AA Gill interviewby Diana Wichtel
Britain’s most notorious restaurant critic is one of the stars of the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, which runs May 11-15.
Most interviews with AA Gill seem to take place somewhere intimidating. Often it’s the dining room of his beloved hang-out, the Wolseley in London’s Piccadilly. Nervous fellow journalists, acutely aware they are not in his league because almost no one is, are despatched to watch him toy with a croissant and catch the astringent aphorisms as they fall from lips that, in his writing, seem set in a perpetual cruel and wintry smile.
Gill writes about food, television and travel with a Ninja precision that produces some of the most lethal similes in the history of his art. If you want to know which food tastes of “chewing a suicide’s armpit” (cuttlefish sushi, apparently), he’s your man.
Food writers have been known to send a dish back. Few have the pathologically high awkwardness threshold to do so at a dinner party. The wretched hostess’s “vomitous” lentil bake made an excellent column. “The article had the desired effect,” he wrote happily. “I haven’t been invited to a dinner party since.”
Gill is the master of the emetic food description. Take this, from Vanity Fair, of a foie gras served by iconic Paris bistro L’Ami Louis: “The liver crumbles under the knife like plumber’s putty and tastes faintly of gut-scented butter or pressed liposuction.” On to the broiled kidneys.
Similarly pitiless about places, he may have to think twice before setting foot again in Albania, Dubai, Norfolk … Socially, he and his partner, former model Nicola Formby, “the Blonde” in his restaurant columns, have been described as terrifying. Gill once shot a harmless baboon.
So it’s almost a relief that our conversation, before his visit here for the Auckland Writers & Readers Festival, is by phone. Formby, who arranges the interview, turns out to be very pleasant. And Adrian Anthony Gill is possibly the nicest dyslexic, recovering alcoholic, reluctant Christian and irreverent polemicist you will meet. He requested I call at midnight, his time. Why not? He so regularly draws blood, it makes sense he would have the circadian rhythms of a vampire.
“Ha. Well, I’m quite used to keeping Australian hours because I have to file once a month to Sydney,” he says. He’s referring to his columns for Australian Gourmet Traveller, some of which are collected in his new book Here and There.
Couldn’t he just hit “send” at a civilised hour like anyone else? No. Gill’s dyslexia means he dictates his work. No spell-check can handle his wild spelling. Never mind. Reading aloud late at night is good for the rhythm and good for the soul. “I’m sitting in the dark and somehow the words are going out into the light and they have this warm existence somewhere else. I find that very liberating.”
You wonder how those who take down his copy manage without recourse to sedatives sometimes. There was the Norfolk piece, where he wrote that the place lives up to stereotypes of “weird, web-footed, dribbling, six-fingered, sister-shaggers”. “Oh god, they loathe me,” says Gill.
His review of L’Ami Louis – “The cramped tables are set with labially pink cloths, which give it a colonic appearance …” – manages the appalling feat of being, in a single sentence, both scatological and gynaecological. “Well,” says Gill brightly, “they are the two holy grails of restaurant and food description.” He can’t be doing with foodie-isms. “All that restaurant language of ‘succulent’ and ‘nestled’ and ‘drizzled’ … It’s very difficult to write that with a straight face. Or at all, really.”
You have to wonder what he will make of us. Should we be afraid? “Oh no,” he says. “I hope not.” He did write that the laksa at Peter Gordon’s new London restaurant tasted like “boiled Lego”. “Oh yes, poor Peter Gordon,” he says unrepentantly. “The thing about Peter Gordon is he’s a better cook than he is a restaurateur. He’s certainly more intelligent and committed to food than his restaurants necessarily taste. He’s definitely on the side of the angels.” He can’t resist a final withering accolade: “He isn’t Starbucks.”
Oh dear. He wouldn’t be so funny if he wasn’t so cruel. “I’m surprised at the reputation I have for being unkind or savage. I don’t really know what ‘savage’ is, but I always get it.” This has him recalling that Robbie Burns line about having the gift to see ourselves as others see us. “It’s not how I see myself,” he says. How does he see himself? “Firm but fair, I think.”
On the plus side, we come recommended. “One of my great friends has said New Zealand is his favourite place.” That would be Top Gear’s Jeremy Clarkson? “Yeah, it was Jeremy. The two places he said were his favourite were Iceland and New Zealand.” Gill loves Iceland (see a cracker piece in his other new collection, AA Gill Is Further Away). “So I trust his recommendation about that, if not much else.”
