AA Gill is here
Adrian Anthony Gill (AA Gill) is a British newspaper columnist and writer. He reviews restaurants in The Sunday Times Style magazine and is a TV critic in the Culture section in the same paper. He also writes travel pieces, and is known for being acidic, witty and satirical
What attracted you to journalism and what still excites you about it?
I couldn’t do anything else! My father (the BBC television producer Michael Gill) started his career as a print journalist on The Scotsman and he always said he wanted me to become a journalist. But I came to it very late. I see work experience people now who don’t need to shave yet, but I was nearly 40 when I started.
Before that, I spent a long time working as an artist but I wasn’t very good at it. I started to write by default when I was asked to interview an artist for an arts magazine. I told them I was dyslexic and I’d never written anything for publication before, but they said it didn’t matter because no-one read the magazine anyway. I wrote 600 words and was told I could write for them again.
What doesn’t excite me about journalism? I have eight or nine newspapers spread out on my table now – I read them every day. I have always read the papers. I used to buy The Guardian when I was in my early 20s, and I remember reading Jilly Cooper’s weekly column in The Sunday Times at around that time, too. Even then, though, I thought that being a columnist was what I’d like to do.
How did you become a food critic?
Before I started writing for the arts magazine, when I was unemployed and poor, I taught myself how to cook. I was married and we’d just had my baby daughter Flora (now 17). My wife was a banker and was bringing in the income, so I stayed at home and looked after the baby.
One evening, a friend came round to eat with her fiancé, and she was fuming. Her future mother-in-law had told her she was going to send her on a cordon bleu cookery course in Paris, so she would be able to cook for her son in the way he was accustomed to. I told them to take the money, go to Paris and blow the whole lot. And then never invite his mother to lunch. But my wife suggested that I taught our friend to cook.
So I ran a 10-week course from my home, and it grew from there. Friends, mainly men, kept asking if they could come along. But I would always have one woman on the course among five or six men, because otherwise there would be competitive flicking of egg yolk. With a woman present, they all behaved very well. I loved it.
It just so happened that one of the men I taught worked for Tatler and he asked me to write an article. On the strength of that piece, the editor called me in and offered me a job interviewing celebrities for the magazine. It was a big job, but at the time I didn’t want to ask celebrities what they had in their knicker drawer, so I turned it down. I suggested to the editor that I could write a recipe column instead, as the magazine didn’t have one. She was completely taken aback that I had turned down her job offer, but said I could write six columns and see how it went.
From that point, I also started writing for other publications. But it was Jo, my editor at Tatler, who gave me the best piece of advice of my career and did more than anyone to make me a journalist. She told me there were hundreds of writers who were cleverer and more knowledgeable than me, but very few people who could write funny; and that nothing is better remembered than something that makes you laugh. That, she told me, was my niche.
I don’t have much of a sense of humour and I hate being told jokes, but writing funny copy is a trick and is about as honest. I know how it works – it’s a series of pulling levers and pushing buttons.
Who are you writing for when you write your columns?
I try not to think about who I am writing for. Imagining a mass of people turning up every week to read what you have written is very centurion, very Mussolini-like. I write for my editor, or the person who is going to read it first. I have a very close relationship with all the people who edit my copy – good editing is vital for a journalist.
What qualities make a restaurant stand out above all others?
There is only one quality that matters, and it should be tattooed on the forehead of every restaurant owner – hospitality. If you go to a restaurant you want to be made to feel welcome. It’s the first thing that comes up if you ask anyone what they want from a restaurant, and often the last thing that is considered by the owners. Making people feel welcome is what keeps a restaurant in business.
Do you think your critical opinion can be biased by what sort of mood you’re in, for example if you have an argument with someone before you sit down to eat?
I rarely have arguments because I hate confrontation. People think I’m an argumentative person because of my column, but I’m neither funny nor argumentative.
But I get the full range of emotions like everyone else and they always affect what I do, I wouldn’t be human otherwise.
What might happen when I’m reviewing is how much notice I take of what’s going on – some days it might be more than others. It’s usually the waiters you take notice of, and there are moments when you are more forgiving. But I’m careful what I write about waiters. Early on in my career, I wrote that a waiter had terrible body odour, which is an unforgivable sin (as much as wearing strong perfume). The owner wrote to me saying he was terribly sorry and that he’d fired the waiter. I was properly upset. The owner just hadn’t got the point: that he was obviously not paying the waiter enough and was making him work too many hours so he didn’t have time to have a shower and put on a clean shirt.
