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Bali Remembrances of Christopher Hitchens

Ubud Resident W. Scott Thompson Fondly Recalls a Visit to Bali by British-American Author and Journalist Christopher HItchens Who Died on December 15, 2011.


Bali News: Bali Remembrances of Christopher Hitchens
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(12/22/2011)

The New Straits Times December 21, 2001 edition carried a column “The Passing of a Literary Tsunami” written by Dr. W. Scott Thompson remembering a Bali visit by the world-renowned author and journalist Chirtsopher Hitchens who died on December 15, 2011.

Thompson, who has lived in Bali intermittently since 2000, is Emeritus Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Boston. He has worked in four American administrations and written 15 books, most recently 'Trustee of the Nation: the Biography of Fidel V. Ramos,' which is the Filipiino president's authorized biography.

When in Bali, he resides in his villa in Gianyar and also lives in Manila and Washington.

We reprint, with the kind permission of Dr. Thompson, his article as it appeared in the New Straits Times.

The Passing of a Literary Tsunami
W. Scott Thompson

There was as much news in the New York Times last Friday about the death of Christopher Hitchens as there had been for the Japanese tsunami. But my friend Christopher was a literary tsunami, and all his life. His name was not a household word, unlike politicians or film stars who come and go. But it will endure long after most of them.

We met in Washington through our mutual Oxford colleague, Balliol, whose epithet is "tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority". Hitch flattered me by assuming I was, therefore, smart. But nobody was as smart as he was. It's always useful when one has a presumed asset to remember that there are many more -- who are much smarter, more beautiful, still better golfer, or whatever.

Everyone has a Hitchens' story. He came to Bali a few years ago to visit me at my villa, but after an overseas flight, where he had even more drinks than his legendary usual capacity, boarded a connecting flight in Jakarta to Balikpapan. At least he got the first four letters right, but the taxi there didn't know where my villa was, so he asked for the Ritz. The driver must have thought he was mad, and soon, the mistake was discerned. Seven hours late (he was lucky), he arrived as always sloppy and awaiting a drink. Sober, he was the smartest person I've ever known. Drunk, he was even more lucid, though in a different way. His death from esophagus cancer was almost predictable. Add three packs of cigarettes a day, and I'd say he was lucky to make it to 62.

He was excoriated by the left when he put socialism (really, he was a Trotskyite all his life) behind him and shifted to the right, even supporting the Iraq invasion and war. But many have done the same, when the facts driving our beliefs shifted. Christopher's discovery, in his late 40s, that he was Jewish, a long-held family secret in an English middle-class family, made him less anti-Israeli and prompted a general re-examination of his views, and his writing shifted accordingly.

His most famous book God is not Great, caused a huge stir, because he not only dug deeply into the roots of the superstitious part of all religions, including the Protestantism of his background, but challenged dogma, myth and the harm of fanaticism so often justified by religion. But some have joked that, if it turns out there really is a God, heaven and hell, his punishment will be to be placed in a town without alcohol or books. As Michael Kinsley wrote, "God should be flattered: unlike most of those clamoring for his attention, Hitchens treats him like an adult".

Nothing was sacrosanct to Christopher, except truth. Truth has a way of showing up in different guises, and my friend shifted in his views all his life, as he saw the facts changing.

I've made the point here before, "read obituaries" to decide what's really important. Hitch's contribution to world debate alone reminds us that words end up being more powerful than guns. I would never agree to debate him on anything, because he had a way of demolishing every argument and genially crushing every opponent.

One of our best discussions was a luncheon at Lamak, my favorite Ubud restaurant. I don't think I'd ever spent more than US$50 for two, but this time, the bill was more than US$300, courtesy of Vanity Fair. Well, brandy, good wines or anything with alcohol are expensive in Indonesia, but it took some doing to reach US$300. As the afternoon pushed on, Hitch became just more and more eloquent. And despite his taking American citizenship after 9/11, to me he remained an Englishman to the core. At the dinner I gave in his honor, he flattered a high member of Bali royalty, by addressing her as "your royal highness" and bowing at the neck as he would have done to the British queen.

For both of us, Evelyn Waugh's celebrated Brideshead Revisited was our favorite novel. But Christopher could quote long passages by heart. I really didn't know what it was truly about until he led me through its inner depths.

The world has lost a wonderful person. Not a headliner until his death, but enduring. The fact that 2,000 people gathered in London's Festival Hall to celebrate his life, in his last dying days in Houston, showed his real standing.


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