I can't really say I knew AA Gill, although for a brief period he was my next-door neighbor in South Kensington. He was more successful than I, which a lot of writers are, but also more glamorous, which is something more mysterious and less quantifiable, and on which I brooded from my window when I spied him sauntering the sidewalk. But he was a beautiful writer, of a kind that does not really exist in the colorless American press. Setting aside their partisan homogeneity, the principal defect of The New York Times et al is that they're so bloody boring. Gill was one of those fellows you enjoyed reading on almost any subject, and regardless of what position he took on it. Nor was he, as is generally the case today, a newspaper man who becomes known because he goes on TV and radio at the drop of a hat. For the most part he eschewed the broadcast media: He was a writer who was known for his writing.
His death at the weekend reminded me of a time in my life when you'd leave a London restaurant late on a Saturday night and pick up the first editions of the Sunday papers from a Tube kiosk on the way home - because they were such marvelous reads. Even before they entered their present death spiral, I have never felt that way about The Boston Globe or The Washington Post. As Hugh Laurie tweets:
I never met AA Gill, and cursed his name often; but he was funny, clever, honest, and wrote terrific sentences. I will miss him very much.
He "wrote terrific sentences". I'll bet, during his Hollywood sojourn, Hugh Laurie has never said that about any LA Times columnist.
No one will write AA Gill's obituary as well as he would have. Here he is delineating with absolute precision the world into which he was born:
I was born in 1954 in Edinburgh. Winston Churchill was prime minister, there was still rationing, we were the first generation that would grow up with television, pop music, central heating and a National Health Service. As a child, every old man I knew had fought in the First World War and every young man in the Second.
War still hung like the smell of a damp, grim nostalgia over everything. We played Spitfires and Messerschmitts in the playground and you could, as Kingsley Amis pointed out, walk into any pub in the country and ask with perfect confidence if the major had been in. London was still moth-eaten with bomb sites and black with coal smoke. One of my earliest memories is of the last pea souper fog.
Everyone of Gill's generation will recognize that vanished Britain, but only a few could evoke it that deftly and economically - and with the sense of wistfulness that comes from realizing that the life you're living has somehow become the life you've lived. It's one typical passage from a routine journalistic assignment:
Last week an editor breezily mentioned that as I was coming up to a milestone decade would I perhaps like to write something about it? You know, is 60 the new 40? Why do you make those little noises when you get out of a chair? Am I considering getting a shed, or a cruise, or Velcro? And what about sex?
The only people who ask about significant birthdays are younger than you. No 70-year-olds are inquiring about my insights on being 60. Age is the great terra incognita. But then, all the people who tell me to do anything are younger than me now.
It's one of those very Fleet Street pieces that America's dull monodailies can't seem to do. And, like a lot of journalism, it's as good or as bad as the writer who does it. Gill did it very well. Every so often - though not as often as in his case, I would wager - I'll come off a stage or a TV set and a young lady will approach and offer some admiring comments. And my flattered old heart will flutter - until I remember this paragraph of his:
A contemporary of mine, after a number of marriages, found a girlfriend less than half his age of a transcendent pneumatic beauty who hung on his every word — and dumped her after a couple of months. Why, I asked — she was perfect! "Too many things we didn't have in common," he said sadly. Like what? "Well, the Eighties."
Very true. One thinks of Bill Clinton pretending to share Monica's taste in music... I liked this bit, too:
Every morning, after taking our twins to school, Nicola and I read the papers over breakfast and I recite the birthday list and she will guess the ages. She's uncannily accurate. Yesterday The Guardian will have said: AA Gill, critic and baboon-murdering bastard, 60.
I share a birthday with Henry VIII and the shot that started the Great War. I've always read the anniversary roll and over the years I've watched people my age go from rarely mentioned as sportsmen and pop stars to more commonly as leading actors and television presenters and now ubiquitously I find myself in the thick of captains of industry, ennobled politicians, retired sportsmen and character actors.
As I said, all that's from just one A A Gill column, written at a far higher level than a dying industry demands, at least to judge from The New York Times or The Washington Post. It was published just two years ago, when he confidently expected to live to see another four World Cups, as he put it. Thus he neglected to note that another sign of the accumulating years is that more and more of your contemporaries, whether former pop stars or mighty captains of industry, migrate from "Today's Birthdays" to the obituary column. And so a few weeks ago he mentioned to his readers in the course of a restaurant review that he had "an embarrassment of cancer, the full English" - for non-Britons, that's an allusion to the huge and indigestible "full English breakfast" (which, credit where it's due, is a vegan snack next to the full Irish).
So he coined a phrase even for his death sentence, and one that's almost too perfect for a gourmand and restaurant critic. And its rueful if faintly parodic stiff-upper-lipped stoicism would have earned the gruff approval of all those long-gone Englishmen of the Fifties opening up pub doors and asking if the major had been in. Rest in peace.