Another time I wrote a bad review of a restaurant run by a very well known chef, who I won’t name. He phoned me, which was a very big thing for him to do, and said he was angry about the review. But he’d been through every point I’d made and agreed I was absolutely right. So he’d fired the whole kitchen!
I do have a bugbear about the treatment of waiters. Most restaurants in this country use the service charge to make up waiters’ wages, so they can pay them less than the minimum wage. It’s immoral. This only happens in the catering industry.
I really mind that. Eating in a restaurant is so expensive. And in some restaurants people are serving you a main course which costs more than they earn all day. It is seriously distasteful that waiters cannot afford to eat the food they are serving.
You said in an interview that the rhythm of sentences is the key to great writing.
Yes, I do think it’s the secret of good writing is the rhythm. Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling all wrote with terrific rhythm. And in a much more subtle way PG Wodehouse, whose writing is marvellous, like jazz free-form. And I have no idea how he does it. It is brilliant. Writing has no backstage, there is nothing up your sleeve or CHI. It’s just a page of black dots.
Do you think having to dictate your work to copytakers, rather than writing it down, helps you achieve your ‘voice’, because you can hear spoken word?
Yes, because I have time to edit. I write slowly and then I phone it through to copytakers, so I can then hear if the sentence is working or if it sounds clunky. The copytakers are based in Leeds and they’re used to taking sports reports rather than long pieces like mine. I ask them if they understand what I have just said and they say: ‘No dear, I rarely know what you’re talking about,’ and then I’ll cut it out. Writing needs a strong voice.
Printed words are like Knorr dried soup – add brain and it rehydrates, so you have to give it a voice. That’s what good writing is. I do overwrite though and I’m too showy – I read pieces back and I ask, what was I was doing, that was an adjective too far!
How do you go about writing your columns?
I tend to talk my columns through before I write them. When I write travel pieces I talk about them a lot and make people listen to my anecdotes. I can judge instantly when I’m losing my audience and I realise that it’s too long or isn’t working. I always talk it out because writing is telling stories and I see writing as an extension of talking.
If you could live your life again what would you do differently?
I would not have been an alcoholic. I would not want to go through that again, as I only got out of it by the skin of my teeth.
A number of people I know did not make it into their 30s and 40s. I sat with a friend recently and we went through people we knew and there were a terrific number who had died through drink and drugs, or related incidents.
My addiction started in my school days and progressed very quickly. But unquestionably, going on that journey led me to what I do today. I get well paid to watch television and eat in restaurants and hopefully without sounding smug, give forth my opinions. I have a lot of words that are mine and no-one tells me what to write. In a free, pluralistic society, that is the greatest privilege.
I would prefer not to have dyslexia, as I was miserable at school and felt inadequate.
My boy (Alisdair, who is 14), is dyslexic in the same way as I am. And the way his school is treating him is not unlike how I was treated at my school. I ask him how they are helping and he tells me they are giving him extra writing. That’s like giving someone with a broken leg extra high jumping. Schools put such high opinion and value on grammar and spelling, and it’s the last place in the world that cares unless you are a sonographer or solicitor perhaps. Because of my dyslexia I spoke more at school and the basis of writing is about sound and speech.
Have you any career regrets?
I am sorry that my career in art did not work out. I loved drawing more than anything. From the moment I could pick up a pencil it was all I wanted to do. I had just enough skill to keep me going at a time when, maybe, I should have stopped.
The year I was teaching my friends to cook, I was drawing and writing and it was the writing that was economically more profitable. There were many more people who were willing to pay for writers at the time. I don’t draw any more, apart from doodling. Once you have done it professionally, you can’t do it as an amateur just for fun.
I used to teach drawing so I might do that again.
What do you think of the Harry Potter phenomenon – do you think it’s good as it has got children loving reading again?
If you like reading, then that’s a good thing, but it is not vitamins for the head – if you don’t read you are not going to get mental rickets. I read Swallows And 4 Amazons when I was a child and it was the first book I had read that didn’t have pictures. Since then, there has never been a moment in my life when I’m not reading a book.
