Few people use their inherent hatred and venom as intelligently and entertainingly as A. A. Gill. A food critic, travel writer and columnist for various publications, including the Tatler, GQ and The Sunday Times, Gill’s scathingly outrageous commentary landed him in a lot of trouble and conversely, won him plenty of prizes as well. Gill’s career as a journalist was an accident; dyslexic and unable to write legibly, it was the last thing anybody expected of him, least of all he himself. He tried for years to make a go as an artist even as he struggled with alcoholism. He wrote in his memoir: “I failed into journalism… Those who can’t do, teach, but those who can’t even teach P.E., report, and those who can’t report, write columns.” Perversely, it was art that turned Gill into a writer and put him off art forever – his first gig was as an art critic in the 1980s, where his editor assured him that dyslexia was not a problem as there were people who could do the typing for him. So he started writing “terrible criticism”, as he called it, that proved useful as it improved his speed, which is essential to journalism and something we all wish we had. He then moved on to the Tatler where he found his voice and took this voice to The Sunday Times where he started writing a regular column.
The apparent malice, while hugely entertaining, is also effective, for it flings in your face the realities that others might gloss over
For me, Gill was only someone whose name I’d read in the by-line of articles in Vanity Fair. I never read these, to be honest and then I came across his travel writing quite by accident. It was a list, as so much of what we read nowadays is – a list of the best travel writings and it quoted from his book A. A. Gill is away. As someone who spent the best part of their literature degree taking apart the role that places play in fiction, I was intrigued and the passage that the list quoted was enough to hook even the uninterested. Describing the Kalahari, Gill writes: “It wants you dead. In the Kalahari the only good tourist is an ex-tourist and there are plenty of good old boys that could do plenty with your corpse. Apart from all the usual Attenborough things that are waiting to mug you, there are hordes of ingenious little fellows eager to turn you into a resource… everything has a unique and ingenious and unambiguous way of telling you to sod off. Forget all that slow-motion-sunset in-touch-with-your-spirit Van der Post nonsense. There is no romance here. The Kalahari is an amoral, unregulated market force, a pure vicious capitalism practiced by professionals. I love it here. I love it as the last truly honest place on earth.”
So the Kalahari was responsible for my undousable fascination with Gill.
His mention of Attenborough is rather fitting. Gill’s description could not be more different for the old journalist’s careful and academic details about what he observed. The former writes with a sweep that is all-encompassing in its ability to annoy people with its thorough mockery of everything they hold sacred. According to The Sunday Times, the Press Complaints Commission received 62 complaints about him between 2005 and 2010 alone (none of which was upheld). But Gill – not for the sensitive or easily offended – does not write to offend or just to be contrary. The apparent malice, while hugely entertaining, is also effective, for it flings in your face the realities that others might gloss over and leaves little room to hide or ignore.
Not mincing words, his writings on Africa address the reader directly, angrily asking for an answer, throwing every individual’s apathy in their face. One piece on Uganda, after describing the horrors of medical care, turns the finger towards the audience: “Feeling a little hot under the collar yet?” it asks, “You see it’s not just the sleeping sickness, it’s all of what is known jauntily as tropical medicine. You don’t have to be a graduate of the Boston Medical School to know that most of the illness in the world is in the south and most of the medicine is in the north world. There is more money spent researching a cure for baldness than all tropical diseases.”
He ends the piece with the wish that he has made his audience angry, since that is the last hope for Africa and people who have no access to healthcare. In his last article, published a day after he passed away, he raises the same question about the British National Health Service. He chose the NHS instead of private medical care as a show of solidarity with his countrymen and the treatment that could have prolonged his life in the face of advanced lung cancer was not available on the system because of its high costs.
It is impossible to go through the entirety of Gill’s oeuvre without being offended at something. But the fits of laughter that accompany the discovery of your own weaknesses more than make up for his sometimes annoying ability to home in on your worst failings, plus the sympathy one might feel for people he specifically insults (I’m looking at you Priyanka Chopra) reinforces the feeling of having been let off easy. It might also have something to do with the fact that he mocks himself more often and more openly than he does anybody else. In such a vein, in the foreword to Table Talk, the collection of his best restaurant reviews he reflects on his role as the critic: “There is something odd, something obsessive, something a touch neurotic about wanting to be a critic, wanting to pull the legs off delicate bits of fun. It certainly isn’t a necessary part of culture life. I don’t think critics feel things more intensely or on another level.”
Not one to shy away from reflecting upon his own weaknesses, Gill’s published his memoir on alcoholism “Pour me. A life” in 2015. It reveals his struggles with alcohol and drug abuse, to the point that he developed alcohol gastritis, where he would be puking his guts out every morning and was one of the 10% of alcoholics whose problems are compounded with delirium. It is in this context that he acknowledged his luck at having lived this long despite the errors of his youth. His self-deprecation and commitment to the truth as he saw it are what have endeared him to so much of the public and it is because of these that he will be sorely missed. His articles are spread all over the interwebs and can be accessed by all. Personally, I would recommend reading his “interviews of places” as he called them, whether you are about to visit said places or even if you are not (especially his take on Dubai). You might just die laughing.