Seldom do people discern
Eloquence under a threadbare cloak.
It was 2007, and the late Christopher Hitchens was denouncing Christianity under the stage lights of the Garrick theatre in London. His friend and, that night, interviewer Ian McEwan looked on approvingly.
“It’s rubbish,” he cried. “I don’t want to be fucking meek!” He fumed at the Bible. “I wouldn’t shake the hand of a priest”, Hitchens declared, eliciting gleeful sniggers from his audience. For me, though, it had all fallen a little flat, because, you see, he wasn’t wearing the jacket.
For the past month on TV, during debates and at readings, for dozens of appearances in as many US states, he had, without fail, worn one specific cream jacket. Without it, the result was like a Santa Claus without his beard. I was finding it hard to believe.
As a set, middle-aged male writers tend to go for some form of jacket look. Ian McEwan favours a biscuit coloured jacket with jeans, PJ O’Rourke wears a full suit. Dan Brown is generally in corduroy. But Hitchens had the look nailed with his just-back-from-interviewing-the-Maharaja linen blazer. In this garment there could be little doubt that he was schooled, cultured and bang up for a frank exchange of ideas.
Back when the tour had begun, on 7th May 2007 at the New York Public Library, both man and jacket were in great shape. In the ensuing weeks, Hitchens went on to do the following: reaffirm his position on Mother Theresa as a “bitch”; describe churches as “pest houses”; write off the Pope as a “ghastly aging virgin”; and Prince Charles as “that slobbering, chinless dauphin”. When he went on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show a fortnight later, to blithely celebrate the passing of American evangelist Jerry Falwell (“If you gave Falwell an enema, he could be buried in a matchbox”) he was still wearing the jacket, clearly with no short-term plans to take it off.
He was on a roll when on the 20th he flipped off the audience of Real Time, then he turned up good and drunk for The Daily Show on the 25th. The jacket, now with a USA flag pinned to the lapel by a previous presenter, had assumed a life of its own. While its owner listed to the left, the jacket drifted off markedly in the opposite direction. As in a long marriage, it had taken on the form of its partner: crumpled, bereft of shape, and decidedly worse for wear.
But that night in the Garrick, sporting some sort of muddy pin stripe, Hitchens was comparatively benign. Perhaps McEwan was reigning him in. Maybe the full tumbler of whiskey and the fact that he could take advantage of a loophole in smoking laws on the theatre stage were factors. Most likely though, it was the clothes. Remaining intact and in use for so long, the miraculous jacket threatened to mock Hitch’s Godless proselytizing at every turn. Now it was as if Hitch’s fire and brimstone had left him, along with the floaty eggshell coat.
“You’ll need to ride with me if you want to hear more,” he said.
So now I was in the back of a black cab with Christopher Hitchens.
Spying Hitchens after the show, inhaling a Rothmans cigarette in the crumby, brown blazer I couldn’t help but feel personally put out over, I decided to press the issue.
“What happened to the cream jacket?” I asked him, as he posed for a photo. He was matter of fact.
“It was kind of wearing out. And I don’t get time to dry clean.”
The answer seemed studied, maybe even pre-prepared. Did he share my obsession with this blazer?
Delving deeper, I flattered the vibrancy of its thread and, sure enough, he warmed to the subject.
“It was made by Cao Minh, on the Rue Catinat – the same street where Graham Greene sat in cafes and wrote The Quiet American. He’s the finest tailor in Saigon. I don’t get all my suits done [with Cao] but whenever I’m there – it would be foolish not to.”
“Anyway, I can’t claim I started it. I sort of had it spoiled for me by Tom Wolfe. And he says he had it ruined by John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever.”
I mentioned that he seemed to have been wearing it for an inordinate amount of time. Finishing his cigarette Hitchens said he had to head on.
“You’ll need to ride with me if you want to hear more,” he said.
So now I was in the back of a black cab with Christopher Hitchens. As we wheeled round Hyde Park corner, the polemicist expounded.
“So yes, I was wearing it in New York”, he said, wildly downplaying his two-week stay on the East coast. “But with domestic American flights now you’re screwed if you bring more than you can fit in a hold-all. So I don’t think I was wearing it by the time I got to Texas.”
In fact he was. Hitchens was wearing cream in Austin TX, as he eviscerated the arguments of Bush’s faith-based initiative guru, Marvin Olasky. And the jacket stayed with him through to the end, appearing on public radio with rapt KQED host, Michael Krasny. Evidence is strewn over the net. It is Minh’s tailoring, no two ways about it.
Shaky though he was on the truth of his sartorial consistency, his passion for uncovering the great religious lie was unwavering and he was soon back on message.
“I don’t wish to sound boastful but I’ve haven’t lost any of the debates – and am yet to encounter an argument which I haven’t heard a million times before. They present them as if they’ve just thought it up themselves! Without God, how would I know wrong from right? Please.”
TheAl Sharpton debate was interesting, I offered.
“He’s a shakedown artist. Listen, it wasn’t even my idea to do it with him but he was the one presented to me.”
Not a good debater?
“Not really. And I was surprised at how little he knew his texts. For the argument of those hard-line communists that religion is a con trick to raise money from the credulous, he would be a good example. I mean I don’t believe that myself.”
Hitchens clambered out into the rain on Chester Street and the conversation reverted to the subject of dress. I complimented the new jacket, without much enthusiasm.
“I was lucky I had this pressed in a rush for today,” he echoed, unconvincingly.
“I only have about three things I wear. If you knew me at all, you’d know what I wear is totally random, the top is normally irrelevant to the bottom.”
For my money his look was consciously modeled on Vigot, Graham Greene’s oil-stained tropical suit wearing thief from The Quiet American. And there were other Hitchens quirks – his exaggerated politesse, his scowl (“like a sea anemone poked with a stick” as writer Ian Parker put it) his whiskey, sipped from the TV studio water mug. But the jacket really tied the room together. It took him from boorish and probably soused, to suavely pugnacious and elegantly wasted.
When he died, it was clear that a few months down the line, some major event would be taking place and it would be impossible not to start thinking of what Hitchens would say. The current state of the 2012 US presidential election, with its focus on contraception, same sex marriage, and the division of church and state, would inevitably have drawn Hitchens. Picture him, on Hannity and Co, ripping some Rick Santorum acolyte a new one. You can see him savagely dismantling the senator’s vision of a higher, religiously-ordained set of laws. And he would reserve plenty of vitriol for the Mormon governor Romney along, incidentally, with any candidate daring to take a conciliatory position on Iran. And it would be impossible to agree with him on everything. But he would have your attention regardless. He would of course be wearing linen.
June 27, 2012
dress-sense, hitchens, profile