But if my kids never read I don’t mind, it’s up to them. Novels used to be thought of like television is now – that it rots the brain and is the stuff for maids.
The idea that books are everything is a very Victorian hangover. My kids loved Harry Potter and I am pleased for them. Reading all the Harry Potter books was actually one of the high points of my daughter Flora’s life, so in that way it is a good thing.
You said that your favourite journalism assignments are when you were sent abroad covering serious stories. Why don’t you do that more often?
I do it as often as I can, but because I write a weekly column it’s difficult to juggle the time off. The column is my bread and butter, but I write about the surface and it’s important for me to step back from that.
In style journalism, it’s easy to think that all our lives are led behind red ropes surrounded by PRs with clipboards. And you start having a weird view of what the world is about.
Travelling means you’re getting a perspective on whole life. The real purpose of travel is to see where you have come from, not where you are going to.
What is your proudest career moment?
When I was first offered a contract by The Sunday Times.
I liked the managing editor there a lot – he was very protective of me. He was an old-fashioned Fleet Street journo, and he had kids like me. He said I would fit in at the paper and he liked my writing.
Then he wrote a figure on a piece of paper and said it was what they were offering as my salary. I knew I was supposed to negotiate, but my immediate reaction was to say, fine.
However, I said it wasn’t enough. So, he asked me how much I wanted. I told him that I wanted to earn more than my dad. He held his hand to his heart and said: ‘Sons, they can be so cruel.’ He asked me how much my dad earned and offered me £10,000 more.
Then he pushed the phone over to me and said tell your Dad now. My Dad answered, and I told him that I had been offered a contract with The Sunday Times and that I was going to be paid more than him.
I could tell he was pleased and proud. But without drawing breath he said: ‘Absolutely. I was earning more than my father at your age!’
What have you seen at the theatre recently that you thought was exceptional?
Shadowlands, [the true love story of the writer CS Lewis with Charles Dance in the lead role, and currently on-stage at Wyndham’s Theatre, in London’s West End]. I thought it would be an old play that should be doing the provincial rep round. But there’s a lot of stuff going around about God and discussions about religion at the moment, so the subject matter was right on the money.
The performances were simply unfaultable and compelling, with the whole thing working together to make one great performance.
What is your favourite European city?
If I couldn’t choose London one place (with much terrible gnashing of teeth) would have to be Rome. It’s the perfect place to visit.
I remember walking through the streets on a spring day and there was this amazing light which made it look heavenly, and I said to my friend, ‘Who is a Roman, why doesn’t everyone live here?’ He replied that it took him six months to get a telephone connected and not even the Pope could get broadband installed within a week. Nothing works in Rome.
What is the biggest social faux pas for a man to make?
There are a number of things that men do that they think are deeply attractive or masculine, but are just relentlessly hideous.
Wife-beater T-shirts is one.
But the worst is boorishness – masculine, loud bullying that does not stop and only being interested in humiliating someone else.
Boors dominate at a table and talk over everyone. No amount of telling them that what they are doing is social halitosis will work, because they will say I was right. It is very common.
Which holiday destination is the most overrated?
The Maldives. There are 2000 slung islands of which only 200 are inhabited. It is a Muslim country but no-one thinks of it as anything other than a holiday resort, so all things you should be careful and polite about a Muslim country, like covering yourself up, are ignored. People don’t care and I find that unpleasant.
Everything you eat is flown in so it’s rootless, frozen food. There is nothing to do except get towed by boats and have sex.
And it’s full of honeymoon couples who are unbelievably gloomy because they’ve spent 18 months being the centre of attention, and their whole relationship has been based on getting the wedding organised. There’s been an enormous build-up and they’ve spent all their money and their parents’ money. Then they’ve spent 12 hours in airports and 15 hours in aeroplanes, then dumped on an island. The depression is titanic.
Where do you have your suits made?
They’re tailor-made by a woman from Savile Row.
What do you think is the greatest invention?
My bicycle – I use it all the time. I simply adore it. I first discovered cycling at school and bought a bike for my son. Then when he went to boarding school I started to ride it. And then I had to get a better one!
What do you think of reality television?
