In his vivid and deeply felt 1952 essay, 'Such, Such Were the Joys,' the great English essayist George Orwell recalled the ritual bullying of the young boys at his prep school at the hands of the headmaster. It's one of the most sobering accounts of British boarding school life ever written, and a powerful antidote for anyone who thinks the system superior to state education. But in the most revealing section, Orwell recalled sex 'always smoldering just under the surface' until confronted by the head teachers in the most public and exaggerated way: 'There were summonses, interrogations, confessions, floggings, repentances, solemn lectures of which one understood nothing except that some irredeemable sin known as 'swinishness' or 'beastliness' had been committed,' he wrote. 'One of the ringleaders, a boy named Horne, was flogged, according to eyewitnesses, for a quarter of an hour continuously before being expelled. His yells rang through the house.'
Fast-forward and it's another celebrated (and pilloried) essayist's turn to recall his youthful experiences of fraternal bonding at boarding school and beyond. Christopher Hitchens, coincidentally the author of a slim biography on Orwell, provides an updated account of adolescent orgies with rather less angst than his literary idol. 'The night was loud with the boasts and groans that resulted from this endless, and fairly evenly matched, single combat between chaps and their cocks,' he recalls of his all-male prep school in Hitch-22, his new memoir, adding, 'To even the dullest lad, furthermore, it would sometimes occur to think that self-abuse was slightly wasted on the self and might be better relished in mixed company.'
The revelations have stirred the hormones of the British press (some of whose elders may have crossed the young Hitchens's path, or, perhaps, his bedspread) and sparked a guessing game around his more significant confession that at Oxford University he slept with two men who would later serve in Margaret Thatcher's cabinet. On its face, the fact that a member of Britain's literati once slept with other men is nothing new: It was a rite of passage long before Evelyn Waugh immortalized Oxford's particular kind of male love in Brideshead Revisited and by all accounts still is. But what made the media coverage so deliciously piquant was the inevitable guessing game about who those ministers were, especially given Thatcher's propensity for championing old-school morality and -- that dreaded phrase -- 'family values.'
'I just feel that all of this is relatively easy if you allow for the elasticity of human desire,' Hitchens says, mulling over a tomato and mozzarella salad at La Tomate, his favorite hangout in Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle. A well-known casanova who has been married twice with children from each union, he resists naming the men, arguing that most men have done as much, and pretending otherwise is a waste of time. 'I do know some men who claim to find homosexual attraction unthinkable or impossible,' he says, a lit cigarette dangling from his hand, 'But they're a very small minority. It's very rare to find somebody who's pure [heterosexual], who either hasn't done or thought something.'
For Hitchens, the revelations were motivated less by publicity than principle. 'When I was deciding whether to put that stuff in Hitch-22 or not I made up my mind to include it because, even in an oblique form, it was a sort of solidarity,' he says. 'It'd be a good thing if more 'heterosexuals' made the same avowal, as I know a huge number of them can, or could.'
In a four-decade-long career that has taken him around the world and from the far left of the political spectrum to slightly right of its center (he was a witness for the independent counsel investigation of former president Bill Clinton, a fervent and unapologetic supporter of the Iraq war, and a hawkish opponent of what he terms 'Islamofascism'), homosexuality is an area about which Hitchens has written little. But he proves remarkably open, both in Hitch-22 and in person, freely discussing his once-confused feelings about his best friend, the novelist Martin Amis. 'I find now that I can more or less acquit myself on any charge of having desired Martin carnally,' he writes in his memoir, before adding the typically self-deprecating rejoinder, '(My looks by then had in any case declined to the point where only women would go to bed with me.)' This candor stems in part from a belief that everyone harbors same-sex attraction, at least up to a certain age. In his memoir, he wistfully recounts a love affair with a fellow classmate named 'Guy,' whose affections represented a highlight in the 'ongoing monastic sex drama' that is English boarding school. The two exchanged poems along with 'white-hot and snatched kisses.' When another student 'who had had his own bulging eye on my Guy for some time' caught the two in a private embrace, the school forbade the young lovers to speak to each other. Hitchens was pleasantly surprised by the response of his parents; his father, a former naval officer, told him that, 'worse things happen in big ships.'
It comes as no surprise, given his hostility toward religion (his 2007 bestseller God Is Not Great is more responsible for catapulting him to international fame than any other work) that Hitchens views attempts to 'convert' homosexuals into heterosexuals as deceptive and dangerous. But he does allow for a more fluid understanding of sexuality, in which individuals, capable of loving and being attracted to members of both sexes, decide at some point to stress one desire over the other. He says today that he is 'generally glad not to be gay.' But he has made room in his own life to account for a sort of hybrid, heterosexual/homosexual bond that is nonsexual but equally passionate. 'Can you have a heterosexual relationship with a man?' he asks of his friendship with Amis. 'I would say, 'Yes you can,' as long as it's about fornicating with women.'
Hitchens has counted gays among his close friends and companions throughout his life. His memoir is dedicated to James Fenton, his college roommate and a professor of poetry at Oxford. And early in his journalistic career, Hitchens befriended the roguish Member of Parliament Tom Driberg, a man notorious for 'cottaging,' English slang for having sex in public restrooms. 'What he wanted above all was to give free blowjobs to the working classes,' Hitchens explains to me. 'And he really put his back into the work -- one of the greatest contributors there's ever been.' He is also friends with the British actor Stephen Fry and says that he considered the gay couple that lived on the same floor of his Washington apartment building for many years the ideal caretakers for his daughter were he or his wife ever to become incapacitated.
As for his views about contemporary gay rights issues, Hitchens is supportive, but considers other battles more worthy of his time and attention. 'I used to know people in the '70s,' he says, 'who essentially regretted the passing of the law' decriminalizing homosexuality. 'It somehow deglamorized'took the danger, the thrill out of it.' While he obviously does not support the criminalization of homosexuality, he says that he's 'put in mind of this by people who, deep down, think the marriage thing is completely overrated [and] say it misses the point of being gay,' hearkening back to a more radical period of gay rights activism when those at the forefront saw marriage as part of the conservative order they were trying to undo. Yet when he looks at the forces arrayed against the movement, it's obvious to him which side he's on. 'As with a lot of things, I hate the people who hate it.'
Hitch-22 (Twelve) is available in stores now.