Tuesday, 28 May 2024

AA Gill

The magician with words who can miraculously make the dreams and ambitions of others vanish without a trace

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The square-jawed critic Adrian Gill, 62, is most commonly known in the United Kingdom and abroad as AA Gill, or just simply AA. He’s a jolly chatterbox in person but this never seems to detract from his mystique. He’s achieved a level of success that few are capable of, using a couple of regular slots in the newspaper to turn himself into that most venerated of beasts: a national institution. Although his unsparingly forthright work has generated enemies such as Gordon Ramsay, monkey lovers and the entire population of Wales, he’s a surprisingly sentimental figure with a weakness for worry beads. Unusual for such an amazing writer, AA suffers from severe dyslexia and composes his fearsome, clear-sighted reviews over the phone to an editor.

From Fantastic Man n° 24 — 2016
Photography by PAUL WETHERELL

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One of Adrian Anthony Gill’s favourite words is “insouciant”, meaning carefree or unconcerned. It crops up in his writing and his conversation, whether he’s describing someone’s breezy way of walking, a foreign correspondent’s coolness under fire, or the casual way a young doctor told him he was an alcoholic in 1984.

It’s a word that sums up how British readers have regarded AA for more than 20 years, since his weekly restaurant and television reviews began appearing in ‘The Sunday Times’: as a debonair playboy, a scornful, super-confident, boarding-school toff who divides his easy life between appearing with his long-term girlfriend Nicola Formby at charity events, toying with the venison ragu at Quo Vadis, and lying on a chaise longue at his fashionable home in London’s Fulham Road, watching new TV shows in order to eviscerate them in his column two days later and destroy the reputation of the producer, director and presenter.

It’s quite rare for a restaurant reviewer or a TV critic to be feted as a significant voice in British culture: finding fault with haute cuisine or assessing the quality of last week’s output on the idiot lantern has seldom been the seedbed of outstanding journalism. But even AA’s critics would agree that his award-winning prose is exceptional: cocky, strutting, polyadjectival, snarky, confrontational as a headbutt, displaying a Chandleresque way with similes (“The squid resembled something sent through the post to hasten a ransom demand”) and often explosively funny.

A critical rocket from AA is enough to make a restaurant rethink its menu, if not actually close down. And when his travel writing takes him to war zones, or regions of drought or epidemic, he can evoke the wretchedness of human suffering with a precision that’s all the more moving for being unemotional, tear-drawingly matter-of-fact. Insouciant even. The cover photograph of his second collection of travel pieces, ‘AA Gill is Further Away’, shows his face half-obscured by goggles and a balaclava while some Arctic snowflakes are silting up his eyebrows. “Look,” his eyes say, “I’m not just a boulevardier or a dilettante. I go to mad extremes for the sake of my calling.” But he still manages to look like some cool dude modelling snow parkas for The North Face.

He has a small army of detractors. Those include journalists who cannot stand his arrogant self-belief or the colossal stipend he pulls in (£250,000? £300,000?) for his weekly columns. They also obviously include restaurateurs, not just for his adverse opinions but for his habit of spending most of his column writing about anything except their food, décor and service. And there are animal lovers (of which more later), along with exasperated acquaintances. “This is the thing about Adrian. You feel he’s opening up, you feel you’re getting to know him, but there is this bunker inside that you will never penetrate,” wrote the doyenne of interviewers, Lynn Barber, who also disparages his fondness for scatalogical chat: “There is a primitive, unreconstructed schoolboy in him, who likes jokes about farts and poo and ladies’ rude bits.”

It seems a curious false note for such a sophisticate, but then AA is full of contradictions. It amazes people that, from childhood, this prodigiously talented wordsmith has been severely dyslexic, and files his weekly reviews by phone to a copytaker at ‘The Sunday Times’. It also astonishes people that AA is a recovering alcoholic who had to stop drinking at the age of 30, for fear of not making it to 31. Could the suave lounge lizard AA ever have been the guy who stood up in an AA meeting and told a roomful of sad-eyed wet-brains he was one of them?

