Archive

Monthly Archives: September 2012

When Christopher Hitchens wrote about the humbling experience of being accidently referred to as the ‘late’ Hitchens in his memoir Hitch-22 in 2010, he could have had no idea that a ‘malignant alien’ was in fact already burrowing deep into his oesophagus.  Perhaps this earlier realisation that he, too, was an aging mortal helped soften the blow somewhat when he was diagnosed with terminal cancer in June 2010. Adopting the stoic tradition previously undertaken by journalist’s Richard Brookhiser and John Diamond, Hitchens decided to document, as part of an agreement with Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter that he would write about anything except sports, his experience of the disease – in no uncertain detail.

At the time, many considered it an interesting experiment; imagine, if you will, your favourite intellectual faced with the subjective circumstance of their fast-impending demise and their considered reaction to this on-going malady. The results here are at least interesting not only for the humour and fluency present in the writing, even when describing excruciating pain in real time, but for displaying his contempt for euphemism and holy cows (of all kinds), an affirmation of his character and with a good deal of (cowboy, as it turned out to be) hat-tipping to the stoics gone before him (including Sir Kingsley Amis, and his own father).  Whilst he also maintained a steady output of essays on politics and culture until at least a few weeks before his death in December last year, the filings from ‘Tumortown’ have now been gathered in a short book, under the bold collective title of Mortality.

After reading the first few pages of the book, it becomes clear one was right to not simply buy it through sympathy, disregarding the grave, sheepish looking Hitchens on the front cover. This is something he would certainly have none of and berates such consolations on others himself, even previous residents of Tumortown;  Randy Pausch and Friedrich Nietzsche are hardly spared a cynical analysis – the only way we would want it to be. No, these works emit the perfume of admirable objectivity, with the central idea being to inform and educate particular groups concerned: the religious, writers, the doctors, the family members and the public regarding general cancer ‘etiquette’. It was on this last topic that I found myself laughing out loud at the description of a fan discussion at a book signing containing the following dialogue:

‘She: And then he died. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Seemed to take him forever.

Me: [Beginning to search for words.] …

She: Of course, he was a lifelong homosexual.

Me: [Not quite finding the words, and not wishing to sound stupid by echoing “of course.”] …’ [1]

The empathy is absolute. Even people like I, who fortunately have been lucky enough never to have family members felled with any such disease become engrossed in this person’s world; such is the trick of the anecdote. The easy writing style and straight forward construction of this book – and we unfortunately, know in advance the ending – make for a very speedy reading, and accordingly induce a profound regret that this is undoubtedly the final Hitchens publication.

Perhaps it is also a shame that such a last book would be riddled with pockets of distinct ugliness, like the descriptions of having skin numbing injections into his wretched body, or losing his golden voice which could previously command many-a dinner table, or the slightly distressing ‘fragmentary jottings’ included at the end of the book which display a man emerging in and out of consciousness to give a disjointed monologue, as though these thoughts are considered specially profound. These do however serve to affirm Christopher Hitchens’ lifelong belief in materialism, summed up best by the man himself: ‘I do not have a body, I am a body’. It is therefore in retrospect puzzling to learn that he firmly believed he would be in the 5% or so of patients who would ‘beat’ the disease, without special reason (his father had also succumbed to the illness) ; or resist it, as the contrary Hitchens camp might have it. His admiration for science and medicine still resonates though, with written tributes paid to personal physician Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project and surely incompatibly for Hitchens, a committed Christian, as well as various doctors and nurses. Hitchens also squares up to the Nietzschien philosophical doctrine (and a personal conundrum) ‘what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’, which he was clearly more than qualified to discuss and rather tersely resolves the thought to a populist sound bite which even Nietzsche experienced as a falsity in his last miserable, bed-ridden years.

If there is to be any criticism of this small collection about one’s inevitable demise, it might be because it is limited to solely this. Given that we know ‘Hitch’ (as he was affectionately denoted by his comrades) was writing on the topics of Dickens, Chesterton, and The Republican Party nominations until up to a matter of days before his death, why not include all these and other unpublished articles and thoughts? Mortality feels unfinished without a definite conclusion –perhaps silence can be the only conclusion? – and surely these half-hearted jottings aren’t the way he would like his last work to finish up. Widow Carol Blue’s consummate and touchingly sad afterword leaves us with a bit more information about his circumstance at the end than we had at the time (and of how it was ‘unexpected’; indeed, I remember from October last year reading how he was to attend an atheist convention earlier this year).

