A friend bought me that copy of Previous Convictions when I was 17. Since then it’s been half way around the world with me. It’s battered and bruised, full of folded-down-corners and scribbled notes. It was in the rucksack I lugged across Latin America with a string of pearlescent green Mardi Gras beads and a leaky bottle of deet – hence the smudge on the cover. It’s pretty much the reason I got into travel writing. Gill’s prose has everything, and there have been times when it’s all I’ve wanted to read.
Even so, I didn’t think his death from “an embarrassment of cancer, the full English,” would hit me quite so hard. I didn’t think I’d cry, sat alone at my desk, leafing through the obituaries. A few dry sobs, and all for a vicious, “baboon murdering bastard” (his words not mine) who once told Mary Beard she was too ugly for television.
Gill wrote some things I profoundly disagreed with, things I would never defend. He could be cruel and there’s no doubt that he courted controversy, and yet I’ve forgiven him time and time again, because he’s complicated, because malice was the exception rather than the rule in his writing (his travel writing in particular), and because his prose is just too good to ignore.
Most of the time, when Gill was cutting I think it was because he cared. He clearly loved the things he wrote about. To be a good critic you have to. And when you care that deeply it’s easy to lash out if something falls short.
I’ve done the same with music. I’ve spent years listening and learning how to play it and I’m now so emotionally invested that a bad album or a lacklustre gig can sometimes feel like an affront – both a waste of time and an insult, liable to bring the thing that I love into disrepute.
And Gill’s pen was a double-edged sword. Caring so deeply meant he was also capable of great tenderness and sentimentality. Read his review of a cafe in the Jungle in Calais or his pieces on the plight of refugees in Europe and Central America, on fatherhood, even deer stalking. There’s an intensity and an emotional rawness to them that you seldom find in journalism. He was never afraid to stick his neck out or to bare his soul.
There’s more to his writing than that though. It’s inspiring for so many reasons. I’m yet to read Pour Me, his autobiography, but I’ve read the extracts that were published in the Sunday Times and one story stands out. It’s an anecdote about Peter Scupham, an English teacher at St Christopher School in Letchworth where Gill was educated. Gill describes finding Peter in the English department one night, “sitting on the floor surrounded by the dismembered corpses of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Titus Andronicus and Troilus and Cressida, all untimely ripped from thumbed and spavined school-edition Shakespeares.” Peter was tearing them up. “Once in a while you’ve just got to show them who’s boss,” he tells the young Gill, who concludes that “nothing writ is holy, not even holy writ.”
I think that explains a lot. Reading AA always feels like an education, in part because of the brilliance of his observations – to steal a phrase used by Jonathan Raban to describe John Updike, Gill was a “world-class noticer” – but also because he was irreverent and fiercely independent in his thinking. Nothing was sacred, which is surely what you want from a critic or a cultural commentator. It’s their job to put forward the other side of the argument, to expose prejudices and preconceptions, root out uncomfortable truths and give voice to things we might think but would never dare say. Who wants to live in an echo chamber of their own opinions, after all? Gill was popping “filter bubbles” before any of us knew what filter bubbles were.
Sometimes he was offensive in the process, but he was always thought-provoking. He made you see everyday things – newspapers, television, poetry, restaurants, fashion, smoking, old age – in a different light.
His writing is bursting with scholarship too, though it’s always so lightly worn and engagingly conveyed it’s hard to imagine him doing any research. He wrote as though he knew it all already, he was simply setting it down on paper.
In doing so, he made dusty subjects come alive. If you read his piece on the Battle of Towton you’ll see what I mean. It’s so vivid and so visceral. In my three years as a student of history I must have read hundreds of accounts of battles, penned by chroniclers or blood thirsty dons, but I never felt such a strong connection with the past as I did reading Gill on Towton, sat on the number 55 bus one grey day in November. I felt like I was there, in the driving snow, standing shoulder to shoulder with a battalion of peasant longbowmen, “communion wafers still stuck to the roofs of their mouths”, muscling up the 100lb of tug required to send a “willow-shafted, goose-feathered, bodkin-tipped arrow 200 yards through plate, through chain, through leather and linen and prayers, into a man’s gizzard.” Gill made it live, “the steepling hysteria, the terror, the incessant keening of the goose feathers, the thud and grunt, the screaming and pleading, the smell of shit and vomit and split gut.”
Read those last two passages again out loud. It’s poetry. The rhythm of it. You can hear how much he loves the sounds of the words and the way they feel in your mouth. He’s just writing lists of descriptions, but what lists. In Towton, in his much vaunted piece on the EU Referendum arguing in favour of remain, and in countless other articles, Gill makes list writing an art form.