The man who strides into the Colbert restaurant in Sloane Square doesn’t seem to have much wrong with him. It’s AA Gill firing on all cylinders. He looks like a 1950s film star in a soft brown trilby and look-at-me sunglasses, a pastel cravat tucked into his white shirt. He has the lazy smile of the permanently indulged – someone for whom restaurant tables and theatre seats are always available, whose name is always on the list, whose attention is always craved by the not-quite-famous-enough. He gives me a hug and talks about this morning’s project: a famous jeweller has created a line of gold nut-and-bolt cuff-links, and AA has gone one better by popping into Farmer Brothers, the hardware store, to buy a pair of real-life brass nuts and bolts which he’s now threading through his cuffs. He’s quite a dandy: there’s a papal intaglio ring on his little finger, the gem engraved with the image of an owl. He plays with worry beads, specially made for him by an Afghan refugee called Abdul: “I find the beads all over the world. These are turquoise, from Bhutan, so they’re Buddhist.” And the lump of metal at the end, shrouded in gold? “That’s a piece of meteorite, a birthday present from Nicola.”

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Despite being such a prodigiously talented wordsmith, AA struggles with severe dyslexia.

Nicola Formby, known to readers of his reviews as The Blonde, is a South African former model and food consultant for Itsu and Pret a Manger. It was she who recently organised AA’s birthday bash in Barnes at Riva, a good but old-fashioned Italian trattoria where AA has eaten twice a week for over 15 years. Of all the places in England he could choose to eat in, why there? “It has all the things I love about restaurants: it’s got a restaurateur who’s there every single day, the menu is his, he employs chefs to cook the food he likes from his childhood, the staff never change, he’s invested in his local community… The whole thing is about what food is about, which is an allegory and metaphor for life.”

Allegory and metaphor salt and pepper his conversation, just as they glow in the pages of his recent memoir ‘Pour Me: A Life’, a startlingly frank winding-back of the years to when he was drinking “a bottle of Scotch, half a dozen cans of Special Brew and then five or six or twelve pints in the pub” every day; when he needed to use a towel as a pulley to winch the first morning glass of whisky to his mouth without breaking his teeth in the process; when he lay in bed with delirium tremens, staring at the giant hairy spiders hanging on the ceiling, about to fall on his face; when his skin became covered in scabby flakes and he burst the blood vessels in his jaundiced eyeballs; when he “prayed like a self-mortifying hermit for terminal cancer.”

From that horrific (and sobering) starting point, AA set out to explore his childhood depression: an inexplicable angst that lurked beneath his youth like a troll under a bridge and saddled him with dyslexia, dim-wittedness, feelings of inadequacy and a terrible stammer. He also wanted to investigate the lost years of his twenties, when he was married to his first wife, Cressida Connolly, and trying to become an artist.

To those who assume he swanned straight from university to a writing job, it is startling to find that he has no degree, left school without passing any exams, and has worked as a waiter, a cook, a gardener, a shop assistant, a nanny, a painter and decorator, a warehouseman, a male model, a porn-shop manager and a porn movie director. He says he “failed into journalism,” starting in his mid-30s with “art reviews for little magazines,” and was good at it precisely because of the crazy prodigality of his experience at the University of Life. “I had just done, been and seen a lot more than most other young style writers and opinionators, and not writing had made me talk, and that talking had given me a long vocabulary and a more acute ear for rhythm.” His first serious magazine piece was a feature on his detoxing, published (under a nom de plume) in ‘Tatler’ in 1991 when he was 37. He started writing for ‘The Sunday Times’ in 1993, when he was 39 – a pretty late start for a journalist.

His parents bulk large in his reminiscences of growing up in a house in Stanmore, a Nowheresville in Middlesex, and then in a flat in Kensington. They were paradigmatic figures in a new world of 1960s Boho-media. His father, Michael Gill, was a journalist who served in the RAF and went on to produce some excellent documentaries for the BBC, especially ‘Civilisation’ with Kenneth Clark. A high achiever, he looked askance at his feckless elder son. “We had a bad period for a couple of years when I was 16, 17,” says AA. “I felt I was a disappointment to him. There was always a dying fall in his voice. ‘Oh well done, Adrian, I’m sure you did your best…’ Achievement had been part of his life. His father had been the first middle-class member of his family, and university was enormously important to him. I remember him saying, ‘Why don’t you go to California and sell T-shirts on the beach?’ I took it as, ‘Why don’t you just take yourself off and fucking give up?’” AA is clearly pained by the memory, and insists that, when he later told his father how much he’d been made to feel a failure, his father was shocked.

