Don’t expect any comedy in Peter Hitchens’ latest collection of blogs, essays and articles because he’s got no sense of humour, he assured FN the other day. But who needs a schtick when you have loyal followers like Hector (presumably not the Trojan), who hasn’t read Unconventional Wisdom but knows The Mail on Sunday man is a “genius” and you should subsequently “buy it now”.
With five star reviews like that you would expect publishers rushing, Covid-compliant, to his front door in Oxford with fat, six-figure deals. Alas, that wasn’t the case with Hitchens’ last collection, Short Breaks in Mordor, which chronicled his dispatches from abroad.
The Orwell Prize-winning journalist pitched the book to some “commercial partners” only to be turned down. It proved to be a “success” regardless and Hitchens therefore decided to go straight to the self-publishing route this time around by compiling pieces from the “vast collection of material” that is his blog.
“...It would be nice to have the [books reviews, essays and blogs] assembled so people who hadn’t come across my blog, who may not even know if it existed, know that sort of thing is there,” he explained.
It’s not a bad time to do it either, as Hitchens noted himself, since Christmas is around the corner and it was “fun to do” with some behind-the-scenes help drafted in on the technical side. As a money maker, however, there are definitely no expectations that the enterprise will generate lots of cash.
“I don’t think I’ve ever had any commercially successful books,” Hitchens bluntly put it. “People have this fantasy about writing books and that it's incredibly lucrative. Maybe if you are Jeffrey Archer or Lee Child…”
The columnist also claimed that he was only paid £150 the last time he appeared on BBC’s Question Time in 2018. “Most people think it's £1,000 or something like that – they have no idea,” Hitchens remarked.
Moving away from the public’s apparent lack of knowledge around the remuneration for appearances on current affairs shows, we turned back to Hitchens’ blog, which, apparently, “has no process” but appealed to the conservative because of its “as you please” style.
“As with all proper writing you discover what you do and you don’t know, in a way you don’t in normal conversation. In that way, I find it an interesting discipline and exercise,” he said.
One such “exercise” was Hitchens’ unveiling of his semi-secret Twitter account, @ClarkeMicah, which infamously follows nobody. He did initially think the micro-blogging platform was “ridiculous”, but now concedes it is handy because he can, among other things, bypass the “review mafia” who won’t write about his publications.
“I completely converted to its usefulness,” Hitchens declared. So why doesn’t he follow other accounts (a question he is asked at least five times per week)? “Because I don’t want to...”
The platform also allows him to reach potential viewers without appearing on the mainstream broadcasters, notably the BBC, an organisation Hitchens accused of being “increasingly narrow-minded”. As noted before, his latest appearance on Question Time was in 2018 and his recent documentary pitches (Hitchens hosted BBC Radio 4’s The Special Relationship: Uncovered in 2014, by way of example) have got nowhere.
“I’m not completely unqualified in broadcasting [and] you would think [the portfolio of work] would grow, but actually it shrinks,” he said, suspecting that his opinions “keep me off the air”.
Hitchens, however, will not pursue this “fantastic discipline” in an independent capacity like his self-publishing endeavors. “Most of the self-produced broadcasting is in the form of monologue and I’m bored watching monologues, therefore I’m bored doing them. If it’s a documentary, you are obviously talking to other people and in live broadcasting you need an opponent,” he said.
Although Hitchens is still keen to pursue an updated version of Talk Radio’s Grilled on Both Sides debate format, which he used to present alongside New Labour figure Derek Draper. Would left-wing columnist Owen Jones be a suitable adversary? “So far ‘no’, I’ll put it like that.”
It’s back to the bread and butter of his output then, with Hitchens typically filing his weekly column on Fridays and looking at it “until the last minute”. A former foreign correspondent who came up through local and regional papers, he got into the opinion business “through a series of accidents” and got an inkling of this future during a stint in Moscow for The Daily Express under Sir Nick Lloyd.
“[He] thought the best way of covering this bizarre story at the end of the Soviet Union was a weekly column because it would be more accessible to the readers,” Hitchens explained. “I began at that point to develop this relationship where people would write to me to say they like what I’ve done, which encouraged me. Having developed that relationship, I’ve loved it ever since.”
The old news reporting hack, though, can’t be suppressed and Hitchens occasionally finds himself seeking comment from the powers that be, jotting down notes in Pitman shorthand and reading George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language essay every six months to keep his writing sharp.
“Another really good person was the late [novelist and newspaper columnist] Keith Waterhouse, who wrote a very fine newspaper style book. He’s another master of proper journalism,” Hitchens advised. “But your own style is your own style: if you try to copy somebody else, you become a poor counterfeit of them.”
Unconventional Wisdom is out now in paperback and on Kindle because, as Hitchens warned his fellow journalists with regard to technological advancements, you “have to keep up with the electronic stuff”.
Note: This article was updated on Friday 11 December.
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