Clarkson has been in the gossip columns amid speculation that it’s more than the scenery he’s been enjoying down here. He and Gill can be found engaging in boy’s own activities together on YouTube. “There was a clip, I think, of us racing tanks in Iraq.” Goodness. “I beat him. He always denies it. I’ve raced him in skidoos in Iceland and the same sorts of things that go in water …” Jet skis? “Yes, jet skis, in Barbados. I’ve beaten him in all three. With the jet skis, I beat him because he got hit on the head by a flying fish.” He did not. “He did! I promise you! It just came out and hit him straight between the eyes.”
This hooning rather undermines Gill’s Savile Row-tailored metrosexual credentials. “Yes, I suppose. I’m not the one to say. It’s one of those appellations, like New Year’s honours, that only other people can give you.”
It’s fairly metrosexual that, when we speak, Gill is gearing up for the royal wedding. “I’m sure I’ll be there,” he sighs. “They’ll make me go and stand in the Mall and write about her frock.” Not that he has anything against William and Kate. “I hope they’re happy and I hope they’re nice to each other.” Well, it would make a change.
Gill on the monarchy is another matter. “I don’t want to cut anybody’s head off,” he begins ominously. “I would do away with the whole lot. It’s insidious. It’s embarrassing. It plays to all of the worst things in our national characters. Everything about it is stagnant and demeaning and infantilising, quite apart from all the silly and now very tedious residual class issues that are propped up by it. The horrible snobberies,” he fumes. “We actually got rid of the monarchy and it was brought back for all sorts of venal and self-indulgent reasons. The reasons for keeping it are all fearful and nostalgic and what I dislike about Britain and England in particular.”
Almost every other country manages without the hereditary principal in their government, he says. Britain should, too. “And so should you. Your connection with us is probably much stronger through the All Blacks than it is through the royal family.” He doesn’t know much about the debate here. “I know a bit about it in Australia and I expect it will come around again when the Queen dies. And then it will make a natural break.” Firm but fair, he’d allow the royals to keep their titles as well as their heads. “I don’t want to send them into exile. All I want is to be a citizen and not a subject.”
By the time he’s finished his royal riff, you’re ready to join him at the barricades. And to forgive him for the monkey. “Oh god, shooting the baboon,” he groans. He had to file from Africa unexpectedly and he’d just shot a baboon. “I wanted to get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone, a stranger,” he wrote. Well, that’s better than the other way round but all hell broke loose.
It was a lesson in the mechanics of notoriety. He went on radio programme Any Questions a couple of weeks later. “I was introduced as ‘AA Gill, acerbic critic who recently shot a baboon’, and the audience laughed. It had gone from being ‘I hope all your family die horribly’ to being ‘I remember all that fuss and it was sort of funny’. It’s amazing how quickly that great roller coaster moves onto the next irreconcilable piece of ghastliness on the news.”
Some will also never forgive him for ruining, in a television column, the marriage market romance of Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice just a period version of Deal or No Deal? How could he? “I can’t bear it, no,” he says of costume drama. “I get these letters saying, ‘Why are you writing the same review over and over again?’ I feel like saying, ‘Because they’re making the same bloody programme over again.’”
He has had epic numbers of complaints, hardly any upheld. “There are people just complaining that I’ve been rude to Albania. Their job,” he says, of the Press Complaints Commission, “isn’t really to protect Albanians.” To be fair, his salvos never seem angry. ‘We’re assassins from a distance,” he says blithely, of columnists.
The only topic Gill is uncharacteristically tentative about is his faith. “I’ve always wanted to do a serious radio programme about being a reluctant Christian because it is the uncoolest thing in the world, particularly if you are a cynic and a critic and a polemicist. We’re by nature, and have for the last hundred years been, atheists.” His television producer father was “a really proper atheist atheist”; his mother, an actress, a little less so. “I’ve always thought Christianity was sort of an affliction. I’ve wanted to go round and talk to really beguiling humanists to see if they could talk me out of it. One day to wake up and go, ‘Oh, thank God, God’s gone.’ But He won’t and it doesn’t.”
Part of the appeal may be to do with having something in his life he can’t dissect with his critical scalpel. “Whenever people argue about religion, I always go, ‘No, no, I’m not one of the ones who believe that. You’d be an idiot if you thought that.’ In the end they go, ‘What do you believe?’ I say, ‘I really don’t know.’” There’s an allusion he likes.