AA’s mother, Yvonne, was an actress. “She’d been a success in Edinburgh as an ingénue at the end of the war,” says AA. “Then she got married and had me and Nick, stopped acting to bring us up, and went back to it in order to afford the school fees.” She appeared in crime dramas (‘Z Cars’, ‘Dixon of Dock Green’), played Eric Liddell’s mother in ‘Chariots of Fire’ and is celebrated by fans of ‘Fawlty Towers’ for her role as Mme. Peignoir, the seductive Frenchwoman in the ‘Wedding Party’ episode who flirts with Basil (“Ah weel be sleeping au naturel tonight…”). “She went back to acting in the fringe theatre which, in 1970s London, was an amazing scene,” AA recalls. “All the great new directors were working at the Bush, the Hampstead, the Half Moon in Aldgate. She embraced it all hugely, along with the new feminist movement. She performed Brecht to prisoners in Holloway and made feminist films at women’s retreats in Wales.”

Was she ever at home? “Oh yes. The house was always full of itinerant, homeless actors, directors and designers, most of them shagging the furniture and each other, smoking lots of dope, sitting around our kitchen table eating Elizabeth David food and drinking tons of cheap white wine. My dad would come back from the BBC with colleagues. You’d walk in and see Alistair Cooke in the sitting room, or John Berger lying on the lawn. My friends all loved coming back to my house because it was very exotic.”

At the age of nine, AA appeared in a short film written by his mother and directed by his father, with a voiceover by Peter Ustinov. It was called ‘The Peaches’, and AA had a non-speaking part as the Bespectacled Chess Player.

Did it give him a yearning to act? “Yes, but by the time I was 17, I was drinking so much… I knew that I couldn’t learn lines and I couldn’t go onstage drunk. Everybody I knew went onstage pissed all the time, but they all told me, ‘Don’t do it drunk.’” AA says he would have liked to go into film-making, but his father never encouraged him, even when he’d set up his own film company. “I’m pleased that I was left no money, given no leg-up, never became part of a business, all those middle-class ways your friends get help with their first house, or your granny leaves you ten grand. My father left me some very nice pictures, little English watercolours that we used to buy together, and I love them more than anything. Dad never did a particular thing for me, but he gave me books and museums and history. He gave me the Romantics – his two guiding lights were Turner and Byron.”

He tells a poignant story about Christmas gifts. “Every year, he would buy me a warm waterproof coat from Harrods, because he thought I’d end up sleeping on park benches. I’d go round on Christmas Eve to get my present. He’d leave the receipt in the pocket. I’d get it at 4.30pm and leg it to Harrods, up to the top floor, where they’d give you cash refunds, then downstairs to the basement to get a case of whisky. That would be my Christmas.”

One reason he might have found acting difficult was a stammer that he had developed, possibly as a nervous reaction to all the chatter and thespian fluency around him. To compound this disability, he was diagnosed as dyslexic and sent to a progressive, co-educational boarding school – St. Christopher School in Letchworth Garden City, Hertfordshire – where they promised to cure it. They didn’t – but from being a backward, lonesome failure, AA blossomed into someone else. As he describes it in ‘Pour Me: A Life’, he decided one dreary Sunday to stop being a victim and become someone else. But who?

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“I didn’t think, ‘Right, I’m going to be Simon Templar.’” he tells me, in reference to the buccaneering, Robin Hoodesque hero of Leslie Charteris’ ‘The Saint’ novels. “I just decided who I wasn’t going to be. I wasn’t going to be that bullied, insecure, weedy, stammering, snotty git any more.” Amazingly it worked. Within a term, his stammer disappeared. He became popular. And crucially, he discovered girls and how much he liked being around them.

