Christopher and I last saw each other on the first day of this year–he was in California, clearly, although none of us said so, saying goodbye–and we spent the afternoon together. We talked over lunch, and then on and on, until long after sunset, about–well, about everything. History, politics (we disagreed), religion (we disagreed still more), the Sixties, contemporary novelists, the last movie he had seen (“The King’s Speech,” which he had loved, despite the crude portrayal of Churchill), his experiences at Oxford, in Cuba, in Iraq, in Prague. And about America. Odd though this may seem to say about someone who remained so completely English, but Christopher Hitchens loved this country with the same abandoned, head-over-heels love that I saw in Ronald Reagan.
Christopher’s integrity was, as always, on display. One of the physicians who had been most helpful to him in his illness was a devout Christian, and Christopher admitted that this had given him pause. He also mentioned that, although it remained speculative for now, there was some thought that a stem cell therapy might help him. That too gave him pause–more than pause. Sacrificing embryos for his good? “Can’t have that, I don’t believe, can we?”
Just as I was about to leave, Chesterton somehow came up. His favorite Chesterton poem, Christopher remarked, was “Lepanto,” Chesterton’s account of the great sea battle of 1571 in which Don Juan of Austria, commanding the Holy League, defeated the Ottoman Empire, saving the West. No sooner did he mention the poem than Christopher began to recite the second stanza:
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard, Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred, Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half attainted stall, The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall, The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung, That once went singing southward when all the world was young. In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid, Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade. Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far, Don John of Austria is going to the war, Stiff flags straining in the night-blasts cold In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold, Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums, Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon, and he comes. Don John laughing in the brave beard curled, Spurning of his stirrups like the thrones of all the world, Holding his head up for a flag of all the free. Love-light of Spain–hurrah! Death-light of Africa! Don John of Austria Is riding to the sea.
I repeat my side of our old argument, insisting that what Christoper experienced today was not, as he insisted it would be, extinction–and that, just as I told him he would–told him as he shook his head in amused disbelief–he has now had a happy if temporarily embarrassing surprise, finding himself in the presence of the only Being with the capacity to love him even more than did his friends. I repeat my side–but never–never–have I so regretted having the last word.
Christopher Hitchens, knight and troubadour, who so thoroughly enjoyed going to the war, and who held his head up for a flag of all the free. Requiescat in pace.