Obituary: AA Gill, columnist and critic

AA Gill pictured at an Orion Books event in 2012. Picture: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

AA Gill pictured at an Orion Books event in 2012. Picture: Chris Jackson/Getty Images

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Adrian Anthony Gill, born: Edinburgh, 28 June, 1954. Died: 10 December, 2015 in London, aged 62.

AA Gill was a newspaper and magazine columnist, restaurant reviewer and television critic, whose work divided opinion as much as it inspired deep admiration for his masterful fluency and eloquence. A writer for GQ, Vanity Fair and Tatler, his most widely-known gig was his weekly restaurant review column in the Sunday Times’ Style magazine, which he took on in 1993.

Although his family left his birth city of Edinburgh when he was a year old, Gill was fiercely involved with his Scots roots, and frequently displayed a fluent understanding of the country. He celebrated the nation’s greatnesses and recognised its flaws, and appeared enthralled by Scotland’s cities and by its wild lands, by its past and its future, by every point on its social spectrum. In 2003 Gill wrote in unflinching detail for GQ of hunting deer in the Scottish Highlands in the company of the actor Ross Kemp. “I suffer the heightened sentimentality of all expatriates,” he concluded, surveying the landscape. “I live in London. I sound English but I was born here. I have a feeling for it that’s beyond words. This place is the only inanimate thing in the world that I miss.”

Nine years later, one of his Sunday Times restaurant reviews dedicated half of its final paragraph to the Butchershop Bar & Grill in Glasgow, and the rest to his attendance at the 2012 Edinburgh derby Scottish Cup final with another actor friend, the Glenrothes-raised, Hibs-supporting Dougray Scott. Gill reviewed the half-time pie as though it were the main event: “Scottish pies are like Hinduism. You can’t convert. You have to be born to them… There is something very football and very Scots about pies, and I love… their lifelong ability to be simultaneously welcoming and disappointing.”

In August 2014, Gill wrote a tour de force on-the-road essay on Scotland in the months leading up to the independence referendum. In Edinburgh (“my city”), he detailed being born in the old Royal Infirmary, living as an infant on Northumberland Street, being baptised on Princes Street and being taken to the seaside at North Berwick. “I’m just Scots enough to make me immune from ever being English, but not so much that I can’t also feel equally European,” he said. His professed support for Scottish independence at the time may have surprised many.

Adrian Anthony Gill was born on 28 June, 1954 to Michael Gill and Yvonne Gilan. His English father studied at Edinburgh University and worked briefly at The Scotsman as a sub-editor and arts reviewer, before joining the BBC as a producer and director, including on the celebrated documentary series Civilisation and Alistair Cooke’s America. Gill’s mother was acting on the stage in Edinburgh when she met his father, and she later appeared as the flirtatious Mme 
Peignoir in Fawlty Towers, and in series including Dr Findlay’s Casebook and films like Chariots of Fire and Spielberg’s Empire of the Sun.

The couple had another son, Gill’s brother Nick, who became the youngest chef ever to be awarded a Michelin star in 1982 for his work at Hambleton Hall; he was cited by many as the inventor of nouvelle cuisine. However, in 1998 Nick disappeared after a period of protracted trouble in his personal life, and hasn’t been heard from since. His brother was the last person he spoke to.

Gill’s first significant brush with fame came at the age of nine, in the short film The Peaches, which was written by his mother, directed by his father and narrated by Peter Ustinov; it was chosen to represent Britain at the Cannes Film Festival. He was educated at St Christopher School in Letchworth and then at St Martin’s School of Art and the Slade School of Art in London, and for much of his young life he dreamed of becoming an artist.

Gill was dyslexic, and all of his journalistic work was dictated down the phone line to a copytaker. He has said that anxiety about the condition in his youth contributed to the deep-rooted alcohol – and, to a lesser extent, drug – addiction problems he faced until getting sober at the age of 30, on a doctor’s urgent advice. Until his late thirties he worked variously as a gardener, an illustrator, in a restaurant and as a cookery teacher. His first published review was for a friend’s art magazine, and after that he wrote an article for Tatler in 1991 about being in a detox clinic, under the pseudonym Blair Baillie.

According to some stories, the subject of that piece was the inspiration for his professional byline, ‘AA’ standing for ‘Alcoholics Anonymous’, although Gill was quoted as saying it was a reaction to “an awful lot of rather up-your-bottom discourse in the art world about male and female artists, so it was a way of being androgynous. Of course, within a sentence you know I’m a man, but I got stuck with it.”

He wrote novels (to generally poor reviews), essay collections and memoirs, including the travel-focused AA Gill is Away (2003); The Angry Island (2005), about England; Table Talk (2007); and Pour Me (2015), which looked back on his alcoholism. A contrarian and an avowedly masculine writer – Jeremy Clarkson was a close friend – his columns were subject to many complaints for comments about the Welsh, the Isle of Man and the presenter Clare Balding. In 2009 he claimed to have killed a baboon while hunting, angering many, yet those who knew him have remembered a kind and good-humoured man.

When the end came, he confronted it with customary honesty in print, declaring almost in passing that he had “the full English” of cancer in a column three weeks prior to his death, the former smoker having been diagnosed with lung cancer which had spread throughout his body. He was married to the author Cressida Connolly between 1982 and 1983 and to the financial writer and current Home Secretary Amber Rudd between 1990 and 1995, with whom he had a daughter Flora and a son Alasdair. Gill also had twins, Isaac and Edith, who were born in 2007 with his long-term partner Nicola Formby, whom he referred to as “the Blonde” when she appeared in his restaurant reviews.

DAVID POLLOCK

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