Icons / December 2016

The Most Raffish Belletrist on Fleet Street: AA Gill

The Rake laments the loss of one of the most influential, acerbic and undeniably elegant journalists of modern times.
AA Gill at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show, 2013. Photo by Alan Davidson/Silverhub/REX/Shutterstock.

AA Gill’s writing style, like Nabokov’s or Martin Amis’s, was almost annoyingly brilliant: decadent, rhythmic, luminous, omniscient, throwaway, flowery, floury, gamey sentences and metaphors to roll around the mouth. The dyslexic dictations of an ex-stutterer were shaped into polychromatic perfection: Vanity Fair, for whom he wrote as a contributing editor, called him “a circus master with a comma for a whip”. But his use of language was immediately evocative and definitively original: it demystified rather than obscured, far from the imitation-Gill chintz of a disciple like me. He contested in an interview with BBC Storyville’s Nick Fraser that the main function of a critic was to "sell newspapers" and he was the kind of columnist, perhaps the only columnist, who wrote so well you would buy the whole newspaper just to read him.

The Sunday Times TV and food critic, who died of lung cancer on Saturday at the age of 62, could write about anything and had a particularly astute sense of place. His prose flew across the Atlantic in both directions, here an article on London for The New York Times, there a book To America With Love. A sample from the latter: “Where politer European cities might have had street mimes, New York has always had the Brechtian street theatre of pavement psychodrama: the muttering, bellowing, gesticulating and teetering looney tunes for whom the drugs are no longer working, who look like characters from Exodus, prophets of urban collapse and carnal comeuppance.” He wrote, incomparably, about war, parenthood, phone etiquette and even football: after the Champions League Final in 2011, he compared the playing styles of Manchester United and Barcelona to the art and architecture of their cities, Gaudíly-elusive tiki-taka against the ecstatic, redbrick New Order.

"He was the kind of columnist who wrote so well you would buy the whole newspaper just to read him."

He could expand or distil, a double master of one-liners and prose-poetry. Lucian Freud looked like a “buzzard who’d eaten the cook”. New York was a “divorcee looking for a richer second country”. The beauty of his final piece, for Gourmet Traveller, surpasses Cawdor’s, the Scottish village from which he wrote it: “the rowan are red, like blood-splatters against leaves of tannin-yellow. It all smells of corruption here, tilth and fungus…. It's a place I love as dearly as I can love the blood-bitter peat, the mushrooms and mud and the bath-salts of wet dog.”

His private life was full of contradictions. The son of Civilisation director Michael Gill and actress Yvonne Gilan (who played the flirty Madame Peignoir in Fawlty Towers), he saw himself as Scottish though his voice suggested otherwise (in Gill’s own words, he sounded like “Bertie Wooster’s homosexual friend”). He was married three times, to writer Cressida Connolly, now-Home Secretary Amber Rudd and South African model-turned-Tatler journalist Nicola Formby. A lifelong Labour voter, he lived in Chipping Norton near Jeremy Clarkson and Rebekah Brooks, both close friends. He originally trained as a visual artist at the Slade, but discovered his real calling in his thirties when Tatler asked him to write about art. His first piece moved his editor to tears, he was poached by the Sunday Times and he soon became their highest-paid columnist. According to a Sunday Times piece over the weekend, when the legendary tailor Doug Hayward started to make his suits, Gill insisted they were lined with women’s silk scarves from Hermès.

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Ed Cripps

Ed is a screenwriter and journalist. His TV CV includes Episodes, Fresh Meat and Made in Chelsea (his first series of which won a BAFTA). In 2016, his piece on The South Bank Show came second in The Observer's Anthony Burgess Prize for Arts Journalism. In addition to The Rake, he has written for the TLS, MR PORTER and Little White Lies.