AA Gill is Away

A complicated eulogy

A photo posted by Thoms Rees (@thomasnrees) on

 

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.   Read On…

We Made It: Watchmaker Roger W Smith

The world-leading horologist keeping British watchmaking alive, crafting exquisite timepieces by hand

Long before the Swiss came to dominate the watchmaking world British horologists were leading the way, grappling with miniscule screws and the vagaries of time. In the eyes of many collectors and aficionados they still are, thanks to Roger Smith, who spurns quartz crystals and mass production techniques to make his exquisitely crafted mechanical timepieces almost completely by hand. Read my interview with Roger on theartsdesk.com

— Thomas Rees

— Photo courtesy of Roger W Smith Watches

Meeting AA Gill

He’s the UK’s most notorious restaurant critic and a venerated travel writer. He’s also one of my heroes. Or, at least, he was…

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People look at me strangely when I tell them I like AA Gill. My housemate brought me to account when she found a copy of Previous Convictions lying on the table and I instantly regretted bringing him up over a pint of mild with my uncle in a tired old pub in County Conwy. “AA Gill! No, he doesn’t have anything to say about the Welsh does he?” Actually he called them ‘loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls’. Oh right, you were being sarcastic.

It’s not a rose tinted hero worship. I freely admit that he’s an obnoxious self-publicist. I know about the Press Complaints Commission investigations and the accusations of racism, misogyny and homophobia, but I can’t help myself. His prose is just too good.

I’m pretty sure it’s not just me. He’s reported to be the most highly paid columnist in the UK and the dust jackets of his books like to claim he’s one of the most widely read in Britain. But if you’re a fan, do yourself a favour: don’t meet him. I did, and part of me wishes I hadn’t.

It was at a talk at the Idler Academy in West London, a bookshop full of luvvy luvvy types with dishevelled hair and ill-fitting moleskin trousers. We drank Hendrick’s gin and tonics out of patterned teacups and then moved down the road to St Stephen’s Church to hear Gill in conversation with John Mitchinson, inventor of QI.

Gill offered various contradictory opinions about the nature and purpose of criticism, sidestepped a question about the moral implications of writing for Murdoch’s Sunday Times, and forgot things – an impressive number of things for someone who once claimed, in an article about Glastonbury, that he doesn’t make notes and that his memory has never let him down.

But as I joined the queue for the book signing, that wasn’t what was bothering me. It wasn’t his appearance (he’s as formidably well-dressed as everyone says he is) or the fact that he’s shorter and more vulnerable-looking than you’d expect. It’s not that he’s an ogre. Quite the opposite. When I asked him if he had any tips for young writers he looked at me with fatherly concern and he thanked me profusely when I recommended places for him to visit on a trip to Bogotá. It’s his manner and his voice that’s the problem. They just don’t fit.

On paper Gill is a voice of authority. He’s irreverent and dryly humorous, a master of the put down and the send up, of crude but ingenious innuendo and biting satire. He’s erudite and fiercely intelligent with his observations, yet he still sounds like a man of the people, as well versed in popular culture as he is in ancient history and contemporary art. He can be tender (read his pieces on fatherhood), but it’s rare for him to be excessively sentimental. More often than not he sounds worldly and at times a little jaded. His travel pieces read like the work of a man who’s seen it all and, every so often, like the internal monologue of a hatchet-wielding cynic.

But Gill in person is none of those things. He’s a chirpy, hyperactive caricature, full of “darling”s and theatrical bluster; a man fundamentally lacking in gravitas. He talks too much for someone whose job it is to watch and to listen and he does so in a reedy tenor that’s hammy and affectedly posh. It’s not the voice I had in my head as I read his withering attacks on the idiocy of golf or the trashy, eye-watering glitz and bariatric excess of Las Vegas. It’s a drastic mismatch.

