The Big Read

The late A.A. Gill still here in his swansong

British writer A.A. Gill died of cancer in December, aged 62.
British writer A.A. Gill died of cancer in December, aged 62.PHOTO: TOM CRAIG

In his final essay collection, the journalist shines his brightest light yet on the human conscience

LINES IN THE SAND: COLLECTED JOURNALISM

By A. A. Gill

Weidenfeld & Nicolson, paperback/295 pages/ $32.95 with GST at Books Kinokuniya

If you were among Britain's foremost food critics and most formidable journalists, the idea of reviewing a meal cooked by refugees might seem in poor taste.

But Briton Adrian Anthony Gill, known better as A.A. Gill, risked such opprobrium - and his life - to stamp their plight on the hearts of readers.


Lines In The Sand: Collected Journalism

As he recalled in his latest, and final, essay collection Lines In The Sand, even his editor tried to stop him from rubbing shoulders with the displaced and dispossessed from Myanmar to Lampedusa.

Recalling in January last year his experience of breaking bread with refugees in their since-razed Jungle camp in Calais, France, he wrote: "The dishes come hot and generous... The red beans are...as warm and uncomplicated as a hug. The surprise, the great surprise, is the chicken livers. They are perfect."

Comparing their taste to grass, earth and licked copper, he added: "This was a properly, cleverly crafted and wholly unexpected dish, made with finesse and an elan that defied the surroundings, but at the same time elevated them."

This off-the-wall collation, spanning 2011 till last year, ranges from his treks through godforsaken places to visiting soul-sapping Trump University to his explosively funny review of the musician Morrissey's misguided autobiography. Of the latter, Gill wrote: "This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping."

Gill died, aged 62, on Dec 10 last year, three weeks after announcing in his final restaurant review for London's The Sunday Times Magazine that he had "an embarrassment of cancer... There is barely a morsel of offal not included".

That swansong is in the book and he chose as his final meal fish and chips, which was entirely in keeping with his characteristic simplicity, honesty and decency.

  • In a nutshell

  • THE GOOD

    This collection of the late A.A. Gill's essays is a paean to decency, diversity and, ultimately, the life of a writer who thrummed with purpose and compassion.

    THE BAD

    Gill's editors should have resisted including his relatively bland pieces, titled Kangaroo Island, Ravenna, Life Drawing and Lord Snowdon, which proffered fewer insights overall and so came off as padding for an otherwise bravura book.

Gill, an alcoholic who stopped drinking at age 30, trained as an artist and once worked as a gardener, was reputedly Britain's highest paid print columnist. This was doubly stunning when you consider that he was so dyslexic he had to dictate every single word that he wrote for work over the phone to his younger colleagues, so they could type everything out for him.

Then again, as he hinted in one of the book's essays, dyslexia made him extra-sensitive, and perceptive, about everyone and everything: "I know who everybody is in this room. I pick up everything."

What he loved most was to travel. In a sea of "I was there" books, he distinguished himself with "You are here" tracts, that is, accounts that transported readers to the places he scrutinised so keenly.

In his last book, "here" is the Democratic Republic of Congo, which has "a pandemic of rape" and is "too poor for beggars", so no one there asked Gill for a taste of porridge or a ballpen.

"Here" is a mountain over which Syrian refugees had to trudge to safety in Jordan - and which Gill climbed, his legs buckling from carrying a female refugee's suitcase full of cooking oil.

  • Celebrate a life

  • British journalist A.A. Gill, who died on Dec 10 last year, had been among his country's highest paid columnists for his wholly original and oft-wicked takes on food, television shows, travel and life in general.

    Join senior writer Cheong Suk-Wai to discuss his 14th and final book, Lines In The Sand, on Wednesday, March 29, from 6.30pm, at the Multi-Purpose Room in the Central Public Library, Basement 1, National Library Board (NLB) headquarters at 100 Victoria Street.

    Sign up for it at any NLB e-Kiosk or try your luck at the door.

    Please note that the meet will be livestreamed on the National Reading Movement's Facebook page. Check out the most recent Meet on Feb 25 at tinyurl.com/h3kenjn

He showed readers what they needed to know to get under the skin of any place. Witness his arrival in Bhutan: "The first sight of Bhutan makes you gasp. This is the world's attic; there just isn't enough stuff to breathe. It's slimmer's air, with half the lung-fattening oxygen removed. It takes your breath away and gives it to a passing yak."

Gill was so even, thorough and faithful in reporting his walks among refugees and their rescuers, that the United Nations got him to speak at its global forum on statelessness at The Hague, Holland, in September 2014.

He also won an Amnesty International Media award later that year .

In every one of his essays, he stripped away the veneers of politics, politesse and politeness to reveal the crassness, corruption and contempt that is the maw of life - but also the random kindnesses that is its marrow.

Your breath will likely catch in your throat when you read in his June 2014 essay, written on the occasion of his 60th birthday, that he looked forward to watching up to four more World Cups, wished he had visited Timbuktu and realised that, at his age, all routine health check-ups were "life-and-death appointments".

Noting how his children enjoyed American breakfasts more than the gritty and glitzy views of New York City he adored, he said, as searingly honest as ever: "I shouldn't be looking for my world, through their eyes. I should be allowing my eyes to look into their world."

But in what is one of the year's best books, you will likely exult at looking at his world, through his eyes.


Five questions this book answers

1 What are the most reliable ways to size up an unfamiliar city?

2 What do the elderly miss most about youth?

3 What is the difference between a refugee and a migrant?

4 What is the surest way to begin healing another person immediately?

5 What is the first rule of writing?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 07, 2017, with the headline 'The late A.A. Gill still here in his swansong'. Print Edition | Subscribe