroyed by us, possibly not. We know they decorated their graves, we think they probably had language ability, we don't know if they had souls. I'm sorry I can't help you there. We probably assumed that they would have alluded to having some kind of god.

But no religion has yet pronounced on these cousins and brothers and sisters of ours because they don't fit, there is no way of fitting them into the ridiculous story that makes this tape wind round and round again and lead us to the grand solipsist conclusion that this whole thing is designed with us in mind. But what a wonderful thing to be starting out in this tremendous new field of endeavour. How fabulous it would be if you had a gift for physics to get a job as an intern with Lawrence Krauss, for example, who is just beginning to unravel the idea of the alternative parallel universe.

I suppose I should close now because I've said all I wanted to say for myself... In the meantime we have the same job we always had, to say, as thinking people and as humans, that there are no final solutions, there is no absolute truth, there is no supreme leader, there is no totalitarian solution that says that if you will just give up your freedom of inquiry, if you would just give up, if you will simply abandon your critical faculties, a world of idiotic bliss can be yours. We have to begin by repudiating all such claims – grand rabbis, chief ayatollahs, infallible popes, the peddlers of mutant quasi-political worship, the dear leader, great leader, we have no need of any of this. And looking at them and their record I realise it is they who are the grand imposters, and my own imposture this evening was mild by comparison.

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Re: Christopher Hitchens RIP

Post  eddie on Sun Apr 22, 2012 3:40 am

Christopher Hitchens' wit and warmth remembered as New York pays tribute

Salman Rushdie and Martin Amis among those at Cooper Union to celebrate life and work of 'pioneer at the frontier'

Ed Pilkington in New York

guardian.co.uk, Friday 20 April 2012 22.01 BST


Martin Amis described his close friend Hitchens as an auto-contrarian and a 'bit of a scallywag'. Photograph: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

"Little Keith" called him a suffering auto-contrarian and likened him to Houdini; Graydon Carter said he was a "bit of a scallywag" but an editor's dream; and the doctor who treated him for the cancer of the oesophagus that killed him said he was a "pioneer at the frontier".

Unsurprisingly, though, it was Christopher Hitchens who had the funniest and the most apposite words with which to describe himself at his own memorial in New York on Friday. He was, he said of himself in posthumous film clips and readings, a "radical freelance scribbler" who had devoted his life to curiosity, irony, debunking, disputation, drinking, love and hate (though of all those things, it was hate that got him out of bed in the morning).

"The cause of my life," Hitchens said in one snippet included in a compilation put together by the Oscar-winning documentary maker Alex Dibney, "has been to oppose superstition. It's a battle you can't hope to win – it's a battle that's going to go on forever. It's part of the human condition."

For an hour and a half, the cavernous Great Hall of the Cooper Union in Manhattan was filled with the wit and the coruscating erudition of the man universally referred to as "Hitch". But for Martin Amis - "Little Keith" as Hitchens always called him – the most enduring quality was friendship.

Amis, delivering the eulogy, recalled the 16 or 17-hour sessions that they would have together, fuelled by food, drink, tobacco and conversation. "Who could be more agreeable than Hitch?" Amis asked.

The novelist pondered the secret of why Hitchens had been so widely loved over his career as an essayist, polemicist and public intellectual. It was partly, Amis said, because of his "full and friendly" good looks, partly because of his "perfect voice without any mannerisms or poncey intonations like mine" and partly because he loved nothing so much as to argue with himself.

"He was an auto-contrarian: he contradicted himself as if he felt the only person really worth arguing with was Christopher Hitchens."

At times, Amis said, he tied himself in knots, getting into difficult places over his support for the impeachment of Bill Clinton and the invasion of Iraq. Unbeknown to many, Hitchens "suffered very much from these isolations that he brought on himself."
Sean Penn and Salman Rushdie at the memorial service. Photograph: Rex
The memorial marked the final gathering of the Christopher Hitchens gang – Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, James Fenton – with Hitchens' central place in the circle marked by a photo of him with his face caked in cosmetic mud and a cigarette stuck in his mouth beamed on screens above them.

Stephen Fry recalled that there were few pleasures in life as great as having a disagreement with Hitch. The agreed on their love of WH Auden and PG Wodehouse but disagreed on cricket and opera.

"Hitch thought the four most overrated things in the world were champagne, lobster, anal sex and picnics. Three out of four, there," Fry said.

The quirkier side of the writer was on abundant display, from the reference to the asteroid that was named after him – Hitchens 57901 – to the time Margaret Thatcher slapped him across the buttocks with a rolled up parliamentary order paper, to the many photographs of him dressed in his beloved white linen suit even in the middle of a dusty Iraqi battlefield. The ubiquitous glass of Johnnie Walker Red Label and his love of the cigarette were also amply remembered.

But the aspect that boomed out most loudly was his relentless pursuit of secular humanism in the face of ignorant religion. That came across even when his last doctor, Francis Collins, was speaking, addressing the memorial audience as a "follower of Jesus Christ".

Collins, head of the US National Institutes of Health, said Hitchens had helped forward the search for scientific answers to cancer by agreeing to try new therapies. Collins also revealed that, ironically, he had prayed for the great atheist in his final days.

Even Hitchens – ever the auto-contrarian – had a poke at himself in that regard, too. At the end of the Gibney film Hitchens – his head by now bald from chemotherapy-induced hair loss – is heard insisting that there is no after life.

"I will never change my mind on that. Never change my mind," he says.

After a pause, he adds: "But I do like surprises."

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