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January 19, 2012

How Christopher Hitchens and I Became Friends

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Until my mid-teens I had friends but with little choice over who they were. My mother chose them, or their school desk was next to mine, or their bed was next to mine (from twelve I attended a boys’ boarding school). We got on with each other, but then we had to.

My dormitory friendships, as I recall, were pretty brutal. We all knew too much about each other and exploited whatever we could find out to grab advantage and push each other down.

One of my “friends” had the nickname “Handy Arse.” He got it like this. He had a middle initial, O. At first it was a mystery. It could have been Oliver, but it wasn’t. One day he let slip that it stood for Ozanne. In English lessons they were reading Shelley’s poem Ozymandias (“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!"). In five minutes Ozanne became Ozymandias, and Mandy Arse in ten. From there, it was a short step to Handy Arse. And that’s how he became known.

It was pretty funny, although maybe not for him. I can recall many much more cruel exchanges. As long as I wasn’t the target, I just joined right in.

The lesson was: Don’t share. I learned this the hard way. I too had a nickname, which I got from revealing that I had athlete’s foot. Even now I don’t want to tell you what it was. I was a boarder at the school for five years, and it stuck to me until the day I left. My “friends” used this nickname every day and made absolutely certain that each incoming group of new boys got to know it and use it freely.

In my mid-teens I acquired my first friends on the basis of affinity. It probably began with Bevis Sale (now an artist), who was my house mate at school, but lived locally and was not a boarder. Bevis brought me into a new circle including Christopher Hitchens, Michael Prest (who became a journalist), and the late Guy Cunnah.

These were the first friends whose company I chose. I liked them; they liked me. We called each other by our given names, Mark, Christopher, and so on. We could share a confidence and not have it instantly betrayed. There was brotherhood. And there was an escape from the unbearable proximity of the other “friends.” I can’t overstate what it meant to me.

Christopher and I hardly saw each other after leaving school, so I’ll always remember him as he was then: slightly built, with dark floppy hair and a gaze that could flash from boredom to intense concentration in a microsecond. A year or so ago I met his daughter Antonia on a doorstep and was shocked to see the same liquid eyes.

This photo, taken not long after he left school, shows how I remember Christopher.

Christopher and I did lots of stuff together, most often with Prest and Cunnah (and maybe others but I’ve forgotten). They were already running an unofficial school magazine, so I got involved. I discovered that I could write and draw for pleasure. And there were ideas, which we bubbled with.

This was the early sixties so nonconformism and rebellion were in the air we breathed. We rebelled. This was not easy because our school was itself nonconformist (in the religious sense, so the chapel, which we were required to attend, was Methodist, not Church of England). Rebellion meant that we were atheists and did not bow our heads with the others or close our eyes in prayer, although we submitted to compulsory attendance. My housemaster called me in and enquired, in a concerned sort of way, about this demonstration. But it was tolerated; there were no unpleasant consequences of any kind.

Also in the air was the forward march of socialist ideas. There were general elections in 1964, when Labour ousted the Conservatives, and 1966, which was more of a Labour landslide. We got hold of Labour posters and displayed them around the school. We spoke up for an end to the privilege of private schooling and to stop selective admission to state grammar schools. Again, our rebellion was tolerated, which was a little infuriating and a big relief; I had no desire to be a martyr.

We also cared about the outside world and we were moved by events in South Africa. In 1964 Nelson Mandela and others were on trial in Johannesburg, and imprisoned for life, for their part in the struggle against apartheid. I was deeply affected by the case of Bram Fischer, a communist lawyer, who was sent to Robben Island with Mandela (and died there). It seemed straightforward to me that a black South African would want to overthrow apartheid, but Fischer was a white Afrikaner; he could have enjoyed a life of privilege, and he deliberately put it aside and threw in his lot with the people who were being oppressed. It was a very troubling and inspiring example.

Christopher and I set out on our bikes one afternoon to find the local branch of the communist party (we failed). We wrote to the communist party in London to ask how to help the struggle. I got a letter back from Jack Woddis, the communist party’s international secretary, which I treasured for many years. Later I joined the communist party and studied the Soviet Union and China, and I got to see the seamy underside of communism at first hand. Whatever you think about communism now, and I certainly left it behind many years ago, there’s no doubt that the movement had many fine people and real heroes alongside the hacks and rogues.

There’s not much more to tell. After leaving school, Christopher and I soon lost touch. For a long time we went different ways politically. Christopher was a lot more adventurous than I was; at school he was a self-proclaimed anarchist and at college he went into the Trotskyist revolutionary movement. By comparison I was a plodder and a gradualist. If we’d stayed in touch, most likely we would have quarrelled, and I’m glad that didn’t happen. Judging from Christopher’s writings, we came back closer together again in more recent times.

A couple of years ago, a mutual friend put us back in touch and we began to email each other. We hoped to meet up again but Christopher’s illness was taking hold, and we never made it. I’m sad about that. At least I have the memory of when we were all sixteen.

I am a professor in the Department of Economics at the University of Warwick. I am also a research associate of Warwick’s Centre on Competitive Advantage in the Global Economy, and of the Centre for Russian, European, and Eurasian Studies at the University of Birmingham. My research is on Russian and international economic history; I am interested in economic aspects of bureaucracy, dictatorship, defence, and warfare. My most recent book is One Day We Will Live Without Fear: Everyday Lives Under the Soviet Police State (Hoover Institution Press, 2016).

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