More matter with less art

25 February 2017

9:00 AM

25 February 2017

9:00 AM

When A.A. Gill died last December, there was wailing and gnashing of teeth across the nation. I must admit this came as a surprise to me, but then I hadn’t read him for many years, having developed a ferocious dislike for the Sunday Times too long ago now to remember quite why. My memories of him were of an outrageous show pony, a wordsmith of great talent but surprisingly little taste, who essentially wrote about himself and his wonderful life (in the guise of restaurant and television reviews) in a needy, look-at-me, sub-Clarkson kind of way. He seemed to me to encapsulate everything that was wrong with the paper he wrote for, whatever that turns out to have been.

But people were genuinely upset when he died, and not just because he was by all accounts a good egg. I suspect this is because humorous writers are much more loved by readers than editors ever suspect. When Miles Kington died in 2008, staff at the Independent were shocked by the intensity of their readers’ reaction. To them Kington had just been this bloke who filled up a corner of the paper every day. But some people, it turned out, had been buying the paper purely to read the funny man. I’m sure the same was true of Gill. Such writers are devilishly hard to replace.

Before he croaked, Gill put together this selection of articles, which covers the last five years of his career. The subtitle is deceptive. So much did the poor man have to write that a Collected Journalism would weigh several tons and be transportable only by pantechnicon. This is a more manageable volume altogether. It’s split into three sections: ‘Lines in the Sand’, which collects his various pieces about refugees; ‘Out There’, which are mainly travel pieces; and ‘In Here’, which are more personal pieces. There is very little restaurant reviewing and nothing about telly at all.

The refugee stuff is very good: angry, passionate and profoundly empathetic in a way that would have been beyond the young Gill. Some humorous writers lose their humour as they get older, and become pompous instead (I could name a few). Others, like Gill, learn to temper the jokes, use them more sparingly and more wisely. This section, to be honest, gets a bit much because each of his tales of refugees’ pain and displacement is essentially the same, and the effect is a bit like being repeatedly hit over the head with a vast Sunday newspaper until you finally pass out. But it all needed to be said, and he says it beautifully.

The rest is surprisingly variable. Gill, we discover, never did get over the showing off. If he has an expensive holiday to go on, he needs to tell you how expensive. Celebrity friends peep in and out. Often it’s the sheer quantity of words that defeats you. ‘Of all Jeremy Clarkson’s ruddy, intransigently stubborn, pouty, Yorkshire-contrarian beliefs, hunches and prejudices, perhaps the most obtuse and unbelievably counter-intuitive is his deep, soulful love for the French.’ It may just be me, but this opening sentence doesn’t make me want to read sentence number two.

Occasionally he is brilliant. His obliteration of Morrissey’s autobiography is masterly. There are excellent articles about Scottish independence and the drunken youth of Humberside. His piece on Europe, written just before the referendum to annoy the Brexiteers, is a marvel. And here he is in New York with his children:

We went to Central Park Zoo, which I never liked much. There was a poster that had a picture of a polar bear and said sadly the polar bear had died. I remember that polar bear. It had all the symptoms of anxiety and depression: rocking, pacing, trying to hail cabs at five o’clock. It was a source of shame and embarrassment for ecologically sound New Yorkers and finally the city gave the thing antidepressants, so it had the blank, dry-mouth look of every other Upper East Side lady in a fur coat.

That seems to me a perfectly weighted paragraph.

But a lot here is lazy, rambling and inconsequential. What crystallised the book for me was a notably half-cocked piece about P.G. Wodehouse. Now, I know a bit about Wodehouse, and Gill clearly doesn’t. His verbal pyrotechnics fizzle and crack, but they cannot conceal a fundamental shortage of ideas. And he thought that this piece was among his best?

It struck me on reading this that I might have been right about him after all: a remarkable talent, but someone who writes so much that he simply doesn’t know when he’s good and when he’s not. It might even be that he was the worst person in the world to edit a book of his own journalism. Maybe someone else should have done it. Maybe someone else is doing it, in which case I await that volume with no little excitement.

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