Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Hitchens, Trotsky and a Really Good Row: The Red Terror Invades a Sedate Late-Afternoon Slot

Magazine article New Statesman (1996)

Hitchens, Trotsky and a Really Good Row: The Red Terror Invades a Sedate Late-Afternoon Slot

Article excerpt

I don't usually think much of Great Lives, the Radio 4 series in which a famous person goes on about--sorry, I mean profiles--a dead famous person. There's something weird about the hagiographic format. Why not just make a decent documentary about the dead person? The programme is presented by Matthew Parris, whose waspishness I much admire. In this job, however, he acts like he's presiding over a coffee morning. Bourbon, anyone?

But perhaps someone at Radio 4 agrees that the show needs to be more combative, because the first programme in the new series (8 August, 4.30pm) was great. I turned it on in the expectation that I would be able to multitask for its duration, and my plan to book a mini-break and file several hundred yellowing bits of paper went fine for 20 minutes or so. Then--boom!--I was gripped. I gave myself entirely to Parris and his guest, Christopher Hitchens, whose subject was Leon Trotsky. Mr P and Mr H weren't getting on at all: it was leatherette briefcases at dawn. Oh, I do like a good row. The other guest, a professor of Russian history, must have wondered where to put himself.

If you ask me, Hitchens had picked he of the small, round glasses and the absolute commitment to the use of state terror simply to be contrary. "I could have chosen someone furry like George Orwell," he said. "But I thought that would be cheating slightly. So I chose a total monster instead." (OK, I made the last sentence up.) He then praised Trotsky for his journalism ("a tremendous war correspondent") and for being an "exemplar of the non-fatalist Jew". Eh? Parris did not respond. Instead, he noted that Hitchens had made a success of his own journalistic career "despite being born in Portsmouth". He added that, in recent years, his guest had departed the shores of the left, but that it isn't yet clear "where he's departed to". …

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