AA goes off into blissful raptures of remembrance: “I can remember clearly the first two or three serious, proper, frotting snogs with girls, just the immense sense of release,” he says very slowly, as if savouring the moment. “It was unlike anything else. It wasn’t the pleasure of sex, which came later. It’s that I’d never made such connections with other humans before. Until then, I’d spent most of my time with boys, but I wasn’t good at being boyish. And I suddenly found a way to connect with people that didn’t involve kicking cans, sitting on walls, spitting or playing sport. People think that all boys want one thing. If you’re my sort of boy, you want three or four dozen things – esoteric, ethereal, emotional and cultural things.”

Yes, yes, fascinating. But what about his first kiss? “It was a girl I fancied beyond speech. She was incredibly beautiful, with brown eyes, and very Jewish, clever, funny, sad and sexy. She would sit in the common room in our house at school and play the ‘Moonlight Sonata’, and I’d sit there listening to her, churning with lust. One day she finished playing, turned round and took my face in her hands and kissed me. And I’ve been indebted to Beethoven ever since.”

AA laughs heartily at his good fortune. He’s a handsome chap with a very square chin, inherited from his mother. His hair has receded back to the crown and is brushed very flat, making his face an almost-perfect rectangle, like a television set turned on its side. His pale blue eyes regularly brim with tears when talking about his father or his children: he has nine-year-old twins, Edith and Isaac, by Nicola Formby and two grown-up children, Flora and Alasdair, by Amber Rudd, his second wife, a Conservative MP who earlier this year became the British Home Secretary.

You wonder: can this fond, laughing, dandyish, rather sentimental, even vulnerable man be the guy who’s upset so many people over the years by his heartless vituperations in print? Such as Clare Balding, the TV sports presenter whom he called a “dyke on a bike,” and was chastised for doing so by the Press Complaints Commission, who investigated no fewer than 62 complaints against AA in five years? Or Mary Beard, the classics professor, of whose appearance as presenter of ‘Meet the Romans’ in 2012 AA said, “She should be kept away from cameras altogether.” Or the inhabitants of the Isle of Man, about whom he claimed: “They’re exempt from open borders and EU immigration, their money isn’t good anywhere else, and only reluctantly and recently have they been forced to give up public flogging and hunting homosexuals with dogs.” Or the Welsh: “Loquacious, dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls.” Or anyone who thinks monkeys are sweet almost-humans. In 2009, AA informed readers that he’d shot a baboon just to see what it might be like to kill someone. His report was so studiedly heartless (“I shot a baboon in Africa, last Wednesday, just after lunch. Shot it dead.”), AA seemed desperate to upset the animal-rights lobby, and did so.

“I always put my hands up and say I was wrong about Clare Balding,” he says. “I shouldn’t have written that. My only caveat is that it was a positive review, about how good she is as a TV presenter. With Mary Beard, I meant to say that when you appear on TV, how you appear is important. It wasn’t that she was ugly, she just looked very bizarre and had a childish sense of primary colours, and when you’re trying to look at ruins, the clothes get in the way. But I would say, happily, that she’s got a lot better dressed since I wrote it,” he adds, smiling, as if to say, “I won that round.” And the baboon? “I only went on a shooting safari once. I go stalking in Scotland and to safaris in Zimbabwe, but not with guns. I take the kids. I love watching birds, especially in Africa. I’ve just started doing it with the little kids; sharing binoculars with a nine-year-old is such fun.”

“Adrian is lovely to have on safari,” says Christine, who owns a safari park in Botswana, “because he does all the talking. Everyone else listens and learns. He has such a breadth of knowledge about African politics, African flora and fauna, African trivia. He’s interested in everything. And he dresses impeccably. He’s the only person I know with a proper safari wardrobe.”

His forays into war zones are more problematic; it’s hard enough working alongside Médecins Sans Frontières or playing at being a war correspondent without the additional hardship that you can’t take notes because of dyslexia. Why is he drawn to doing stories about refugees? “I think it’s something to do with boarding school,” he says. “I see something in refugees that I identify with – a sense that boarding school is a version manqué of being a refugee. And, as with boarding school, everyone around you is a refugee. We’re all in the same sinking boat.”

