AA GILL: Memories of a writer of profound, challenging and delightful idiosyncrasies
19:10 11 December 2016
The satirical, lyrical, empirical journalist AA Gill has died. In our own tribute, we republish an interview from 2005, with a new introduction by Katie Jarvis.
He will be missed.
I’m not going to describe AA Gill’s style; if you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly familiar with it first-hand. Besides which, how can you describe in words somebody’s unique use of words? Not just an oxymoronic task; more completely pointless.
Instead, I’ll briefly tell you how I met him in 2005, at Oxford Literary Festival, when his book The Angry Island – a polemic on a nation already deeply apologetic - was published. If his barbs caused discomfort to anyone born English, at least the majority of the country could take solace in not living in Stow-on-the-Wold, a town, he wrote, that: “thinks it’s a little smug Hobnob stuck in a tin of dog biscuits”.
My mission, during an interview that took place in the Green Room, was to posit the idea that this might be a teensy bit harsh. (To be fair, on rereading this, I feel Stow could have been pragmatic about the word ‘smug’ and simply felt grateful not to be a Bonio.
Stow wasn’t being the least bit pragmatic, though – the most generous responses from the affronted townsfolk put The Angry Island down to a bad bout of indigestion.)
I remember several things about the interview: AA Gill’s courtesy; his slight aloofness that didn’t equate to unfriendliness; his piercing glance; his ability to draw all eyes without intending to: even within the elevated confines of the Green Room – teeming with ‘names’ - everyone was making a beeline for Adrian.
I’m not known for being intrepid – I’m known for being trepid – so the interview wasn’t so much confrontation as exoneration. He was so funny – articulately so – that my ensuing article was accidentally venerational.
Understandably, this stance on my part further enraged the good residents of Stow – AKA ‘the worst place in the world’. One man instantly penned a letter to the Cotswold Life editor so bitter that he could only bring himself to refer to me as ‘Jarvis’ throughout.
I read AA Gill’s work regularly. Even when he caused me to throw magazines across the room, he also made me go and pick them up again. Genius? I don’t know. Fascinating? Completely.
We’ve lost a writer of profound, challenging and delightful idiosyncrasies. My deep and sincere condolences to his family.
Be afraid. Be very afraid. I’m interviewing AA Gill.
The man who said Stow-on-the-Wold was - without hyperbole, exaggeration or overstatement – “the worst place in the world”. The man who called it (and North Cotswoldians of a nervous disposition should stop reading now, or at least put their fingers in their ears and hum) “the honey-dipped b*******.”
Am I allowed to say b*******?
Well, he did.
Every week in the Sunday Times, he rips people limb from limb as a restaurant critic, television reviewer and feature writer; every week his prose is as cutting as the knife with which he carves up his ribeye steak - and served with the same dash of relish.
But this time, maybe – just maybe – he’s gone too far. For his latest venture is The Angry Island, a book that’s so devastatingly rude about the English, it makes the Parisian Olympic bid committee look like a bunch of fawning anglophiles. On the vague conceit that he himself is Scottish (though even he admits that’s a tenuous claim for someone who has spent most of his life in London), he examines them as a microbiologist might peer at a virulent germ under a microscope: “The lumpen and louty, coarse, unsubtle, beady-eyed, beefy-bummed herd of England.”
Under various chapter headings, he dissects the differing but equally unpalatable elements of this embarrassing nation – snobby voices, bullying humour, the hierarchical class system, the constant desire to say the eternally-meaningless ‘Sorry!’.
But the Cotswolds are one of the few geographical areas that merit an entire chapter to themselves. Bless them, they’ve deserved it. After all, they’re the natural home of Morris Dancers (or, to give them their technical term, living garden gnomes); they play host to Blenheim Palace – an architectural evocation of bipolar depression. And, worst of all, they’re stuffed full of countryside, a technically bankrupt wasteland of malpractice, subsidy and subsistence. Err - those are his words, not mine, by the way.
I’m not even sure I should be talking to this guy for Cotswold Life, to tell you the truth. It feels a bit like interviewing a Korean restaurateur for Puppy in My Pocket magazine.
But here he comes, all chiselled cheekbones and dapper elegance. He’s wearing a suit that cost at least £250 (I know this, because he says that’s the minimum one should spend on a suit), with a pattern that seems loosely based on black-and-white television interference. When he lifts his arms, however, it becomes apparent that the lining is inspired by something more psychotic (one of his few favourite words with more than four letters) – it’s loud: a red and yellow flag.
