Peter Hitchens Blots His Copybook

Why oh why does Peter Hitchens object to wedding owls, for goodness’ sake?…

There are few activities more dispiriting than reading the comment threads in the Guardian‘s Comment Is Free pages. The readers – or at least the commenters – of a once great liberal newspaper reveal themselves as, largely, asinine self-righteous fatheads and nitwits. I very rarely read the threads, but occasionally I am tempted by an awful fascination. Such was the lure of the comments on a recent profile of Peter Hitchens.

Here I confess to a boundless admiration for the man the smug gits at Private Eye continue to dub “bonkers”. Mere mention of his name seems to have a curious effect on Guardianistas, whose little narrow brains shut down completely as they vent their spleen. They were further outraged at what was, for the Guardian, a reasonably fair-minded profile rather than a torrent of abuse.

I will not list all his virtues, but one of the features of his writing I like is the attention he pays to names. Hitchens refuses to go along with the self-consciously demotic Tonys, Blair and Benn, consistently referring to them as Anthony Blair and Anthony Wedgwood Benn. He is similarly dismissive of the practice – seen, I suppose, as some sort of post-imperialist reparation – of calling Peking Beijing, Bombay Mumbai, and Calcutta Kolkata. Hitchens uses the names he learned in atlases as a child, pointing out that we do not use the “native” names for, say, Warsaw or Moscow or a thousand other places.

From time to time, however, even I have to take issue with the great man. The first occasion, a couple of years ago, was, curiously enough, regarding a name. In a piece about Mary Renault, Hitchens referred to stuffing some books into his “backpack”. I was compelled to leave a comment on his blog, thus:

Mr Hitchens : I really must take issue with your use of the word “backpack”. It ill becomes you. “Backpack” is a barbaric neologism used by young persons, often those on so-called “gap years”. In future, please ensure you use one of the three – yes, three! – acceptable alternatives, “rucksack”, “haversack”, or – my personal preference – “knapsack”.

Now Hitchens is rare among mainstream journalists in engaging with his commenters, so I was saddened that he had no reply to make to this. I like to think he sat for some while with his head in his hands, realising the error of his ways.

But it is because he did not respond that I have not (yet) issued a similar corrective to a recent blot on his copybook. In his Mail on Sunday column last week, bemoaning the latest foolishness of the Church of England, Hitchens drew a picture of horrors to come:

Beneath the ancient arches of our parish churches we shall soon be enduring the music of the Sugababes and watching trained owls deliver matching rings to overdressed couples sitting on fake thrones, as photographers lean in as close as they can, to film the crucial moment.

He is right, of course, in all respects except one. Who could possibly object to the participation of trained owls in a wedding service? I would go further, and say trained owls should be encouraged in a wide variety of religious and civic ceremonies and rites and commemorations and parades and celebrations and jamborees. Wherever we roam, the more trained owls the merrier, in what Gary Lineker called “all four walks of life”.

From the evidence of his blog, I suspect Mr Hitchens keenly monitors online references to himself. What he usually finds is vituperation and abuse. There is nothing of the sort here, only, as I said, boundless admiration. However, I feel it only right to point out those rare occasions when he veers from the true path, be it regarding knapsacks or owls. I hope, if he reads this, he will take the opportunity to issue a mea culpa in the comments.

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About Author Profile: Frank Key

Frank Key is a London-based writer, blogger and broadcaster best known for his Hooting Yard blog, short-story collections and his long-running radio series Hooting Yard on the Air, which has been broadcast weekly on Resonance FM since April 2004. By Aerostat to Hooting Yard - A Frank Key Reader, an ideal introduction to his fiction, is published for Kindle by Dabbler Editions. Mr Key's Shorter Potted Brief, Brief Lives was published in October 2015 by Constable and is available to buy online and in all good bookshops.

10 thoughts on “Peter Hitchens Blots His Copybook

    November 2, 2012 at 09:39

    Regarding the sac, absolutely, where would we scouts have ended up, had we wandered hither and yon with nothing but a backpack on our shoulders, such a common little man that Hitchins wallah.

    I love to go a-wandering,
    Along the mountain track,
    And as I go, I love to sing,
    My knapsack on my back.

    My knapsack on my back.

    November 2, 2012 at 10:47

    Ah Malty – how that takes me back…
    As for trained owls, how on earth do you train an owl? I can’t imagine those proud birds submitting to the indignity of delivering wedding rings – more likely to fly off and drop them somewhere in a deep deep wood. Really they don’t give a hoot…

    • Gaw
      November 2, 2012 at 17:02

      A handful of ham can work wonders. This was proved to my satisfaction in the course of a visit to a cat circus.

    November 2, 2012 at 10:57


    He who would pun…………………………

    November 2, 2012 at 14:46

    I assume his objection is to the ongoing Rowlingfication of England.

      November 2, 2012 at 16:35

      Interesting. I wonder if he isn’t indulging in some creative imagery in his critique of modern services. I trust we can all agree that traditional vows to love, honour, cherish and obey go nicely with fluttering doves. Does anyone think that promises to share challenges on a gender-neutral basis, be each other’s best friends and give each other space to be their own persons go well with owls sweeping down from nowhere? Judging from the cynical looks of the happy couple in that picture, they just might.

    November 2, 2012 at 15:11

    I should like a pet owl, as long as it wasn’t over-familiar

  6. Gaw
    November 2, 2012 at 17:00

    Interesting you should cite Gary Lineker in a strigine context – as Stewart Lee points out, he has a ‘velvet owl face’.

    November 2, 2012 at 20:19

    i’m sure Hitchens refers to rucksacks/backpacks as Bergens in private.

    November 2, 2012 at 23:13

    My own liturgical position leans toward Lehrerfreiheit: “You can do the steps you want if/You have cleared them with the pontiff.” As to the Anglican world I consider that I have no right to speak. But somebody really should think of the janitors, unless the owls are trained that way also.

    As for the column you link to, I hope that Mr. Hitchens will move on from antidepressants and explore the role of ambulances in trauma deaths.

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