And Yet I’m still left with the sense the best of Hitchens is missing

Christopher Hitchens Dies, December 2011 by Surian Soosay

For all the slating that Christopher Hitchens attracted in his lifetime, it’s the quiet criticism of Jason Cowley, editor of the New Statesman, that best captures the man’s flaws as a writer.

In an otherwise generous obituary in 2011, Cowley wrote that Hitchens’ “polemical denunciations and pamphlets on powerful individuals […] feel already dated, stranded in place and time, good journalism but not literature”.

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Is Matt Forde Britain’s answer to Jon Stewart?

Matt Forde, via his website

The berserk news anchor leering over his desk as he fulminates against the blunders and mischief of his government is a phenomenon better known to America than to Britain.

For the longest time Britons have been forbade from this kind of open partisanship practised by the likes of Fox News, our broadcasters being bound by Ofcom guidelines which confine them to a mostly centrist political stance.

It is with this in mind that one must assess Matt Forde, a former Labour staffer turned comedian (at a time when there was some distinction) currently piloting a show that satirises the week’s events in a chat show format.

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Bryony Kimmings’ new show is a painful reminder of how little help the mentally ill receive

Fake It Til You Make It by Southbank Centre

Performance artist and comedian Bryony Kimmings’ new show, Fake It ’til You Make It, presents audiences with the simple but powerful story of Tim Grayburn, a man with severe clinical depression who just so happens to be Kimmings’ real-life fiancé.

The show throws frightening facts at you throughout – “One in four people will experience mental health problems in any one year”; “Suicide is the biggest killer of men under 35 in the UK”; “Nine out of ten people with mental health problems experience stigma and discrimination”.

But perhaps the most frightening fact goes unsaid: there is not enough help out there for people who suffer with mental health issues.

As a chronic depressive myself, Grayburn and Kimmings’ story hit me like a train. Like Grayburn, my GP didn’t explain the ins-and-outs of depression well enough to me. Like Grayburn, my illness has confronted me with the stigma of not being considered a “real man”. And like Grayburn, there’s a good chance I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for someone’s love and support.

As the play humorously tells us, Kimmings’ research exposed some of the shortcomings of Grayburn’s previous treatments, and their joint efforts have established a safe and effective system to help Grayburn. But although the show is very entertaining, it poses a serious question.

Why, you might ask, did Kimmings have to be Grayburn’s doctor? The answer: the Conservatives.

Because of the Tory restructuring of the NHS, since 2013 mental health has been the responsibility of local authorities. Last year, mental health charity Mind exposed that less than 1.5% of council’s budgets is being spent on mental health services. What this all results in is loved ones and charities having to pick up the slack, a problem that is really evident in Grayburn and Kimmings’ story.

What’s so astonishing about the Tories strategy is how irresponsible it is. With mental health issues killing more males under 35 than anything else, and roughly a third of the population suffering from anxiety or depression at any given time, you’d think it would be a top priority.

Where I live in London, if I needed therapy for severe depression I would need to wait for six weeks. If that doesn’t alarm you, allow me to explain the stupidity: people with suicidal thoughts are being asked to hang on for six whole weeks.

As I said above, in the UK nine out of ten mental health patients experience discrimination and stigma . Because of this social attitude, people who seek help don’t kind of need it, they desperately need it. Despite this, you’d have to wait 42 days in the country’s capital – a city rife with Samaritans signs on train platforms for a reason.

I’m sure the Tories hope that cuts to arts institutions will prevent scathing social commentaries like Fake It ’til You Make It. But fortunately for anyone at Southbank, or indeed the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe Festival, Bryony Kimmings and Tim Grayburn have put an incendiary piece out there.

The play is an important reminder that not just the likes of Stephen Fry or Winston Churchill have mental illnesses. The UK has one of the highest rates of self-harm in Europe – its very likely that someone you know suffers with mental health issues, whether you’re aware of it or not.

The government has the blood of mentally ill individuals on its hands – my blood was nearly a part of that pool. It’s about time we held them more accountable for that. Even austerity cannot justify challenging the sick to heal themselves.

People can contact the Samaritans via phone, email and the charity’s website, or by visiting a branch, about any problem affecting them.

Header Image – Fake It Til You Make It by Southbank Centre

The great assessment of Christopher Hitchens’ life still has yet to be written

Christopher Hitchens, ATF Party 2005, Ari Armstrong

“Don’t be a fan. Never be a fan.”

For a man who loved to talk, Christopher Hitchens was often at his best when he had the least to say. Indeed, such is the pith of the journalist known as “The Hitch” that his best quotes were even sold as a standalone book – some boast in the age of Wikiquote.

He was also noted, in a time where the adjective “judgemental” is always pejorative, for his voracious capacity for hatred. Indeed his objections to fandom encompassed some of his greatest dislikes – vicarious living, a lack of critical judgement towards celebrity, and the creation of a flawless icon that could never be realistically emulated.

In a descriptivist turn of mind he also pointed out that “fan” was a shortening of “fanatic” – a frivolous point given the cheapening of the word over time. (Consider the difference between “fan” and “fanboy”.) But these twin criticisms, one a radical dissent from the consensus and the other a conservative affirmation of tradition, are emblematic of a man who foxed so many that tried to place him into a convenient box.

That in mind, there is something disappointing about the work of one , a politics student from the University of Texas who attempts to relay the story of The Hitch in an 80-minute documentary. Leaning heavily on Hitch 22, Hitchens’ own memoir, it whisks the viewer through the early and latter years of the man’s life via audio excerpts from the book and clips from his latter career as a TV pundit.

There are drawbacks to this reliance on Hitchens’ own construction of his life, which scrutinises his time in the British education system (ending at Balliol College in Oxford), his mother’s suicide during his 20s and the major arguments of his last decade over Iraq, religion, and his own demise: much of the formative middle years are missed.

Perhaps least accounted for is the move to the United States, which would lead to Hitchens dying as an Englishman in America, or perhaps as an American from England. One can find in old footage from the US broadcaster C-Span and the collections of journalism from the 80s and 90s an inchoate Hitchens that is key to understanding his move from soixante-huitard (one who took part in or in his case sympathised with French unrest of 1968) to a defender of liberal interventionism and Anglo-American capitalism more generally.

The documentary also fails to scrutinise Hitchens’ refutation of his conservative leanings. For a socialist he was certainly no man of the people, and celebrated his mother’s ambition for him to ascend to the upper classes with a glee that did not repudiate the idea. In latter years he often castigated the flimsiness of the Left (with justification), and his positions on abortion, gun control and an image-driven media had a whiff of pragmatism that is more natural territory of the Right.

The above is even more interesting given the contrast with the views of his brother Peter, whose absence from Hellesmark’s documentary and Hitchens’ own memoir leaves another area of the man’s life unjustly unexamined. Though the two are famous for differing on many counts (Peter left university an atheist socialist and is now a columnist for the reactionary Mail on Sunday), there is intriguing overlap in their thinking. Both, for instance, agreed the Iraq War was radical and opposition to it conservative.

The Hitch, though slickly edited, takes its subject’s word too much at face value. A journalist who would be the first to complain at a supine press would hardly want his own reputation unchallenged in death. The great assessment of his life has still to be written.

Image – Christopher Hitchens, ATF Party 2005, by Ari Armstrong