Conservative on the outside; madly bold and forceful within. Umm…
“Sorry,” I say to him. “I don’t know what to call you. Sorry.”
Mr Gill? AA?
It’s Adrian. Adrian Anthony.
Ah! OK, sorry.
His voice is RP English, not a hint of “See you, Jimmy” about it; his look is friendly but intense; and, surprisingly, he has a ready smile. Quite a nice one, actually. In which case, I feel emboldened to ask, does he really – really, really, really – think the Cotswolds are that bad?
“Absolutely. Yes,” he says, with a strange mix of concentrated seriousness and assumed irony. “The whole of that area has now become a TV EastEnders enclave. Woodstock! It’s like Emmerdale for TV producers. Everybody moves out to Oxford. It’s not because anybody really likes Oxfordshire or particularly wants to live in Oxfordshire, or has a connection with Oxfordshire or because Oxfordshire is a wonderful, innately beautiful, thoughtful, inspiring county. It’s because Oxfordshire has got the M40,” he says.
“There’s an innate ghastliness about weekend part-time country. And it’s not like dachas in Russia or holiday homes on Long Island. There is actually a whole pretence that it’s a real place. But I know with Oxfordshire they actually fold it up and put it away on Monday.”
Phew – what a start. Like his close friend, Jeremy Clarkson, he can go from 0-60 in four seconds; supercar-fast insults.
But, I whine, surely that’s not the Cotswolds’ fault?
No, he agrees, not the Cotswolds’ fault at all.
“Yes, it is Stow’s fault. If you could call up suicide bombers like taxis, I would have them queuing up in Stow.” Why? “It thinks it’s so wonderful.”
It’s not that he hasn’t been to some bad places, he writes in his book; places where people would sell body parts to beg on the streets of Stow. “But they are bad places because of politics, war, weather, geography and luck. And they all know they’re bad and would love to be better. What makes Stow so catastrophically ghastly is its steepling piss-yellow vanity.”
It’s replete with visiting pensioners who can remember Gracie Fields but can’t remember where they left their spectacles; of antique shops staffed by women whose husbands went bust in Lloyd’s and who left them nothing but gloomy cottages, Labradors with kidney failure and resentments the size of a cheddar cheese. And, worst of all it seems, there are stocks on the village green – mock stocks; they’re not even real.
Lest the Cotswolds should get too big for its boots here, it’s worth saying that it’s not the only place to come in for Gill’s virulence. Northumberland, for example, is full of people with very thick skulls and some really horrible bungalows; Japan is a country of collective depression where the population en masse are psychotic; Americans have moved from hardship to comfort without an intervening period of aesthetics. He has been reported to the Racial Equality and Press Complaints Commissions for his pronouncements on the Welsh.
And more. An inveterate traveller, he says, “I realised when I started writing this book that I knew more about East Africa than East Anglia. And now I have been there, I realise that was the right decision.”
But isn’t this all a touch disingenuous, I start to ask.
“Disingenuous? I never ever say things simply to get a reaction or to pull a tail; I really do mean them all. I don’t do it to be contrary,” he blusters, a touch disingenuously, I feel.
Yet this lion has a pussy cat side, too. It comes out unexpectedly, sentimentally even. It’s there when he gives the English one of those few precious compliments that (in spite of any deep hurt we might feel) we pathetically reach out to catch and hold close to our hearts. War memorials. He says we do them well; splendidly even.
Jagger’s memorial for the Royal Artillery at Hyde Park Corner; Kipling’s stark, eloquent, short, fulsome epitaph to the fallen: “The glorious dead”.
The war memorials of England are, he says, one of the half dozen single greatest national collections of cultural artefacts from the last explosively creative century.
“My dad died as the book was published. He had been in the RAF in the war; flown in bombers. I realised what I was writing about was my dad.” He stops. “I’m going to make myself cry.”
Indeed, he has written movingly of his father, the respected documentary-maker Michael Gill, who died from Alzheimer’s last October at the age of 81. In fact, it’s when he’s talking about his family that another side – an altogether softer side – of AA Gill appears. And (but don’t tell anyone) it even manifests itself towards the Cotswolds. His guilty secret is that he once loved the place.
“I’ve been coming here ever since I was a child,” he confesses. “My grandfather was a bank manager in Cheltenham. He lived on Cleeve Hill, which we used to climb; I visited often when I was young. I thought it was charming – I loved it.
