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.