Room 101

Christopher Hitchens suggests that Orwell’s Room 101 in 1984 is derived from his experiences in Room 101 at the BBC’s Portland Place headquarters in London.It also occurs to me that room 101 may be the most common hotel room number. If you think about it.

The Missionary Position – Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice – Christopher Hitchens

If you take as a workable definition of an evil person, someone who greatly increases the amount of human suffering in the world by means of deliberate and premeditated acts which can be empirically demonstrated to have that effect, then, on a reasonable application of that definition, Mother Teresa was evil.

I’ve long held that view, and was therefore looking forward with relish to reading Hitchens’s formidable powers of analysis and excoriation to have my views confirmed (this goes against the grain for me – I usually like to have my views challenged, but once in a while I allow myself a bit of indulgence).

So I was disappointed to find the book strangely restrained. It has some jolly invective, to be sure, but it’s messily constructed, and leaves some startling gaps. If MT is running some sort of propaganda organisation for the Catholic Church, where is she getting her instructions from? Who writes the speeches? Arranges the meetings with the great and the good? What happens to the money?

This falls way below Hitchens’s best.

Thomas Jefferson, Author of America – Christopher Hitchens

Hitchens, Jefferson and I all share a birthday (13 April – but in Jefferson’s case you have to re-jig it for the Gregorian/Julian calendar shift. I wonder if TJ celebrated his birthday on 2nd April or 13th, after 1758?).So far, I’ve read two of the books in the series Eminent Lives – the other being the Shakespeare one by Bill Bryson, and neither disappoints.

Hitchens tackles his subject with obvious gusto and his usual flair for crap cutting. It’s evident from his other work that Jefferson holds a particular fascination for him, and as a contrarian Englishman well embedded in the core of American politics, he’s superbly well placed to do the job. Oh, and the fact that he’s a sparkling writer and a cunning polemicist helps.

So it’s a slim, gripping work which covers some of the most fascinating times in American history, from battles with the English, the slave trade, the Louisiana purchase, the French Revolution and the politicking which led to the formation of the Union (and the fascinating development of the constitution, and especially the separation of church and state).

Oh, and the truth behind the Sally Hemings affair.

Unfortunately (and I don’t blame Hitchens for this) there’s simply too much fascinating material to cram into a very small book, so there is necessarily a sense of over-compression. But if it leads you wanting to read more, that’s not a bad thing. Particularly, it fails to mention anything about Jefferson’s role as (first) comptroller of the US Patent office, which was an impressive job for someone vehemently anti-patent. Still, Hitchens didn’t know about my obsession with intellectual monopolies when he put pen to paper, so I’ll forgive him.

Still, Chris, thanks for mentioning on several occasions, while I still had 3 books to go, that Tristram Shandy’s a dreadful, unfunny book and the fact that he keeps on referring to it in his correspondence is evidence of Jefferson’s humour vacuum. We’ll have to disagree on that point (well, ok, I’ll grant you books 6,7,8 and 9), even if we do share a birthday.