“I can remember the fox hunt coming through his garden once and wrecking all his roses. He was furious – absolutely livid – but what was so funny was that he had hunting prints all over his walls; typically English.”
The voyage around AA Gill is probably the most fascinating travel journey you could undertake. It leads through a joyous childhood, including an education at the progressive St Christopher’s School in Letchworth, before dyslexia and academic failure led him to art college. “If you are training to be a drug addict, art college is a good place to go and learn in a safe environment,” he says. And that is exactly what he was training to be. A seasoned alcoholic at the age of 30, he was told by his doctor that he wouldn’t see another Christmas unless he dried out. He hasn’t touched a drop since. Journalism was his salvation. In spite of not being able to spell, he wrote his first piece for an art magazine – what was a nightmare for subs was utterly sublime for readers. “I read it the other day, and I could have written it last week,” he says. “Smug bastard came fully formed.”
This is a man who’s totally fair in his criticisms, in the sense that for every insult he offers the outside world, he awards himself double put-downs. He has lived life, he says, as an outsider; in a play where everyone but he has been handed the script. “I’ve got a Jack Russell, and I can see her watching me thinking, ‘What the **** is he doing now?’ But she has learned me as a language; my dog now speaks bark and AA Gill.
“I feel like a Jack Russell.”
He has learned ‘human’ pretty fluently. Since 1993, he has become one of the Sunday Times’s star writers. Thrice married with two children, he now lives with The Blond (style journalist and former model, Nicola Formby) in London. Which, incidentally, he says is quite plainly the only place you’d want to live in England - another reason why he simply cannot comprehend the country house lot.
“To spend your whole week working in London when it’s at its most annoying and then leave when the point of it suddenly arrives on a Friday night; I mean, if you travel to Paris or to Barcelona or to Rome, you go for the weekend. But you leave London to sit in some squalid, half-country bit of bogus rurality, having ferried your own cheese up from Tesco’s in the Cromwell Road. And then you put it all back and take it home again.
“And it’s not real countryside. Nothing happens in it. You know that everybody’s children will have allergies to pollen, and the only reason to have sheep there is to denote the middle distance. Nobody grows anything real; nobody really wants harvest time because it would mean tractors blocking the place up and mud on the roads. I’m sure there’s some ordinance forbidding you having chickens. So what you can have is an awful lot of small, unridden horses.”
There’s no getting away from it. In spite of Traflagar, Shakespeare, Chaucer, Queen Victoria, Captain Scott (and historical vanity is empty anyway, of course), we’re a nation failure. And we’re angry about it all – hence the title of the book. Angry because we feel alienated; we’re not good at relating to people or saying what we think. We’re hopeless at emotions.
“One of the most telling bits in the book to me was when I was talking to a doctor and he said that when he told English people they had cancer, they invariably made a joke. And there is a point where this is not appropriate; it isn’t a brave reaction.
“People do it at funerals; they go – we’re not going to be sad; it won’t be a sad occasion because that’s not what he would have wanted. Well, you know, actually what you have done is to have made it that there is never a time when it’s appropriate to be sad; laughter is the only conceivable reaction to everything.
“The anger comes from that whole thing of being immensely emotionally constipated. The inability to find an appropriate subtle range of reactions to emotional problems is fantastic; the inability to commit to being in love or to cope with sadness or to admit loss. The fact that you’re not allowed to be frightened. All of it is really about vulnerability. Really, any Islington psychoanalyst will tell you. An awful lot of the anger is to do with that.”
Ah! Suddenly, I see the light. Suddenly, everything is clear. Anger? Alienation?
He grins. “Is it really about me? Of course, yes. All books are about you. The minute you start writing it you realise you can’t look through any eyes other than your own.”
OK, so now we’re getting somewhere. But (and how can I say this without hacking off an entire Cotswold readership?) he’s funny; I like him tremendously.
The 64,000 dollar question is – can he return the compliment? It’s worth a try.
Before I go, I wheedle, please, please just say something nice about the Cotswolds. Just one teensy thing.
So he courteously and obligingly thinks for a second before announcing – without disingenuousness, falsity or provocativeness – “The nicest thing about the Cotswolds is that there’s not much more of them.”
Hmm. Time to invoke the Cotswold fatwah. Beware man with pitchfork.
“What,” he says, “being flicked to death by Morris Men?”
And he strides off to meet another vitriolic deadline - with a definite twinkle in his eye.