But what’s his role among them? A healer? A superhero? A bringer of First World sympathy? “No!” says AA vehemently. “I’m a journalist. I have to stop myself crying when I hear the worst things you’ve ever heard. I have to go round the corner, punch myself in the face and say, ‘Fucking grow up,’ because the one thing a refugee camp doesn’t need is any more tears. It’s the only thing they’ve got enough of. Tears are mawkish, sentimental and ultimately self-pitying, and they deserve better than that. I’m aware that I can’t offer a phoney friendship, or a sense of fellow-travelling camaraderie, but I can re-tell their stories. So essentially, I’m an amanuensis.”

When he’s been in war zones, how close to danger has he come? “I was in Iraq with Jeremy Clarkson,” he says. “We were in a Lynx helicopter – very small and very fast and with open sides, so you sit with your feet dangling out. There were the two of us, a couple of pilots, a photographer and a machine-gunner, standing up, strapped in. We were flying into Basra. Beside my head by the open door were pods which fire phosphorus rockets to distract heat-seeking missiles. Suddenly, they all went off together. They make a deafening noise: ‘JEDDDD-ed-ed-ed-ed-ed-ed.’ We were all wearing headphones, so I could hear the captain and his assistant talking in that military tone of restrained terror, and they flung the helicopter to the ground and the co-pilot’s reading the altitude “800 feet. 700. 600. 500. 400. 300. 200…and 20 seconds later he’s flying back up, saying, ‘Everything all right in the back there? Anyone see what that was?’ The machine-gunner said, ‘I saw a flash – somebody fired a missile at us.’ That was as close as I came. It occurred to me that, if Clarkson and I had died, I’d have come second in the obituary billing.”

Even when it comes to the safer business of restaurant reviewing, he claims never to get bored. “I’m never…not excited about a menu,” says AA. “It’s like being able to read music. I can hum this menu. I can tell exactly who the chef is, what his capabilities are, what the owner wants to make of the place, the people he thinks he’ll get in. I know he thinks he can roll this out into 20 restaurants in five years. I know all of it simply by looking at this list. But once in a while you go ‘Ooh!’ Last night, for instance, I took Anthony Bourdain to Quo Vadis, where I know the menu well, but last night they had ox liver! I was thrilled. I can’t remember the last time I was offered ox liver. That taste! We’re so used to calf’s liver, that rather bland texture. Anthony said, ‘He’s made it alla Veneziana, with onions,’ and it was delicious. That only has to happen once a month.”

What does the future hold for AA? “The next book I’m going to write is about criticism, its nature and purpose and point. I want to ask, ‘Why criticise? Why be a critic? Why are some of us critics, while others just have opinions? Because being a critic is not just about having an opinion. It’s another thing. When people say, as they have said, ‘We’ve all got arseholes; what makes yours better than mine?’ I say, ‘I’m good at this, and you’re not.’” He takes a reflective sip of coffee. “I might start the book with Duchamp’s ‘Fountain’ (the upside-down porcelain urinal which Duchamp exhibited as a work of art in 1917), with which, people say, he created modern or conceptual art. But it was more than that. He frequented hardware shops and saw things there in a new context. He took an object from one shop and put it in the other shop – and in doing so he created the art gallery! I think that’s a good beginning to the book, don’t you?”

Ah, the insouciance of it. AA Gill is a clever man who has, by his own admission, taken on a number of personae to survive: the school Casanova; the post-rehab foodie and father; the sprung-from-nowhere confident journalist; the dandy. “Over the years,” he writes in ‘Pour Me: A Life’, “I’ve method-acted some sort of learnt, English version of human. I can do it convincingly so that people are surprised to find that I’m not a native.” He says he still feels worry and anxiety lurking in the shadows of his apparently charmed life, but they’re small-scale. “My daughter Flore phones me in the morning and says, ‘Dad, I got 17 missed calls from you last night.’ I say, ‘I just didn’t know where you were.’ And she’s 25!” Did writing the book help to explain the depression that’s dogged him for 60 years? “No. But whatever the answer was, I’d be disappointed in it. Anything that didn’t involve Thor’s hammer and the parting of the seas would be less than I deserve.”


Photographic assistance by Chris Miller and Sam Wilson. Styling assistance by John Handford. Grooming by Michael Harding. Retouching by Tablet Retouch.