These final writings in Mortality act as an accessible, lucid, perfectly secular, and life-affirming reflection on our common fate, with as much vinegar as anybody dying could muster. It’s a comfort in a way to know he never let the inspective audience down up to the last point, and created a muse with the spectre of oblivion, paving the way for anybody else. With Hitchens gone, the world feels a bit lighter, with nobody to fill his shoes; it’s strange to think it will almost be a year since he went. This book works well as a tribute to the man who ‘wasn’t going to give up, until I absolutely have to’. Well, that he certainly didn’t.


[1] ‘Mortality’, Christopher Hitchens, Published 2012 by Atlantic Books (UK).

Advertisements

‘Made A List’ is the second single released by Dingus Khan on Giant Haystacks records last month, the only band to come out of Manningtree; or, various rooms in Manningtree Town.

Dingus Khan is a band name which admittedly gives away no hint of the type of spectacle the ensemble really is. It tells nothing of the warm melodies, the jauntiness of their pop sensibility or the thrashing drum-track which accompanies a considerable proportion of their live show. This partly works well as the band has an ironic sense of humility, their music interlocked with their personalities which makes a refreshingly entertaining change in the midst of any pop/rock line-up on offer.

For a newcomer to the band there must be several first impressions aroused. The lyric writers of the band certainly can’t have steady jobs and have a lot of free weekends (subject matter covered could only be done so this being the case), they don’t clothes shop at high street chains all that often, consume a considerable amount of soft drugs and if you didn’t know any better, believe the lead singer has had his heart broken a few times laughing at himself in the process. Some of these are true. In all probability, it’s the last part which draws the younger crowd in with a modern and humorous take on romantic issues of old, as well as the props and funky outfits which don their live gigs. Common reactions to these shows seem to be empathy for their musical cause, and a desire to join the cult.

Also largely down to these ever-dynamic gigs over the past year is the reason they have become so big as of late. A home gig in Colchester recently was sandwiched between appearances at Reading and Leeds and their first UK tour is coming up towards the end of this year. Watching them now, it makes sense to know that their latest single ‘Made a List’ was recorded about a year ago, before the addition of certain vocal lines, that one extra drummer and benefitting from help in the studio with the violin. This great last addition moves them one step closer to Arcade Fire or British Sea Power than The Pixies, all with a great noisy ending.

The new single is quite melodic with a singer-songwriter feel, quite different to the fast-paced ‘Knifey Spoony’ from March, which a cynical analysis could reveal as an industry ploy (the softer second single) – but this band are all indie, on the side-lines of any kind of ‘industry’ and with a local, one-off manager. To denote the song an anthem would be to indulge in the exaggerated, clichéd, overused dialect of the pop rock reviewer, but the chanting climax of Made a List does qualify it as their humble anthem, with the audience engrossed in a mass sing-along finale. By the end of the tune, we are enjoined to partake in this over and over, and there’s that thought again: musical empathy!

An amusing music video filmed locally, featuring a cast of characters accompanies the single. The next thing from Dingus Khan seems to be their album, which will be one to look out for in 2013. At the moment, you get the impression they can’t quite believe their luck…their outer circle of friends usually aren’t so surprised. In the meantime – listen and expect big things!

‘Say it again love’ a dozen times a day isn’t the best way of saying I love you.

But that seems to be our way over here. A streetcar named comfort.

So this is our eighth time going away, and I’m wishing I’m the long prawn you’re eating just so I can see how you really work inside. In the morning, they get up early and walk in the warm mist, crickets still going and the beetles scurrying off to a soft long underworld of shrubs, back off to their damp comfort, their way over here. Back at home, we use weed killer, my bottle being six years old by now. And our weather is too cold for the insects to thrive.

Still, I let the bed bugs bite me last night, contrary to your late night advice. I thought, if you don’t want my flesh, let them! I punished myself to prove a point. Impressed nobody. I think I do it for the comfort when we make up.

Anyway, I just think this natural beauty is making me look at things in a different light. Even the older woman, ours caked in make-up like an old decaying door with layer after layer of peeling paint, used and used and used. And the more modest look of pride on the face of the boy child wearing a football shirt, not always guaranteed to annoy. The old woman smiles in some kind of secret knowledge. Not a scowl. I know we still choose to live at home. I just need reminding of the difference, love. That’s my streetcar. And it never abuses these streets.

14.08.12