I discovered Christopher Hitchens last year. I was living in a bedsit in Brighton studying for my master's degree, and happened upon an article in the paper written by Martin Amis.
It was a terrific piece of writing, hilariously written, and convinced me to purchase books by both authors. After that I was hooked, and have subsequently devoured a considerable proportion of their output; a magnificent melange of comedy, politics, atheism, sex and bacchanalian celebration.
So last night's blockbuster event organised by Intelligence Squared at the Royal Festival Hall was always going to be good.
Originally billed as a conversation between Christopher Hitchens and Stephen Fry, pneumonia prevented the famed journalist from appearing. Insisting that the show must go on, Fry was joined onstage by Richard Dawkins, where the pair co-ordinated a wildly entertaining voyage through the life and work of Christopher Hitchens.
Employing a gigantic TV screen with a satellite link across the Atlantic, a love-in of massive proportions ensued. Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie both made on-screen appearances, as did poet James Fenton, but before Fry was able to reach these eminent figures, a last-minute addition to the line-up gave the audience a grainy webcam view of actor Sean Penn at home in Los Angeles, smoking and looking as though he'd just crawled out of bed.
"Congratulations on smoking by the way," Fry laughed during their discussion of Hitchens' critique of Henry Kissinger. "I think the audience would be less shocked if you got your penis out."
Unfortunately, shortly after that, the webcam died, and Fry was momentarily left floundering:
"I haven't slept for three days," he joked. "I wake up screaming, 'God damn you Google!'"
Richard Dawkins' presence seemed somewhat staid after this fun, but the atmosphere quickly adapted to a slightly more serious discussion that centred on our reluctance within society to cause offence. "I don't see any reason to tip-toe around if offence is deserved," Dawkins said.
Satirist Christopher Buckley then appeared on the screen and took the evening back into the realm of anecdote, and had the audience rocking in their chairs with a story of how Barbara Streisand once "caught fire" at one of Hitchens' weekly drinking sessions in Washington.
James Fenton recited a poem of his called The Skip that Hitchens had requested, and Salman Rushdie elucidated some of their clique's notorious word games such as 'Hysterical Sex', in which you take the name of a famous book or film and substitute the word 'love', for the phrase above, thereby achieving titles such as 'Hysterical Sex in the Time of Cholera', or (one of my own), 'From Russia with Hysterical Sex.'
It was, however, Martin Amis who provided the evening's most entertaining moments. Going through old photographs with Stephen Fry, he was fantastically funny, noting a baguette stowed away in Hitchens' top pocket while in Paris, and remarking upon his abundant sprouting chest-hair in another that showed him smoking a cigarette while holding a brace of pheasants on the Rothschild estate.
Hitchens' absence was sad, although during the course of the evening Fry received two messages sent by the author Ian McEwan who was watching the event live with Hitchens in Washington, and this went some way towards convincing the audience that they were somehow in the presence of the individual in question.