For many in the Western world, hating Peter Hitchens is easy.
At least he thinks so.
As an anti-drug, anti-abortion, and vehemently Christian journalist, his opinions are increasingly seen as out of the mainstream. Furthermore, his small c conservative politics, paradoxically, anger many politicians on his side of the political spectrum. This is different from his late brother Christopher, who after an unexpected pitch for the 2003 Iraq war, still found Leftist support in attacking organized religion. Simply listening to Peter is a good way to glean his anomalous view and appreciate his sardonic wit. However, it is his journalism that has been lauded with awards such as the Orwell Prize.
Thus Living with Literature seeks to better understand Peter, and his unique brand of conservatism, with 2014’s Short Breaks in Mordor.
Short Breaks in Mordor is a chronicle of Peter Hitchens’ most tumultuous years as a foreign correspondent. The time spans from the fall of the Soviet Union, the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and beyond. Despite the typical perception of Peter as personified English snobbery, his reporting is not from the proverbial ivory tower. Locations include Chinese human-rights abusing mines in Africa, stategy-less American and British missions in the Middle East, and run-ins in with the KGB. Hence, invoking Tolkien’s hellish inferno in The Lord of the Rings, Peter gives readers a detailed and personal glimpse of experiences in a non-fiction Mordor.
The world of geopolitics is predominately brushed off by the general public. Topics are seen as too convoluted and complex to understand. Even those dedicated to comprehending popular international questions, such as the Palestine-Israel conflict, are confronted with an increasingly literal mountain of treaties and history. Knowing this, Hitchens consolidates knotty geopolitical conflicts into pithy and personal passages. Not only are the situations made simple for the reader, but they are accented with biting grace.
“In the days of Soviet power, [the African National Congress] happily supported every grotesque show trial, Red Army invasion, and KGB repression that was available and would have supported more if asked. Its complete devotion to the Kremlin, and its leading position in the ANC, was one of the main reasons for the long survival of the repulsive Apartheid system. Western powers feared that the end of Apartheid would necessarily mean the establishment of a Soviet satellite on the strategic southern tip of Africa, in possession of its gold and diamond fields and much else besides. That is why the USSR had to fall before Apartheid did.”
George Orwell’s debut novel Burmese Days highlights British imperialism in South Asia by the then-expatriate writer. Naturally, these depictions of the world are a product of personal bias. As Orwell demonstrates, one can condemn imperialism while also appreciating its benefits. Hitchens engages in a similar style. For example, while realizing that North Korea is undoubtedly a police state, the author believes that Western policy should dissuade authoritarianism rather than demonize it. This nuanced approach allows readers to understand that such geopolitical distinctions must be made at a microbial level. Especially when delicate countries like North Korea are concerned:
“But where Orwell’s [Ministry of Truth] was a glittering white, the abandoned Ryugyong Hotel is a dingy dung-brown, its hundreds of glassless windows like sockets gazing at what its maker, the Great Leader Kim Il Sung, has wrought. And what he has wrought is hopeless failure, a long, grim joke that has yet to reach its punchline. Kim’s city is the capital of a state that is far more of a danger to its own people than it is to the rest of the world. I think the evidence is sketchy that North Korea has a nuclear bomb. What is certain is that it has almost nothing else. It cannot any longer even fake success at its very heart. Its great propaganda festival, the Arirang Games where thousands of young Koreans create vast pictures with eerily synchronised movements, is a pathetic remnant. It is the only show I have ever been to where the cast is far bigger than the audience.”
Being the loudest anti-drugs, sex, and rock n’ roll voice of the U.K. (and likely the Western world), it is expected that the personal views of the author occasionally permeate the text of Short Breaks in Mordor. Yet Hitchens’ is under no false assumption that his politics appear contemporarily unfashionable. He has even gone so far as to title himself ‘Britain’s obituarist‘. Despite holding to such traditional sentiments, Hitchens is cynical about and begrudgingly acquiescent to the changing world.
“Until [Fidel] Castro, communism was about tanks crushing romantic revolts in the streets, and dreary, potato- shaped, middle- aged men in hats and overcoats saluting rockets on Red Square. After Castro it was about romantic revolts and guerrilla bands, featuring young bearded heroes and smoldering, beautiful revolutionary women, overthrowing corrupt dictatorships in a festival of the oppressed. And it began in Havana, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘great white city on the bay’, perhaps the most perfect backdrop on the world with its happy music, its picturesque, easygoing people, its enjoyably grotesque mobster hotels, its cigars and rum. Marx and Lenin, dressed up in fatigues, were suddenly fun and sexy, freed from the Kremlin puritans. Castro was to revolution what Mick Jagger was to rock, and his image (and Guevara’s) had a lot to do with the strange student revolt that destroyed Charles de Gaulle’s conservative France in 1968, and with the wave of cultural revolution that changed the morals and attitudes of the Western world and has now subsided into the weary swamps of political correctness. Interestingly, the student revolutionaries who loved Castro and Guevara got Fidel wholly wrong. He loathed rock music as degenerate and only in recent years has he recognized it as an ally, permitting a John Lennon memorial park in Havana. They got a lot of other things about him wrong, too.”
While Peter Hitchens may be a ‘Burkean‘, or paleo-conservative conservative, cultural relevance fails to avoid his work and voice. This is likely why he appears regularly on television and engages in various Twitter fights. His encounters in Short Breaks in Mordor contain as much apocalyptic excitement and tension as any espionage novel. Albeit a post-colonial one. His political sentiments too, when presented, beg for a counter-argument. I’ve referred to Peter as Britain’s answer to William F. Buckley. Why? The sentiments may not be agreeable, but the razor-sharp analysis is important for Left (and Right) to reckon with. As well as read.