sat 20/07/2024

The Best of AA Gill review - posthumous words collected | reviews, news & interviews

The Best of AA Gill review - posthumous words collected

The Best of AA Gill review - posthumous words collected

Life lived well, cut short

AA Gill: 'It’s the voice that matters, warm from the mouth. Not these cold, black letters'Tom Craig

Word wizard. Grammar bully. Sentence shark. AA Gill didn’t play fair by syntax: he pounced on it, surprising it into splendid shapes. And who cared when he wooed readers with anarchy and aplomb? Hardly uncontroversial, let alone inoffensive (he suggested Mary Beard should be kept away from TV cameras on account of her looks, and shot a baboon), he was consistently brilliant. Wherever he went, he brought his readers with him.

His journalist’s eye and performer’s hunger made him a natural raconteur, one who could induce synaesthesia so you could taste words.

People dear to me loved his writing dearly. They’re as far from idolaters as you can imagine, and the kind who’ll eat with their hands. Food is more flavoursome shared and eaten this way and despite his respect of manners, Gill would have approved their insouciance toward etiquette (“Manners are about putting others at their ease. Etiquette is about letting them know how very other they are.”). So it was with enormous pleasure that I took up The Best of AA Gill. It was as pleasurable as dinner with loved ones and doubled me up with laughter and admiration at roughly the same rate.

His writing ranged widely  far beyond the restaurant (and TV) reviews for which he was so well known  into travel-writing, autobiography, and war-reporting. So the book’s four sections gently divide the collection into Food, Away, Television, Life. The effect is, conversely, to draw attention to the brilliances which cut across all his writing: the coruscating wit, nimble poetry and impatience with dumbfoolery. What shines through most though is his profound humanity.

The Best iof AA GillTake Angélique, a nun he met in Congo who was caring for young orphans. The children who “like glossy putti” greeted her were only one aspect of her inexhaustible goodness, and in describing the doughnut-making women’s collective she also set up which provided a living to refugees like herself  many of them mothers of children conceived during brutal rapes  he sees the ligatures of healing and hope binding their commercial and psychological endeavours: “They fold into each other, like the dough they knead, all rising together.” His writing glows with reverence devoid of sentimentality. Or take the final image of his writing on Lampedusa: a child born to an African mother in the middle of the sea, a European infant whose first breath was sea water. It is an occurrence so unspeakably tragic it baffles. Yet the less acute exclusions troubled him, too.

A glutton for experience, a sucker for finesse  that was Gill. But snob though he was, he was also a democrat. “Paris” opens with recollections of drunkenly catching the overnight from Victoria train station to Gare du Nord to visit his brother who was training there as a chef. A description of destructive hedonism he became teetotal at 30  segues into a disquisition on the differences between French and English food, the main distinction for Gill being that in France you could eat very well for very little, and knowing your concasse from your brunoise was not pretension but part of the patrimoine. His writing was akin to hosting, an extension of the convivial generosity of vivacious conversation  not that it was totally unglossed, but with him we were all at the same table.

It was often said that for Gill it was never really about the food. It was the ambience, the experience, the full spread deliciously extended over time and replicated in delectable phrases. But sometimes it was. Here he is, mainly stripped of adjectives, dreamily reciting the meal he ate at Noma. For a man of words, he knew when to let things speak for themselves: “A salad of apple, nut and marjoram, with hazelnut milk. A razor clam in a tube of parsley jelly with dill, and the excited juice of mussels. Steak tartare with sorrel, juniper and tarragon. One perfect langoustine, with sea water and parsley. Fresh cheese with indigo mushrooms, with watercress and sorrel. Spinach and rose hips with lovage.”

To review collected reviews is a strange task. To sit down to read a series of reviews as a book is a peculiar endeavour. But you judge the quality by how many you get through before you put it down. I got through a lot. Last December he died. His final article (included here) was about dying. It was also about the NHS, which he loved  conditionally, of course. It was dark when I finished. Criticism of this collection is the same as his life: simply too short.


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