Elephants, horses, Hitchens

August 23 2010

I haven’t watched television in ten years, even in hotel rooms, but do listen to the BBC’s Radio 4.

Alastair Cooke’s slightly overrated Letter from America, which ran from 1946 to 2004, was succeeded by a programme called A Point of View, presented by different people, which has nothing in common with it except that it lasts ten minutes. We’ve had some historians recently: Simon SchamaDavid Cannadine and Lisa Jardine; before them Clive James; archive here, including (click to hear)

Jardine on

Sir Hans Sloane

and French fireworks

and Cannadine on

Eyjafjallajökull and Pompeii,

History of passports (see Yorick’s passport here),

PG Wodehouse, Raymond Chandler and south London,

Asian elephants

and End-of-Empire ceremonies.


Any Questions? was launched on the BBC Home Service, Radio 4’s ancestor, in 1948 and is still running. Members of an audience somewhere in the UK ask a visiting panel for its views on topical matters. The intelligentsia visits the masses. But most of them aren’t intelligent.

Two remarks took my breath away on Friday during a discussion on the proposed Park 51 near Ground Zero.

Ruth Deech: “There is this tendency, I think especially in Islam, to build on top of what has been conquered.”

Douglas Murray: Sufis “have become suicide bombers”. If true at all, surely “become” can only mean after ceasing to be Sufis. Yet he isn’t challenged.

Vignette of the opposite: New Yorkers grating on a Muslim sensibility. I was there in June and took a cab from Chelsea to the Metropolitan Museum. I found myself being driven along the west side of Central Park and asked the bearded once-Pakistani driver why we were there. He said he had been unable to get onto Madison from where we had started because of the Gay Pride Parade on Fifth Avenue. He could have joined it later, but went the other way round and crossed at 86th. He didn’t even want to see the march. My heart went out to him. He had been in the city for twenty-two years. And his political sympathies lay – with Imran Khan.

If you want a terrifying report on virtually-Nazi, mullah- (and American Christian-) inflamed persecution of gay men in Kenya, listen to this episode of Assignment on the BBC World Service broadcast earlier this year.

The most remarkable thing about the self-described English neocon Douglas Murray is that he published, while studying at Magdalen College in Oxford, at the age of twenty, not a slim volume of verse, but a full-fledged biography, based in part on unexamined letters, of Lord Alfred Douglas. This must be the youngest age at which anyone has ever written a book of this scale. I bought a remaindered hardback copy several years ago.

I’ve often wondered why Havergal Brian’s single-movement fifth symphony has never been recorded. It is a setting of Douglas’s poem Wine of Summer. The sheer oddness of Brian, of all people, having chosen this poet, and in 1937 of all times, would sell it.

New Yorkers seemed more attuned to soccer than they had been before. I had a cab-driver originally from Bangladesh who was obsessed by the World Cup (but football is bigger there than it is in Pakistan).


Anyone who was interested in my post on The invention of Scotland should listen to Book of the Week for last week while it’s on iTunes, Stuart Kelly’s Scott-land: The Man Who Invented a Nation.


Five minutes with David Starkey.


The Italian officer who led the last full cavalry charge ever faced by the British Army, Amedeo Guillet, died on June 16 aged 101.

The British invaded Italian East Africa in 1940. Guillet refused to surrender with the rest of the Italian forces in 1941, and led a charge astride his white Arabian stallion, Sandor, through a column of British tanks at Keru in Eritrea on January 21.

His force was the Gruppo Bande a Cavallo Amhara, Group Bands of Amharic Horse, under a banner of his own featuring the Cross of Savoy superimposed with an Islamic Crescent and the motto Semper Ulterius. The cavalry was supported by Yemeni infantry.

The last full British cavalry charge had been at the Battle of Omdurman in the Sudan in 1898. Churchill took part in it. Here is an article about cavalry “lasts” in the twentieth century. It mentions a British charge at Megiddo in 1918. I suppose that Omdurman was on a larger scale.