None of this would matter if his writing still sounded the same, but it doesn’t. Now that I’ve met him there’s a new voice in my head, not the voice of a sharp tongued observer, a dealer in universal truths and shrewd insights, but that of a pantomime villain. It’s Gill’s real voice and it makes his prose sound kitsch and over the top. His judgements seem less weighty and the smutty innuendo reads less like a man dragging lofty, joyless subjects down into the mud and more like the work of a sniggering school boy. He’s still head and shoulders above most other journalists, but I think it might be time to find a new literary hero. To find one and to avoid meeting them at all costs.

– Thomas Rees

Postscript: Suffice to say I’ve changed my mind somewhat since writing this. Here’s my tribute to Gill, following his death in 2016.

Review: Hidden Kingdoms “Under Open Skies”

Visually stunning but otherwise a mixed picture, Thomas Rees reviews the first episode of the BBC’s flagship natural history programme

Hidden Kingdoms (BBC NHU)

Billed as ‘Pixar meets Life‘, Hidden Kingdoms is natural history with a difference. It’s a documentary of sorts, but one in which smaller creatures, from rhinoceros beetles to marmosets, play the starring roles. The emphasis is on filming at close quarters and seeing the world through the eyes of the programme’s diminutive subjects. Sweeping panoramas are few and far between. Prowling lions and elephants have little more than cameo appearances.

Read the rest of this article at wanderlust.co.uk

Recipe: Beetroot Dip with Sheep’s Cheese and Toasted Walnuts

Recipe: Beetroot Dip with Sheep’s Cheese and Toasted Walnuts

In the past couple of years I’ve become a serious beetroot convert. I’m not talking about the pickled stuff in jars which I dreaded as a child, but about fresh roots with their wonderful earthy sweetness and autumnal aroma. Raw, beetroot makes a superb accompaniment to beef, particularly when paired with celeriac and a vinaigrette thick with dijon mustard, and it is among my favourite additions to a green salad. It is equally delicious boiled or roasted but this serves to accentuated the sweetness of the root so its even more important to pair it with something sharp or salty for contrast. This recipe is based on an exquisite beetroot and feta dip I ate at Sam and Sam Clark’s tapas bar Morito about a year ago. The walnuts and the tangy sheep’s cheese in my version temper the sweetness of the beetroot while the lemon juice and the parsley add freshness to the finished dish. Thickly spread onto slices of rye bread it’s a joy to eat and somehow all the more enjoyable for the way it stains your mouth and your fingertips.

In the past couple of years I’ve become a serious beetroot convert. I’m not talking about the pickled stuff in jars which I dreaded as a child, but about fresh roots with their wonderful earthy sweetness and autumnal aroma. Raw, beetroot makes a superb accompaniment to beef, particularly when paired with celeriac and a vinaigrette thick with dijon mustard, and it is among my favourite additions to a green salad. It is equally delicious boiled or roasted but this serves to accentuated the sweetness of the root so its even more important to pair it with something sharp or salty for contrast. This recipe is based on an exquisite beetroot and feta dip I ate at Sam and Sam Clark’s tapas bar Morito about a year ago. The walnuts and the tangy sheep’s cheese in my version temper the sweetness of the beetroot while the lemon juice and the parsley add freshness to the finished dish. Thickly spread onto slices of rye bread it’s a joy to eat and somehow all the more enjoyable for the way it stains your mouth and your fingertips.

Ingredients:

For the dip:

250g of beetroot

2 tbsp of natural yogurt

2 tsp of tahini

Juice of half a lemon

1 tbsp of extra virgin olive oil

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

To garnish:

50g sheep’s cheese, thinly sliced. I’m using a local ewe’s milk cheese called Sarsden but any hard sheep’s cheese would do. Feta works similarly well.

25g of walnuts

A handful of parsley, roughly chopped

Preparation:

Wash the beetroots and boil them in their skins until tender. This can take anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour depending on their size. Drain, and when cool enough to handle, top and tail them and rub off the skins (this is easiest done under running water).

Add the peeled roots to a blender along with all the other ingredients for the dip and blend until smooth. Season to taste and add a little more yogurt, tahini or lemon juice if you think it needs it. Spoon into a serving bowl.

Toast the walnuts in a dry pan to intensify their flavour then scatter them over the dip followed by the sheep’s cheese and the parsley. Serve with rye bread.

– Thomas Rees