Short cuts


(From left to right) Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett PHOTO/ABC/Duck Duck Go

On Sunday, 30 September 2007, in the late afternoon, four men met in an airy, book-lined apartment in Washington DC and had a two-hour discussion around a marble table. The subject, it seemed, was the misguidedness, stupidity and sometimes dangerousness of religious belief. Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens: over the previous few years each had published a bestselling book condemning religion, and they were all rather pleased with themselves. Dawkins’s The God Delusion alone, with its compelling argument that God is the Ultimate Boeing 747, was on its way towards selling three million copies and they had all made a great deal of money and had a great deal of fun on tours and at festivals getting abuse from pastors and priests and hurling it righteously back. (It’s not clear they always remembered that it wasn’t actually their antagonists who had started the fight.) A transcript of their conversation that day is now available in a slim book called – because they believed in the apocalypse? – The Four Horsemen (Bantam, £9.99). But I recommend throwing the book at a passing jumbo jet and watching the film of their meeting on YouTube instead. Because it’s mesmerising.

The apartment belonged to Hitchens and his wife, Carol Blue, and it had regularly hosted movie stars and politicians – a notable after-party hangout following Vanity Fair dos and Washington Correspondents’ Dinners. But now it was just four men with urgent issues on their mind. This was the first time they had gathered together. Hitchens had provided everyone with a drink: what look to be quadruple whiskies for him and Harris, very dirty martinis for Dennett and Dawkins (Dennett likes his, Dawkins barely touches it). They talk about big things – evidence, faith, Bach, cathedrals, jihad, the Trinity, Fermat’s Last Theorem – but to me at least it seems that what they really have on their mind is the significance of the occasion. If you get a group of guys together, it’s usually the case that the one with the most charisma determines the course of the conversation. Here the charisma emanates entirely from Hitchens. All eyes turn to him, Harris mimics his gestures and body language, they all listen to his pauses and defer to him on matters of literature and politics (Larkin, Hamas, H.L. Mencken, Sarajevo). I hear him purr and watch him slowly smoking and think: Jeez, I want to be him too. He is the magnetic pole towards which everything turns. At one point, as Dennett and Dawkins launch into a discussion of n-dimensional space, Hitchens’s eyes go somewhat blank, and he starts to fiddle with his foot, then – his glass being empty – grabs a snack and I think: please someone get that man another drink.

Christopher Hitchens developed oesophageal cancer and died of pneumonia in 2011. (I hope that before you slung away your copy of The Four Horsemen as per instructions you had time to appreciate the meaningfulness of the dedication, ‘To Hitch’, addressed to him presumably in the afterlife.) But his career was extraordinary to watch. For years, he vituperated devastatingly against presidents, war criminals and Mother Teresa, in the muscliest, classiest prose, writing ‘at a speed at which most people read’, and was often spotted stepping away for a moment from the booze and the talk and the dinner and the friends to return to the table, finished Nation column in hand, before the topic of debate had even changed. That’s how Ian Parker put it in his great New Yorker profile of Hitchens, which includes a lovely anecdote about taking a taxi together in the soft evening light as Hitchens buttonholes the Pakistani-born driver on the ‘the virtues and vices of Benazir Bhutto, while surreptitiously using a bottle of Evian to put out a small but smoky fire that he had set in the ashtray’.

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