Footnotes to Genius

John Rentoul

hitch 300x225 Footnotes to GeniusI am again dipping in and out of Christopher Hitchens’s memoir, Hitch-22, after a pause to digest the sudden succession of political memoirs (Mandelson, Blair, Campbell vol 2, Richards, Cowley and Kavanagh, Seldon and Lodge).

I have come across several gems, often in footnotes.

Exhibit 1.

The Hitch’s first proper job in journalism was as Social Science Correspondent for a new title called the Times Higher Education Supplement, before it was launched:

A Gogol-like ghost job which I held for about six months before its editor said something to me that made it impossible to go on working for him.*

The footnote is as follows:

*”You’re fired” were the exact words as I remember them.

Exhibit 2.

On page 141 he says:

In Martin Amis’s novel of Fleet Street, Yellow Dog, you might think that the contempt shown by the reporters for both their subjects and their readers is overdone, but you would be wrong.*

At this point the great egotist has a footnote thus:

*I appear in some obscure online dictionary of quotations for having said that I became a journalist partly so that I wouldn’t ever have to rely on the press for my information.

Exhibit 3.

In a footnote illustrating the wordplay in which the group known as the “Friday lunch”, from the mid-1970s to the early 1980s, engaged, a limerick by Robert Conquest compressing the history of the Bolshevik “experiment” into five lines:

There was an old bastard named Lenin

Who did two or three million men in.

That’s a lot to have done in

But where he did one in

That old bastard Stalin did ten in.

He also, and I am getting to my point, quotes Kingsley Amis on the subject of Graham Greene’s then-latest novel, The Human Factor:

“Absolutely no. Bloody good. AT ALL!”

Which reminded me of two things that have been put on the Banned List. It is all very well the Hitch doing it in a book published last year, or one or two cutting-edge bloggers a few years ago (such as Tom Harris), but the use of full stops for emphasis. Has. Got. To. Stop. AND THE SAME GOES FOR CAPITALS. By order.

Hitch-22 is a joy, every page to be savoured.

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  • Guest

    I am surprised Kingsley Amis thought Graham Greene’s novel of espionage and divided loyalties The Human Factor absolutely no bloody good at all. At the very least the farce of the Maltesers at the shooting-party dinner must have appealed to Amis’s sense of the absurd, I would have thought. Greene himself had severe reservations over the novel, relating in his second autobiography Ways of Escape that he began The Human Factor more than ten years before it was published, abandoned it after three years’ work, and at one time thought that it would join his other unfinished novels. ‘It hung like a dead albatross around my neck.’ Of the finished book he wrote: ‘I am never satisfied with a novel, but I was more than usually dissatisfied with this one, I had betrayed my purpose… It wasn’t as realistic a picture as I had intended, and the novel was saved only by the human factor of the title.’

    Greene, who served in the secret service, does a pretty good job of presenting the spying game as futile and dehumanising, completely devoid of any 007-style glamour. The Human Factor is a bleak, uncomfortable read, in stark contrast to, say, Lucky Jim, Take A Girl Like You, or I Want It Now. Or indeed the gem-strewn Hitch-22, a joy, every page to be savoured.

  • porkfright

    Mr. Rentoul.Genius-Homer, Goethe, Dostoievsky, Shakespeare, Mozart, Wagner, Bach-to name but a few truly of the ilk.

  • postageincluded

    My favourite example of the emphatic stop (which predates Amis’s remark by more than a decade and Hitch’s rendition of it by more than three) is from the poem “Please” by Robert Creeley:


    Though I suspect Mr Amis would dispute the suggestion that “Please” was a poem at all.

  • Jake_K

    Any comments on the Iraqi Oil memos on your paper’s front page today John? Will look out for that, shall I?

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