I heard AA Gill introduce himself at a literary festival recently: “Hello, I’m AA Gill – hands up those who think I’m a c**t!”
At the time, the challenge seemed way too much for the ‘snowcapped’ gathering of well spoken gentlefolk who froze visibly into a collective iceberg of disapproval. But then he began to speak; twenty minutes later, they were his slush puppies, enthusiastically lapping up each and every bon mot and risqué pun. Such is the contrarian nature of this brilliant and highly unusual man.
The memoir of the first thirty years of his life that he has published* is entitled ‘Pour Me’ but this might equally have been ‘Clever Me’. The author is a leading television and restaurant critic (though he paints and does other things too), and he is undoubtedly one of the most perceptive, intelligent and entertaining writers today. The book describes his descent into alcoholism up until the time that he went into treatment at Clouds House, Wiltshire.
In some respects, the book was a disappointment to this reader – Gill’s style of writing – the insightful metaphors and the savage similes that he employs so tellingly – is really most effective when directed against others; but here he is largely talking about himself. The trouble is that he is so clever and he wants to show us this,but then he has to apologise in advance in case his cleverness irritates us (which it does anyway). This book, in other words, is like his talk at the literary festival – it challenges us to think he is a c**t.
Where he is at his best is when talking about other people, both the famous and the definitely not famous, such as the Masai herdsman who offered him cow’s blood to drink and wanted to talk about the writings of James Hadley Chase, or the Russian bar girl in the sinkhole enclave of Kaliningrad who held his British passport to her nose “Ah, the smell of freedom”.
Rather less satisfying, in my view, are the pages of funny stories about drinking escapades he recounts, with a loving detail that some might consider euphoric recall, always a danger to an alcoholic in recovery. But then I take that sort of thing personally. While I do not doubt the sincerity of Gill’s commitment to AA and recovery in general, this is certainly not a book designed to inspire the struggling alcoholic, nor was it intended to be, as the author makes very clear.
It would be easy to say that one can find meetings, particularly in the smarter parts of London, that are full of people like AA Gill (why does his use of those initials irritate me?), but that would not be at all fair. There is so much more to this man. To turn a negative first impression into a positive is a challenge that clearly delights him and closer inspection reveals the extraordinary talent he has to offer. AA is a very broad and non-judgemental church and needs to stay that way.
I am an admirer of AA Gill as a writer and I very much hope that he will produce a sequel to this book, that will set out his experience, strength and hope around his personal journey in recovery. It should be a cracking good read and for me, a more satisfying book than this one.
*Pour Me: A Life – published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in 2015, hardback.