Am reading Hitchens’s memoir Hitch-22. People in the UK don’t realise how large Hitchens looms as a public intellectual in the US. (He now lives in Washington, DC, but has dual citizenship.) A decade ago, without knowing his work, I’d been suspicious of a journalist who made a living from demolishing other people’s reputations. He supported the invasion of Iraq. He’d been a Trotskyite activist.

I watched him in the debate about Iraq with George Galloway, still knowing nothing, and was puzzled by this intense, combative, substantial yet rambling, self-promoting and insubstantial, nearly-funny and unsmiling, Enlightenment-defending enigma or hack.

Hitchens is irritated by being told this, but he has no idea what religion is. It has further to sink, anyway. Fascism, as he needlessly reminds us, was to a large extent a movement of the Catholic right.

His piece in Vanity Fair this month about his diagnosis with esophageal cancer deserves a place in any anthology about dying, and it’s impossible not to be moved by the interviews he gave after it, even on the day when it was suspected, while promoting Hitch-22 (a horrible name apparently suggested by Rushdie).

I have got about as far as his parents and education. You learn about England and his family, but not much about him. His vivacious Jewish mother died in a suicide pact with a lover. His father, having given his whole life to the Navy, was shabbily treated when it came to a pension: a familiar British tale. “He’d done so much for the empire and it had done so little for him in return.” I suppose his life has been a reaction against his father’s Toryism.

His descriptions of post-war England remind me of Roger Scruton’s in his Gentle Regrets. The passages about his prep school will have Americans groaning: “Not another Brit going on about the horrors of his schooldays. What is it with you guys?”

But Hitchens doesn’t say that he was traumatised. He implies that the experience was character-building and wonders what kind of person will be produced by schools now which attend to self-esteem and to special needs. His teachers surely supplied him with some of his cruel language. I can just about remember the old world. It is incredible what a volte-face has occurred in education in the UK.

His atheism is connected with his lack of self-pity. There may be a hollowness in Hitchens (there’s a sadness), but perhaps he’d have been a real dissident under fascism or communism. I might comment on the rest of the book later.

7 Responses to “Elephants, horses, Hitchens”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    I suspect that Murray’s Douglas book was written at school.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    “We won the war – or did we?” Hitchens’s father would ask his friends at dinner.

  3. davidderrick Says:

    Jonathan Jones, The Guardian: “The bravery of his life is unarguable, and his courage in the face of desperate illness is no surprise. At least it seems to have driven religious people nuts as he proves the dignity of atheism.”

    “… between good religion and bad”: I could have said between grown-up religion and childish.

    Buruma on the memoir in The New York Review of Books:

    “What is utterly missing is a sense of perspective, and of the two qualities Hitchens claims to prize above all: skepticism and irony.”


    “How, then, does Christopher Hitchens think? Several times in the book he expresses his loathing of fanaticism, especially religious fanaticism, which in his account is a tautology. As a typical example he cites the Japanese suicide pilots at the end of World War II. In fact, many were not so much fanatical as in despair about a corrupt society going under in a catastrophic war. But if modern Japanese history must serve as a guide to our own times, Hitchens might have mentioned a different category of misguided figures: the often Marxist or formerly Marxist intellectuals who sincerely believed that Japan was duty-bound to go to war to liberate Asia from wicked Western capitalism and imperialism. They saw 1941 as their finest hour, the moment when men were separated from boys, when principle had to be defended, when those who didn’t share their militancy were disloyal weaklings. These journalists, academics, politicians, and writers were not all emperor-worshipers or Shintoists, but they were believers nonetheless. The man who emerges from this memoir is a bit like them: clearly intelligent, often principled, and often deeply wrongheaded, but above all, a man of faith.”

  4. davidderrick Says:

    Hitchens with Rushdie on the evening of the day he describes in Vanity Fair, June 8:

    And with Jon Stewart on the same day:


  5. […] last cavalry charge February 19 2011 Last year I linked to the obituary of an Italian officer who led the last full cavalry charge ever faced by the British Army, in […]

  6. davidderrick Says:

    Hitchens may have the largest number of YouTube minutes of any human being.

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