“My sort of faith is like holding a string that goes up into the clouds and you don’t know if what’s on the end is a kite or a balloon or it’s just snagged on a tree. But every so often you get a tug. It’s just every so often I get a tug.” As with Kierkegaard, whom he admires, his belief is 90% doubt. “Then occasionally something happens and you’re moved by such a huge flash of faith,” he says wistfully. “But it goes as quickly as it comes.”
Gill was an artist and a raging alcoholic until, at 30, he was told his liver wouldn’t make it to Christmas. Is that when religion got him?
“No, I had it before then. One of the great defining characteristic of drunks is self-pity. And self-pity is a very good place to start off a relationship with God. Sometimes, drunk, I would find myself weeping at the back of churches, moved by the terrible sadness of my condition,” he laughs grimly. “I think there isn’t a drunk alive who hasn’t looked up at a crucifix and gone, ‘I know exactly how you feel.’”
Sober, he volunteered on a helpline. “Drunks I found perfectly easy to deal with. They cried or they ranted and had a million excuses about why this wouldn’t work for them. I felt like a sergeant major with new recruits.” With the families of drunks it was different. “It was the children who would be terrified in their rooms, saying, ‘My father’s downstairs and I can hear him smashing everything in the kitchen.’ Those are the things that completely unman you.” He would have to nip out for a cigarette.
Gill has two teenagers from a previous marriage (and four-year-old twins with Formby). He worries about the genes. “I get terrible anxiety about them, who are both good as gold. I mean, they can be pretty ropey at times. But compared to me, they’re amazing, terrific kids.” It’s the fear. “I can’t imagine how bad it must have been for my mother. She’s still with us and she occasionally reminds me – very rarely and never with any recrimination.” For one with Gill’s reputation, not to mention his air miles, he’s a doting dad. “I would have a new family every 10 years,” he confides. “I can’t tell the mother of my children that.”
So it’s not all pulling wings off butterflies. AA Gill Is Further Away has lovely ruminations on fatherhood, dyslexia and morris dancing. Here and There includes a moving piece on the persecuted Roma people of Europe. Gill knows about tragedy. His brother, Nick, a chef, vanished after some personal problems. “I miss him a lot. I’ve been missing him a lot this week. His son just got married and I thought a lot about Nick then. So that was tough. And, again, that’s tough for my mum.” The not knowing. “Yes.”
Gill’s father had Alzheimer’s. “There’s nothing good to be said about it. He saw me get sober, which I was pleased about. He saw me make a fist of my career, which I think was a relief to him. On some level, I think, he was probably quite proud of me.”
Why wouldn’t he be? In Gill’s very singular style can be detected an artist’s eye and a dyslexic’s compensatory ear for language. Gill is a huge fan of writer and satirist Jonathan Swift and there’s something there of Gulliver trapped among the Brobdingnagians, seeing everything in magnified, slightly disgusting detail. “I would hold my hand up to all three of those things,” says Gill. “The Gulliver thing – I haven’t thought about that, but I think you’re absolutely right. That sense of being giant, surrounded by this society you can’t get into because you don’t fit in, can’t get through the doors. Always being this sort of monster. Or, alternatively, being this miniature. This tiny person having to avoid being stepped on.”
That, too, goes back to his addiction. “Most alcoholics will tell you there’s this amazing feeling that everybody else in the world has been given a script that you weren’t given, that they’re ad-libbing in somebody else’s play.”
These days Gill writes – well, dictates – his own script. “If you do get clean or sober, because I did a lot of drugs as well, you get what does really feel like a second go. It’s being forgiven, as much by yourself as anyone else. Very few people get that in their lives. It’s like someone says, ‘Okay, it’s all quits. Everything’s back to the factory setting. You can start again.’”
It’s meant reinventing everything, including himself. “Because the person I had been had been such a dysfunctional drunk and really only existed because of the drink and the drugs. Take them away and there really wasn’t much of a person there. I had to make up a new person. And I made up this rather odd person …”
By now it’s 1.30am his time and I really should let the complicated construct called AA Gill go. But he’s such good company. And he sounds as though he could carry on like this all night: brilliant and brittle; firm but (fingers crossed when he comes our way) fair. Sitting in the dark, sending his words out into the light.
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