BRITISH writer Martin Amis and journalist Christopher Hitchens were bosom friends until Hitchens died of cancer in 2011. Amis died last week, also of throat cancer. Although their backgrounds differed drastically, their later lives showed remarkable similarities.
Amis described his friendship with Hitchens as “a love whose month is always May". Hitchens, in turn, referred to Amis as “the only blond I ever loved".
Their paths first crossed in 1973, when Hitchens joined the New Statesman. A list of the magazine's staff at the time reads like a who's who of 1970s men of letters: Amis was the literary editor, while Julian Barnes (later a Booker Prize winner) and James Fenton (garlanded poet and professor of poetry at Oxford) were also colleagues.
The versatile Paul Johnson, who died earlier this year, was the New Statesman's editor until 1970 and continued to contribute articles regularly after his departure. But the magazine revolved around the Young Turks: Amis, Hitchens, Fenton and Barnes. Their Friday lunches were legendary, mainly for the amounts of nicotine and whisky consumed.
Whisky and 15,000 cigarettes
Amis and Hitchens were heavy smokers their entire adult lives: Hitchens claimed to have smoked about 15,000 cigarettes a year over three decades. Friends and colleagues also recounted his formidable capacity for alcohol: his favourite drink was Johnnie Walker Black Label.
When most party guests were staggering home late at night, Hitchens could flawlessly recite an English sonnet by heart or slip away to his study to write a thousand-word essay for Vanity Fair or The Atlantic — both publications for which he was a contributing editor until his death in 2011.
When they met at the New Statesman, the backgrounds of Amis and Hitchens were worlds apart. Martin's father was Sir Kingsley Amis, one of the most celebrated English writers of the mid-20th century. The poet Philip Larkin was a regular visitor and young Martin was aware from an early age of his father's life in the limelight: among other things, because of frequent tabloid gossip about Sir Kingsley's infidelity.
In 1962, after 15 years of married life with Hilary Bardwell, and with three children in the house, Kingsley began an affair with novelist Elizabeth Jane Howard, eventually marrying her. For Martin, the entry of his new stepmother was a blessing in disguise: she instilled in the naughty teenage boy a love of books and introduced him to the world of literature.
He eventually obtained from Oxford a so-called “congratulatory first", an honour bestowed on students of exceptional academic achievement, and when his debut novel The Rachel Papers was published in 1973, it was awarded the Somerset Maugham Award: the same prize Kingsley won for Lucky Jim in 1955.
The one who can talk
Next to the impressively pedigreed Amis, Hitchens seemed rather bland at first. His father was a laid-off army officer and his parents had pinched pennies to send him to a private school. However, his mother was adamant her son should be well-known, as evidenced by a conversation between his parents that Hitchens overheard one night. His mother allegedly said: “If there is going to be an upper class in this country, Christopher is going to be part of it."
Hitchens was selected for Oxford but his double life as a socialist revolutionary (by day) and talkative bon vivant (by night) diverted his attention from his studies. He eventually earned a third-class honours degree in politics, philosophy and economics, after which he was fired by his first employer, The Times Higher Education Supplement, for his “utter lack of interest in the subject of higher education".
That he quickly secured an appointment with the New Statesman speaks volumes for his intelligence and charisma, but perhaps also for the relaxed work culture on Fleet Street in those days. Once, when the grumpy Kingsley held forth about Martin's circle of friends, he described Hitchens as “the one who can talk, but can't write".
Neither Hitchens nor Amis lacked for anything in the romance department. They were handsome, charming and personable, and as a young duo on the London press scene, they were irresistible. Joanna Cole, a columnist for The Times, once wrote: “Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis are the thinking woman's crumpet."
Early in their careers, Hitchens had a short-lived romance with Anna Wintour, the Vogue editor and fashion doyenne. The 1980s was perhaps the last decade in which novelists enjoyed a level of celebrity comparable to actors, singers and models.
Ten years after Amis's debut and his acquaintance with Hitchens, the literary journal Granta released its first list of promising, up-and-coming British novelists.
On the 1983 list with Amis were Barnes, Salman Rushdie, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Philip Norman and AN Wilson, among others. That same year, the Booker Prize ceremony — at which JM Coetzee received the award for Life & Times of Michael K in his absence — was broadcast live on British television.
Hitchens was bisexual in college, and although both his marriages were to women, Alexander Cockburn gossiped in a magazine article that he was still flirting with male friends after a few drinks. According to Hitchens's own version, however, his physical appearance had been so wrecked by smoking and drinking that only women still wanted to sleep with him.
Despite this, Hitchens vehemently denied ever being in love with Amis. He made that point in his 2010 autobiography, Hitch-22, and again a month later in an interview with The Guardian's Decca Aitkenhead. Asked if he would have slept with Amis if the latter, uhm, would have been susceptible to it, Hitchens replied with a smile: “Oh, I wouldn't have been able to refuse him anything."
On the political front, the friends sometimes collided. Amis's non-fiction book about Stalin, Koba the Dread, refers to Hitchens as an apologist for Soviet-era communism. Hitchens chided Amis for this in two angry columns, but there were no lasting bad feelings.
Early in the new century, both came under fire for their public reaction to 9/11. And after the literary fireworks of the previous decades, Amis's reputation as a novelist began to wane while Hitchens began to write one bestseller after another. Until one summer morning in New York when he woke up in his hotel room with stage 4 throat cancer; the tobacco and whisky had finally taken their toll.
In Amis's autobiographical novel Inside Story (2020), he poignantly recounts this final chapter in their story, relating how he kept watch next to a sleeping Hitchens's bed in an oncology high care unit in Texas. Finally, he got up, kissed his friend's forehead and drove away — leaving Hitchens half a pack of cigarettes on the nightstand.
On May 19, 2023, Martin Amis also died in the US of throat cancer. He and Hitchens were both born in 1949.
♦ VWB ♦
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