Engage him at your own risk, says Jenni Reid…
Peter Hitchens, Mail on Sunday columnist, former foreign correspondent and full-time antagonist, packed out the Peterhouse Parlour on Tuesday evening with people who had come to see the man once described as “molten Old Testament fury shot through with visceral wit”. Hitchens made it clear in his own introduction: “I’ve come here to start an argument.” He is a man on a mission, seeking to destroy British romanticism of the Second World War as a ‘good war’, and to attack the notion that there is such a thing as a good war. Hitchens spoke of how the War is an event which preoccupies our national consciousness like nothing else – as he wryly remarked, three things sell books: cats, golf and Nazis.
The audience managed to get into Hitchens’ bad books early on. As he reminisced, “I grew up in a country in which it seemed as if the Second World War was still going on,” he suddenly paused and cast his eye over the room. “…Is that a mobile phone? Because if it is, I do actually believe in the death penalty for anyone whose phone goes off during talks, so please make sure you have got it switched off or I will personally come and deal with it for you.” When a loud and garish ringtone promptly sounded five minutes later, the audience seemed much more amused than Hitchens.
Upon finishing his argument, Hitchens announced with just a hint of menace, “Anyone who wants to take me on – I’m waiting for you”. A short pause ensued before hands shot up, and Hitchens had no shortage of adversaries. The conversation steered its way through an array of topics, from the “catastrophic” Iraq war, the “ludicrous and painful” Afghanistan war, the “moronic” bombing of Gaza, and our “backwards” membership of the EU, to the IRA, the Arab Spring and wind farms.
The evening descended into a full-blown historical debate, as one audience member after another stepped up to the plate for a verbal battering. Not that Hitchens necessarily ‘won’ each of these arguments, but a battering it certainly was: this is not a man who will let you have the last word, nor will he shy away from telling you that you are wrong (not that he thinks you are wrong – that you are wrong.) One young woman from Iraq challenged Hitchens’ claim that politicians really subscribe to the ‘myth of the good war’. Hitchens replied, “I have an advantage over you: I met Tony Blair before he was famous. You’re paying these people a compliment to say that they’re tremendous cynics who in private know how the world works and in public pretend to be idealist ninnies. They really are as bad as they sound. They really do believe their own propaganda.”
Things calmed down a little as the evening went on, although one audience member offered Hitchens some advice: conduct your arguments with a bit less aggression and a bit more subtlety. “If you don’t do things aggressively, no-one will even notice,” he retorted. “Changing people’s minds is incredibly difficult. It’s never a good thing to tell people that they’re wrong, but sometimes it’s necessary.” Peter Hitchens, like his late brother, is a man who doesn’t care what people think of him. He admits he’s not “nice” or “tactful”, nor does he want to be. As the two hour battle between Hitchens and Cambridge drew to a close he became more reflective, remarking that Britain needs to get out of the “strange, self deluding torpor” it finds itself in. And for all his assertions and dogmatism, he ended the evening on a civil note: “as my mother always taught me to say, thank you for having me.”