It was about twenty to six on Tuesday evening and I was having a cigarette just outside the gates of the Elmwood Hall while waiting for that evening's Belfast Festival talk to begin. It was then that Peter Hitchens came walking down University Terrace, appropriately enough, on his own (he always struck me as more of a lone wolf figure as opposed to someone who would have anything resembling an entourage). He appeared quite taken with the venue he was about to enter so I decided not to distract him with any frivolous smalltalk. Letting him enjoy the architecture of a nineteenth century Presbyterian church hall and allowing me to enjoy my Marlboro seemed like a good arrangement.
I was a little shocked at the response I got from some friends when I told them I had picked up a ticket to see Mr Hitchens speak. "Why would you want to see that man," said one. "I saw him on TV speaking about drugs recently and I don't think I could put up with him," said another. One would have thought that I had arranged to meet up with a Scientologist who was going to give me a free stress test, but on double-checking my booking I was indeed going to see a horrible, brutal, sexist, racist, homophobic monster (his words, not mine). Had I been going to a meeting supporting gay marriage, or perhaps a gathering to call for the freeing of the imprisoned members of Pussy Riot, where myself and all my other 'right on' pals would trundle along to have our views reinforced and repeated back to us and applaud the speakers enthusiastically I doubt an eyebrow would have been raised. But where would the fun be in that? Northern Ireland is a place polluted by hideous cross-community consensus politics and lacks little real political debate (parade disputes during the summer do not count) so going to see someone I have irreconcilable differences with chat about politics that did not concern our petty tribal matters seemed refreshing.
I arrived into the hall and took my seat in the second row. The attendance was quite impressive - somewhere in the region of 120 or 130 tickets had been sold for the event. The attendees came well prepared, many of them arriving with their Hitchens books in hand ready for the post-talk signing. While I attempted to kill time text messaging friends a man close to me decided the best way to fill in ten minutes was by doing a bit of light reading and working through a few pages of Antony Beevor's Stalingrad. The atmosphere beforehand was made slightly more peculiar with the sound of Thom Yorke's voice emanating from the speakers in the old church. And then, as I pondered the colossal gap left in my life by never having seen Radiohead live, it kicked off.
It is at this point worth adding that it was not all about the Peter Hitchens show. Far from it. As everyone's favourite opponent of central heating took to the stage he was accompanied by none other than the author and journalist Malachi O'Doherty, a man perhaps best known for having a link to yourfriendinthenorth on his official website. Quite why the evening wasn't promoted as O'Doherty being 'in conversation' with Hitchens I don't quite know but it nevertheless did not seem to have much in the way of a negative impact on sales as both men were greeted by a close to full hall. Indeed, this seemed to come as a pleasant surprise to the man from Oxford. When asked by the bearded one if he had been aware of his popularity in Belfast he said nothing but gave a grin (possibly weighing up in his mind the prospect of embarking on an Enoch Powell-style career move across the Irish Sea).
The subsequent discussion seemed to touch on just about every subject under the sun: religion, drugs, the European Union, the Rolling Stones, the uselessness of the Conservative Party, the folly of intervention in Iraq and the idiocy of Tony Blair to name but seven. There were even some funny moments. Although he claims to have no sense of humour whatsoever, I have always found Hitchens to be quite witty in an extremely dry, self-deprecating and, dare I say it, English manner. He admitted that his journey from left to right was predictable and "boring" but asked the audience who they thought was weirder, "me or the liberals still wearing jeans?"
Clearly no friend of our present Prime Minister, he claimed that he could "carve a better political party out of banana" than do what David Cameron has done with the Tories. That said, he did not offer up any answers of his own. Quite the opposite. From his traditional right-wing perspective we have passed the point of no return. He claimed that alternatives were doomed to failure and all hope for his beloved nation was now irretrievably lost. He told the audience that he had advised his children to leave as soon as they could. He on the other hand is apparently too old to emigrate so instead shall live out his days "laughing" as the country drifts into rack and ruin. All very depressing stuff I am sure you will agree.
O'Doherty played his role well; at times asking straight-forward questions to his guest, at other times sparring and jousting with him when he found his views a tad bizarre. Malachi, as a former smoker who apparently struggled to give up cigarettes, clearly could not fathom Hitchens's assertion that there is no such thing as addiction - "you might as well believe in aliens," was how the Mail on Sunday columnist put it. When he attempted to expand on this argument he ended up making a point that sounded, to put it bluntly, stupid. He asked the audience whether they thought his love of bread made him a "breadist", that is someone with an addiction to bread. Was this really the best he could do? For a man whose radical views are normally backed up with something approaching reasoned intelligent argument this seemed exceptionally weak. He also made clear his disdain for the term "soft drugs" and suggested that there should be heavier penalties for those caught in possession of cannabis.
At one point Hitchens was challenged from the floor by an irritating social worker who spent most of the evening tutting and making clear how appalled she was by the speaker's illiberal utterances. She told him that while she found him quite charming she also found many of his opinions offensive (though on this night didn't mind paying £7.50 to be offended) and asserted that his views would offer no answers to the problems of the homeless people she worked with. His response only served to offend the lady even more as he said the homeless had no reason to be without housing and should instead be with their families. It was a classic right-wing answer if there ever was one, offering a simple solution to an incredibly complex and enduring problem. And then, as if by magic, it was over. Time flies when you're listening to a nostalgic angry old reactionary, doesn't it?
Afterwards, as an extremely long queue formed for the obligatory meet and greet, I made a dash for the bar at the Queen's Film Theatre just around the corner. I'm sure he was disappointed but unfortunately Mr Hitchens will have to wait until another day to meet me. So, in conclusion? Not a bad night at all: excellent discussion, two good speakers on stage and interesting questions from the audience. Whether the performance by Peter Hitchens will have won over any new recruits to the forces of conservatism remains to be seen. Given that we are all doomed anyway I doubt he cares all that much. For now at least I think I'll remain a horrible denim-clad leftie.