Reality television is a big title and it can hold a lot in it. Jamie’s School Dinners was the best use of television for years and was brilliant.
And there have lots of ways the format has been used that have been inventive. Seven Up!, [a documentary following a group of seven year olds] which started in the 60s, is reality television, too. Telling reality is the thing that television can do so well and film finds difficult. You see documentaries at the cinema and the medium is too big – it just looks like big cinema life.
But programmes like ‘I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here’ and Big Brother (England is one the last places to still be showing this) are ghastly. They are exploitative, cruel and sycophantic to a certain sliver of the audience at the expense of the rest. They suck up to kids aged between 13 and 20 in a brain-dead, lame and exploitative way. Television gets an idea and flogs it to death and goes on flogging it until it falls to bits and smells. One format will lead to imitations, which expend the magic and then they move onto the next thing.
The grandaddy of these programmes was That’s Life, presented by Esther Rantzen. It was part consumer affairs and the big sell was the ‘ahhh’ factor. There were nice things like children running marathons wearing callipers and it had a family feel. But people got fed up with doing that so turned it around and reality television became about being horrid and seeking out weird, dysfunctional people to exploit. When Big Brother started it was about finding a couple who would have sex on camera, but then the producers realised they couldn’t show that anyway so they found people who couldn’t have sex because they had someone else’s penis sown on!
But saying that, there’s never been so much great television as now, and it’s mainly coming from the US. It used to be that only bad television came from there, but now they have produced some fantastically good programmes like Friends, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under and Grey’s Anatomy, which are all brilliant.
Britain does produce good drama, but I have a loathing of costume drama. I think it’s lazy using heritage to put a story on television because it’s written by Jane Austen for example, even though it’s not a very good story. And using some National Theatre totty with heaving tits.
Television is a very young medium. It’s only a generation old so far and technology changes so fast that inspiration is always chasing it, which is not necessarily a good place for a cultural form to be.
Which celebrities do you think are the most influential at the moment?
Whatever Kate Moss wears will sell out across the world, and whatever Nigella Lawson cooks will walk off the shelf in Sainsbury’s. In that way they are commercially influential.
I am dubious of the benefits of celebrities, but I think it’s the people who manipulate them who are more powerful. It’s another tool for selling stuff. Most celebrities do not make an enormous amount of difference and do not have a sense of purpose or commitment. They are young kids who have to make a lot of decisions very quickly and it’s the people who manipulate them like broadcasters, agents and fashion houses who have the influence.
I’ve noticed that celebrities have less and less to do with politics and perhaps that’s a good thing because you don’t have actors telling you how to vote and pop singers singing protest songs.
I look at what’s on my children’s walls and it’s very different to stuff I had, which was all ban the bomb and equal rights. We were very politicised as a generation, going on marches and even though I wasn’t particularly political at the time, that’s what you did. It has changed and now my kids are concerned about the environment. Politics has moved from being old hard-line issues like women’s rights, to planetary issues. People are the bad guys now.
How many restaurants have you reviewed and do you ever get fed up with eating out night after night it?
I’ve been writing restaurant reviews for 13 years. And I write one a week, 40 weeks of the year. I eat out six nights a week – I never get fed up with it.
I was an art critic at one point and that cured me of going to see art, but it’s not the same with restaurants. You can’t say: ‘Now I’m retired I won’t eat any more.’ We all eat three times a day and you cannot stop being critical. I still get a frisson inside every time I go somewhere new in anticipation of being given food I haven’t seen for a long time or have never tried. It’s the combination of ingredients that is exciting. But you still get terrible restaurants that take on that particular year’s fashion. One year, hundreds of restaurants were serving sticky toffee pudding, this year it seems to be this pustule chocolate pudding that bursts when you put your spoon in.
What is exciting is seeing an interesting ingredient or trying really new combinations that work. I went to Roget Verge’s restaurant in Cannes, Le Moulin de Mougins, and had lobster with vanilla. I had read about this dish, which is why I ordered it. When I tasted it I was speechless with admiration. It was so clever and absolutely right – it showed a deep understanding of taste and ingredients.
If you’re a book or theatre critic you can fall out of love with the medium and I know a lot of people who do. But you never lose hunger. I still won’t review a restaurant unless I am hungry and that’s what I take to the table.
photos Richard Newton