And you know he’s enjoying himself as he writes, which is so much fun to read. His descriptions are beautiful and he’s playful and inventive with them too. He takes pleasure in twisting words, turning old sayings inside out and coining new ones. He subverts high concept, high art and high culture with wit and low brow humour and he’s a master of the waspish phrase – beautifully wrought sentences that come with a sting in the tail.
Then there are the in-jokes and the references he leaves for you to spot. Take his description of the school Shakespeares, the ones he catches Peter Scupham dismembering. They aren’t just ripped, they’re “untimely ripped”, like Macduff from his mother’s womb. In that piece on Stalking, he looks out over two “bible-black” lochs, a nod to Dylan Thomas.
Gill’s final piece, on cancer and the NHS, was published in the Sunday Times Magazine the day after his death and it has everything I’ve just described. It’s tender and thought-provoking and startlingly beautiful, but it’s very upsetting. Tom Craig’s photographs are even worse. Gill looks so fragile.
He says himself that, “the face of real cancer wipes our expressions to a pale neutral human,” but in those photographs it’s as though the illness has rubbed him out even further. It’s aged him whilst turning back the clock. Back to his days as a smoker with a nicotine yellow pallor to his skin, from the chemo this time, and beyond that.
One close-up is particularly striking. Gill is gazing passively at the camera. He has sunken eyes and sunken cheeks. His hand looks frail and hesitant and his index finger is pressed against his lips. It’s oddly reminiscent of a passage in one of his most controversial restaurant reviews, the one I referenced at the top of this piece, the one that opens with Gill in Tanzania gunning down a baboon.
“I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger,” he writes, but “as so often happens in life, when you stare into the magnifying glass at a profundity, it’s the prosaic and pitiful that’s reflected back. He looked much smaller dead; the elegant and nimble black fingers were terribly human, with their opposable thumbs, just a couple of stops down the Metropolitan line of evolution. I examined his fingernails with the same surprise and awe I did when my children were born.”
I met Gill once and I remember being fascinated by his hands. He carried a string of beads that he periodically shuffled through his fingers like a rosary. “I just like the feel of it,” he said. “I find it very comforting.”
I met him, though part of me wishes I hadn’t. Gill in person was nothing like Gill in print. He wasn’t the AA Gill I had in my head as I pored over his withering attacks on the eye-watering glitz and bariatric excess of Las Vegas, the AA Gill who went to Haiti in the first days of the coup against Aristide, bottled the atmosphere like a BFG trogglehumper nightmare and wrote a piece so squalid and dark and lawless it was genuinely frightening to read. My AA Gill was a Hemingway-esque hunter who stalked with a keyboard, the greatest and most original travel writer of his generation. He was tight-lipped, watchful, incisive and profound and, ok, sometimes a little bit childish, but mostly just so, so brilliant and clever. The real AA Gill was a chatty, hyperactive caricature, a man fundamentally lacking in gravitas, and that bothered me.
Margaret Attwood once wrote that, “wanting to meet an author because you like his work is like wanting to meet a duck because you like pâté.” I should have listened. Instead I went and I wrote a piece about him and I didn’t pull any punches. It’s here if you’re interested. The first draft was more brutal still. Interviewers never mention his halitosis, but I did. I even poured scorn on his claim to feel like an outsider and wondered out loud whether his time as an alcoholic was as gritty and harrowing as he liked to suggest. I had no right to, but my AA Gill had been ripped to shreds by this imposter and I was feeling vengeful. Besides, seeing him there in the midst of his West London set it was hard not to think of him as one of those contentedly-sozzled high society alcoholics, with collections of arty friends and silk dressing gowns. A modern day Sebastian Flyte perhaps, only with a happier ending.
But then some family friends read the article and some of my colleagues at the time and I felt ashamed. I couldn’t do what Gill did, couldn’t be that cutting or that honest. I didn’t have the cancerous guts for it.
I stopped reading him for a while after that. His prose just didn’t sound the same. I thought I was over him. Then a few months later (time enough to shake that meeting from my head and sink back into my delusion, to convince myself that my Gill was the real Gill after all, that the voice I’d imagined was his real voice, to realise his writing could transcend reality) my parents bought me a copy of AA Gill Is Away and that was that. Reading it, I felt the same rush of emotion (80% inspiration to 20% of the paralysing despair that comes with knowing I’ll never be his equal) I’d experienced the very first time I read him. I relapsed and I haven’t looked back. The book’s introduction, “How It Works”, became part of my travel writing creed, more corners were folded and the margins filled up with notes. Half of them just say: “Bastard. How is he this good!?”
If I could choose one phrase from this complicated eulogy to sum up how I feel about him, it would probably be that.
– Thomas Rees