Monday Motivation: The acidic voice of AA Gill
I want to talk about voice today; the voice, specifically, of a dead restaurant reviewer who developed his very idiosyncratic, caustic manner into an art so addictive that hardly anyone read his columns for the actual restaurant advice he dispensed, sometimes in the last couple of paragraphs of his review.
His name was AA Gill. He was the restaurant critic for the London Sunday Times (among other publications). He died this week quite suddenly after announcing just three weeks ago that he was suffering from “an embarrassment of cancer.”
So there will be no more of his reviews – although his incomparable voice is captured in a rich archive that we can, thanks to the internet, access at will.
I want to look at just one of his reviews today, one he wrote some five years ago, about a restaurant called The Medlar.
It kicks off with reflections about his birthday. He’d just turned 57. He notes the fact that he shares his birthday with a number of other luminaries, including Henry VIII, Mel Brooks and “serendipitously, another AA: the Hungarian hammer-thrower Adrian Annus.”
Now he dashes off on a detour, giving us one of those riffs for which he was famous: “Adrian Annus may well be the most unfortunate label ever attached to a child. Annus fell foul of the busybodies in drug testing. He allegedly supplied a pair of urine samples that apparently came from different bodies. Maybe he has two penises. Or two bladders. Would two bladders be convenient or inconvenient? Would two penises? And then I noticed that Adrian Annus isn’t, in fact, the worst name in Europe. His first trainer answered – defensively, I imagine – to the striking moniker Geza Annus. Not something you want to shout out in a crowded Turkish bath.”
It’s irreverent, it’s insulting, it is, most definitely, politically incorrect, and it’s very witty. Look again at the wordplay implicit in his question about the convenience or otherwise of having two bladders.
Voice is a complex thing to define. It’s the unique fingerprint that you leave in your writing. It might have something to do with the characteristic cadence of your sentences; the wit of your observations; the acerbity of your associations; the morality of your judgements.
A little later in The Medlar review Gill weighs the fact that he has already surpassed the life expectancy of an average Nigerian man. “In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation, at birth a boy child can look forward to an average of 46 years, which is a smidgen over half what an Icelandic lad can expect. That, there,” he says, “is the great inequality. Sod race, religion or sexual proclivity, half a life is a real prejudice.”
And then, a moment later, in more philosophical mood, he reflects that “all death is down to some terminating circumstance: a bus, a blood clot, a bolt from the blue.”
There’s something about that final clause, buzzing with alliteration, that is both funny and chilling.
And on to the presents he received for his birthday, the best of which, he says, was a pig – a cross between a Tamworth and an Oxford Sandy and Black – a gift from his partner which his children immediately dubbed Eve. He’s moved immediately to subvert the potential sentimentality of that with this:
“Now here’s the dilemma: do we eat Eve, or breed from her and eat her kids? A hog killing is one of the most fun things you can do on an autumn weekend.”
So you could establish a voice that is, like Gill’s, deliberately shocking, with an icy edge of cruelty which is paradoxically only half a step away from comedy.
Finally, three paragraphs from the end of his piece, Gill arrives at the restaurant – but can’t restrain himself from a last detour:
“The aesthetic high point (of the restaurant) are the light fittings,” he says, “which are as brightly hideous as anything I’ve seen screwed to a wall…”
But the light fittings notwithstanding, he loves the food, and gives the restaurant his unreserved imprimatur. “The food,” he writes with a faint air of surprise, “is really unexpectedly good, and at £25 for three courses, for a lunch of this quality, the best value anywhere in Chelsea, which almost makes up for the lights.”
The man was hardcore to the last. I’d love to read his reviews of the hereafter. I have no doubt they’d be to die for.
P.S. A couple of A.A. Gill-isms: In a column he once described the Welsh as “loquacious dissemblers, immoral liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls” – for which he was taken to task by a great many very angry Welsh people and institutions. But he wasn’t deterred. It wasn’t long before he was describing the inhabitants of the Isle of Man as falling into two types: “hopeless, inbred mouth-breathers known as Bennies” and “retired, small arms dealers and accountants who deal in rainforest futures.” You don’t have to subscribe to these scurrilous stereotypes to fall over laughing at them.