Peter Hitchens is a lightning rod for the right and someone who baulks at many of today’s received wisdoms so John Duggan couldn’t resist asking him what actually makes him happy.
I am in a café in Kensington sitting opposite The Hated Peter Hitchens. Not my words but his.
Hitchens is an English journalist and author, reviled in many circles for his views on more or less everything.
Take drugs. Well, Peter Hitchens thinks you absolutely shouldn’t. He thinks the law should come down much, much harder on people who do.
For a taste of where he stands and how he argues his corner, go to YouTube and watch him tangle with Russell Brand, or Matthew Perry from Friends, on the subject of addiction (more of which later).
Politically, he is the diametric opposite of his late brother, Christopher, who was, and is, a hero to many on the left. And yet some of Peter’s views — about Margaret Thatcher, for example, or the bombing of Dresden, or even Jeremy Clarkson — are not what you might expect.
Whatever else, he certainly knows his own mind and enjoys speaking it. It isn’t hard therefore to discover what riles Peter Hitchens. Polemic pours out of him in books, blogs, television appearances, public debates, interviews.
His detractors like to paint him as someone offering only pessimism and wrath. Within moments of meeting me, he is indeed in full flow about the iniquity of taxes.
So I thought it might be interesting to talk to The Hated Peter Hitchens about the things he loves.
As it happens, Hitchens was very affable in person. We were not, of course, locking horns in debate, but he was generous with his time and knowledge.
His range of interests is extraordinary. He is widely read and a great traveller with stints under his belt as a reporter in Washington and Moscow. His latest e-book Short Breaks in Mordor contains accounts of visiting violent hotspots right around the globe.
He is boundlessly fascinated by the world and curious about almost everything in it, while applying the eye of a traditional Christian moralist to all he finds there.
My new e-book 'Short Breaks in Mordor ' has five five-star reviews (none of them by me) http://t.co/i9oaX3vz9O— Peter Hitchens (@ClarkeMicah) July 2, 2014
Home for Hitchens, though, is Oxford, where he has lived on and off for 50 years. He has no connections with the university, but nevertheless it is the buildings of academic Oxford that inspire his love for the city.
“Architecture is the art that moves me the most. I am discomfited by ugliness. Genuinely put out by it. So living in Oxford is for me what living in Salzburg would be for a music lover.”
He has visited all the cathedrals of England and thinks the English too often miss the beauty under their noses.
“There are people in England who have seen the Taj Mahal, but they’ve not been to Lincoln Cathedral. Lincoln is a heck of a lot easier to get to than Agra.”
He has a love for trains that reaches far back into childhood.
“At the end of term at boarding school, my brother and I would climb aboard this great, snorting monster and enter a state of total irresponsibility for hours on end, between two worlds, school and home. I’ve been lucky. I did a lot of my train travel before the big rail companies set about ruining it. Before high speed, airport style seats, the abolition of the dining car.”
Childhood is also where his love for cinema was fixed: “My brother and I were allowed to run wild in the holidays. We would just roam about wherever we liked with other boys. I’m not even sure we knew who the other boys were half of the time. On rainy days, we’d head to the Ritz in Gosport and, to this day, I still find the cinema completely alluring. The darkness, the big soft seats, the curtain opening…”
He loves the Church of England, but the reason is “incommunicable. Someone intelligent and imaginative could come here from abroad and learn to speak English better than many of us, they could learn to love the landscape, master Shakespeare, even learn to enjoy Marmite, but they would still be baffled by the Church of England. I actually prefer it to remain unexplained. Sometimes it’s right not to press too hard. When certainty is unavailable, why seek it?”
While a relentless advocate for British withdrawal from the European Union, Hitchens loves the civilisation of Europe.
“Persepolis, the Pyramids, these are all astonishing places. But for sheer concentration of architecture, painting and so on, Europe, especially northern Europe, down as far as Rome, is the heart of human civilisation. The English are profoundly related to Germany. We are entangled beyond any hope of escape with France. We are indebted to Italy.”
“I am amazed how few English people visit our neighbouring Island. It’s both so close to us and so different from us. Our historic rift is the result of a stupid mistake, and needs to be healed. And it can be. Most of us still haven’t understood just what an extraordinary event the Queen’s visit to Ireland was. Alas, the European Union delights in playing us off against each other, and Ireland’s astonishing abandonment of Roman Catholicism has launched it straight into an ultra-liberal secularism rather than opened it to the soft persuasions of Anglicanism, which is, in a way, very Irish.”
Needless to say Peter Hitchens loves arguing. Why?
“Because I learn from it. And I believe I’m good at it. If you are good at tennis, you want to play it. But you also want to play an opponent who’s good at it. Arguing with someone who doesn’t know how to argue, who misunderstands a point as soon as you’ve made it, is infuriating. It’s like serving the ball but never getting a return. Like trying to play chess with a squirrel.”
As an opponent he admires, he mentions Edward Lucas of The Economist, with whom he has debated the right response to Putin.
Howard Marks, former drug smuggler and campaigner for cannabis legalisation, is someone else he likes. Marks once refused to speak at an event after Hitchens was barred at the last moment with the words ‘Well, if he’s going, I’m going too’.
One of Hitchens’ most controversial arguments is that drug addiction is a fiction. It is not an illness, he maintains.
Every day, people give up drugs through will power, but illnesses cannot be cured by will power.
“This boils down to a moral distinction. Modern morality is dominated by a wilful withdrawal from free will. Whether it’s evolutionary biology or addiction, we are anxious to embrace excuses for behaviour. I know the temptation. I feel it strongly in myself. I don’t really like freedom. But it’s a mistake for society to deprive people of the capacity to make choices. You end up with an immensely powerful state, a hospital in which the state is the doctor, the very reverse of freedom.”
As we part, he is still emptying all corners of his mind to recommend a visit to the Urumqi-Kashgar railway line to see “the contrast between superb imperial engineering and the stupid destruction of whole districts of ancient Uighur houses in Kashgar, an old Silk Road city fringed with vineyards planted before Christ was born, but rapidly being swallowed in Chinese concrete sprawl .”
And with that, Peter Hitchens goes back to his office and returns to the fray.
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