Christopher Hitchens Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

A Dissenting Voice: Conversation with Christopher Hitchens; April 25, 2002, by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Background

Christopher, welcome back.

Thanks for having me, and nice to be back.

Where were you born and raised?

I'm what somebody would call a navy brat, in that my father was a lifelong servant of Her Majesty's Royal Navy. I was born in Portsmouth, England, which is on the south coast; it's the home port of the Royal Navy. It's the last place Nelson set foot on dry land. Most of my male relatives on my father's side come from that town, and there's a graveyard full of us. It's the birthplace of Charles Dickens, and the boyhood scene of Rudyard Kipling, which gives you a rough idea of how English, and, in a sense, how conservative and imperial, and yet kind of quirky it is.

Looking back, how do you think your parents shaped your character?

Well, one can never be the best judge of that, as you know, and as you knew when you asked. But no one can avoid the question, asking themselves or being asked it. In my case, it's probably of interest. Well, you be the judge of that.

My father was from sort of "deep England": Anglo-Saxon, South Coast, naval military and colonial type -- from the poorer end of it. The kind of people who end up as colonial civil servants who are military types, but may rise to be officers, as he eventually did because of the Second World War. Very, very conservative in outlook and in character. Very pessimistic. Rather insular, even though he had been all over the world. Really only England really made an impression on him.

On my mother's side, the family background [was] of people who had left what is now in Poland (it was then in Germany), the town of Breslau -- Jewish family, before the turn of the twentieth century, whose attitude was a little more liberal, a bit more internationalist, you might say more cosmopolitan. This sounds like a cliché, but also perhaps a little more literary and artistic. Certainly, those were my mother's ambitions for me. Whereas, I think my father would have rather liked to have a firstborn son who was good at games. But it could be I disappointed them both, I don't know. I haven't had any parents for a long time.

Where were you educated?

First at a series of boarding schools for boys, prep schools. I was sent off when I was about seven to boarding school because the family kept moving around. The first place I remember, actually, is Malta, where the British Navy still had a big base in Valletta. What powerfully influenced me, I think, [was] my first memory of the Grand Harbor of Valletta, because I've always spent a lot of time in the Mediterranean and the Middle East, and always felt kind of happy there, and maybe it's because of this first memory. But anyway, we kept shifting. So boarding school was the solution in those days. I was the first member of my family to go to a private school. One of these was a school, basically, for the children of officers and navy and army people, on Dartmore, Devonshire. Then I went to another boarding school, a Methodist-run boarding school in Cambridge, between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. And then I got to from there to Oxford University to read philosophy. In England, this is called a conventional education, I think for the reason that it applies to only about one and a half percent of the population.

You've called yourself a rooted cosmopolitan, and you speak of a potentially democratic and cosmopolitan patriotism. This, in a way, harkens back to this background you've just described.

Yes, I can't believe, especially as you put it like that, that it does not in some way, because if you're partly English -- well, I suppose, in a way, I'm wholly English -- one of the things about that is you don't have much of an identity crisis. I don't know why it is, but you don't. The term is rather laughable in English life. But if you have a mixture of refugee rootless cosmopolitans in your life and in your family background, and if your main impulse [is], as mine was, I discovered quite young, to move to the United States -- somehow, I always knew I wanted to do that, felt that I had been born in the wrong country, even though I love it, and feel at home there. Yes, this is having both roots and cosmopolitanism.

I think, by the way, everyone should be so lucky. That's how I hope globalization plays out, that everyone knows where they come from and is secure in that knowledge, but nobody has to stay put if they don't want to.

Can you tell us about any politically formative experiences early in your life, whether when you went to college, or after you went to university, that pointed you on the trajectory that your politics took?

The background noise to my childhood, my boyhood, was the collapsing scenery of the British Empire, the last stages of it. And the subsequent defeat in 1964, when I would have been, I suppose, 15, born in '49, of the long, long reign of the postwar conservative party. And the way I approached that was as follows: My parents have been, especially my father, politically very conservative, but as far as I could see they got nothing out of being conservative. It seemed rather as if they were being taken for a bit of a ride by the monarchy, or the empire, the Tory party and so on, the class system. I couldn't see where they got their share of it. So I had a rather pitying attitude to their politics, I suppose. And I think that, therefore, must have influenced me in looking, as soon as I was old enough to make any inquiries, to the left for company and for solutions, and on the whole, finding them. Particularly reading the novels of George Orwell about the lower middle class. I remember him impressing me very much, "Well, this guy knows what it feels like in my family, he sees the contradiction."

So there wasn't a formative moment, a Damascus moment, I don't think; though I can remember deciding after reading a book by Arthur Koestler when I was quite young, about capital punishment, that I was very opposed to the death penalty. That was my first conscious political decision, and I didn't realize but that was also going to put me very much at odds with the milieu in which I'd been brought up.

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