His younger brother, Peter, is now a conservative columnist for the London Express. He tells me in a phone call that he did indeed hope to be a navy officer until an eye defect cut those plans short. With the amused and resigned tone of the second-born, Peter admits that "Christopher was always the kind of person picked for school plays to play the lead role."
Arriving at Oxford in 1967 at the height of the antiwar movement, Hitchens declared himself a socialist and threw himself into revolutionary activity. "He was very dashing," recalls Martin Walker, a classmate and now a Brussels-based reporter for The Guardian of London,
"and rather Byronic, a compelling public speaker." Hitchens still cites his arrest record with pride: He was locked up for disrupting the speech of a reactionary politician and for trying to disrupt a cricket match against an all-white South African team.
In between rallies, he also wrote the society column for the student paper and book reviews for The New Statesman. At Oxford, Hitchens discovered the pleasures of crossing class lines. "Christopher always moved easily in upper-class and fashionable circles," says Walker. "He was criticized for being a 'champagne socialist' or a 'country-house revolutionary.' "
Harry Evans, now the editorial director of the Daily News, recalls hiring Hitchens, just out of college, as a writer for the Sunday Times of London in the early seventies. "The quality of his mind impressed us all. It was surprising to find someone challenging the conventional wisdom who was barely old enough to know what the conventional wisdom was."
The most searing drama of Hitchens's life, a story that makes the current controversy seem like a stroll through the cherry blossoms, occurred in 1973, when he was 24 and living in London. His parents' marriage was in trouble; his mother had an affair with a defrocked vicar, and she eventually moved out. "I met her one day when she had been shopping," Hitchens says, "and there was a man carrying her parcels. I just knew. My father was a great guy, loyal, solid, hardworking, very principled, boring. This guy was charming but hopeless, couldn't hold a job."
Like so many writers, Hitchens frequently mines his own life for material. But the one thing he's never written or talked about publicly is his mother's death. Perhaps because he's turning 50, about her age when she died, he's been thinking about it a lot, and the terrible details pour out.
Hitchens was in London when he got the news: The first report was that she had been murdered in Athens. His voice is steady as he describes the scene with a reporter's eye -- the smell of the blood, the crime-scene photos, the view from the Athens hotel room where his mother was found dead. "I had to go take care of it," he says, flying down alone to find out what had happened. What he found was a suicide note addressed to him: His mother had taken sleeping pills while her lover had slashed himself repeatedly.
"It was terrible to see the room and the really awful police photographs," he said. His mother had apparently had a change of mind and knocked over the phone in an attempt to get help, help that never came. Finding the note addressed solely to him was especially distressing. "Knowing and believing you're your mother's favorite is a great thing for a guy, Freud says, but it's another thing to have it in writing."