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Hitches Major & Minor - John Harding

Blog | By John Harding | Aug 01, 2022

Brothers in arms: Christopher (1949-2011) and Peter Hitchens (b 1951)

On the tenth anniversary of Christopher Hitchens’s death, John Harding remembers teaching him and his brother Peter

It’s ten years since Christopher Hitchens died of cancer, in December 2011, aged only 62.

The anniversary reminded me of the year I spent with him and his younger brother, Peter, 60 years ago.

In 1961, aged 21, I was working as an assistant prep-school master at Mount House School on the edge of Dartmoor. Christopher, who scourged the reputations of Mother Teresa, Henry Kissinger, the Clintons and, indeed, God, was a 12-year-old boy in his last year at the school. Peter was two years younger.

Christopher was puckish: a lively, quizzical boy, quick-witted and funny. He was not a follower, always independent and challenging to masters and boys alike. C T Witherington, his classics teacher, with whom I shared the staff house in the grounds of the school, once told me that Christopher was the most intelligent and imaginative boy he had ever taught.

Mount House School, set in magnificent hilly grounds, had a fairly spartan regime in those days, not unfamiliar to readers of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall – cold baths, poorly heated dormitories and lousy food.

Christopher observed ‘that haggard and despairing convicts were more than once recaptured after hiding in the sheds of our cricket grounds’.

Almost true. One winter’s evening, cold and snowbound, Witherington and I retired to the staff house and heard a noise at the top of the landing.

We opened the airing cupboard to discover an escaped Dartmoor convict, cowering and shivering. We gave him a cup of tea and a sandwich before calling the police. Christopher, ever the budding journalist, pressed us for more information about the sad intruder the following day when the headmaster broke the news at the school assembly.

Christopher had a sense of the dramatic. Here is his short piece called ‘The Crash’ from the school newspaper in 1961:

‘As I went round the corner at top speed, I was horrified to see another bicycle coming straight towards me on the wrong side of the road.

‘“Maniac,” I yelled. Suddenly my eyes became distinctly misty. There was a grinding crash and I flew over the handlebars. My last recollection before I landed in a ditch was of my acquaintance lying under a heap of scrap metal in the middle of the road.’

Peter, the Mail on Sunday columnist, broadcaster and contrarian, was a loner, mostly on his own in the school playground, nicknamed Bush Baby by his contemporaries. I taught him English. He was imaginative and gifted. I asked the class of nine-year-olds to use fitting adverbs to convey the flotsam and jetsam of a deserted beach at the end of a summer’s day.

He wrote, ‘The Sunday Times floated serenely on the waves.’

He edited the class newspaper called Enterprise. Here he is celebrating the Battle of Trafalgar in verse:

The ships heave to, the cannons speak

The air is filled with powder’s and

musky reek

The powder boy dashes from gun

to gun

Then to the magazine does run

A shot rings out, and Nelson falls

And to his faithful Hardy calls

‘They have done for me, at last!’

My most serendipitous moment as a teacher occurred in a school outbuilding, overlooking the main drive.

The class, including Peter, took turns in reading Masefield’s narrative poem Reynard the Fox. Suddenly we heard the sound of the huntsman’s horn.

The Dartmoor Hunt had been given permission by the headmaster to ride through the grounds in pursuit of the fox.

‘Quick, boys – outside,’ I shouted, as the hunt in full crimson regalia passed by not 20 yards from the classroom.

‘Did you arrange that, sir?’ Peter asked.

‘Yes, of course,’ I lied, grinning from ear to ear.

In retrospect, to an outsider, like me, these extraordinarily talented schoolboy brothers were quite different in character and behaviour, as their subsequent career paths on either side of the Atlantic showed.

But Christopher always admired his brother for ‘great steadiness under fire from the cheap crowd who chose to mock him for being odd’.

Shortly after I left the school to go to university, the headmaster, Hugh Wortham, called Peter to his study for some misdemeanour.

Peter, small though he was, remained unperturbed. His mother recalled that he said to Wortham, ‘You may be in command now, but you will never quell the fire within me.’