Lines in the Sand: Collected Journalism, by AA Gill, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 320 pp, £20, ISBN 978-1474605151
AA Gill died in December 2016, having revealed in his Sunday Times column, in his inimitable style, just a month earlier that he was suffering “the full English” of cancer. Praise for his journalistic talent was widespread. I rarely agree with anything Boris Johnson writes or says, but having read this wonderful book, it is difficult to dissent from his evaluation of the author: “AA Gill was one of the last great stylists of modern journalism and one of the very few who could write a column so full of gags and original similes that it was actually worth reading twice.” Style is certainly the word that comes to mind when reading this collection of his journalism. Style, but also substance and a great range of genuine feeling for his subjects – negative and positive.
Because I was researching the Rohingya tragedy, I immediately went to his piece on what he calls this “pogrom” in the first of the three sections that make up the book. This concentrates on the question of refugees in Syria, the Congo, the Italian island of Lampedusa, Lebanon and Mexico, as well as a piece on the camp at Calais, known as “the Jungle” and what he sees as an example of the “brutalist” French approach to the problem. His piece on the Rohingya was published in June 2014, so well before the most recent events, which are now openly described as “ethnic cleansing”, much to the irritation of Myanmar’s up to recently much revered first state counsellor or prime minister, Aung San Suu Kyi.
Gills notes that the UN has described the Rohingya as “the most persecuted people in the world”, a situation that has only become worse with the forced emigration/ethnic cleansing of 655,000 men, women and children, and a reported 6,700 killed in attacks during the first month of the military crackdown, now being described as genocide. He writes: “Think of that: how pitiful your lot must be to contend for that fathomlessly miserable accolade [….] The Burmese say the Rohingyas are dogs, that they are too ugly to be Burmese, that they are Bengali – illegally imported coolie immigrants, colonial flotsam.” His passion is fierce and very real.
His piece entitled simply “Europe”, which ends the second section, was written just before the fateful referendum in June 2016, and it is one that will certainly not have pleased his admirer Johnson. It is an excoriating denunciation of Brexit and Brexiters. “There is one in every queue, every coffee shop, outside every school in every parish council in the country. Middle-aged, middle class, middle-brow, over made-up, with her National Health face and weatherproof English expression of hurt righteousness, she’s Britannia’s mother-in-law. The camera closed in on her and she shouted: ‘All I want is my country back.’ It was a heartfelt cry of real distress and the rest of the audience erupted in sympathetic applause, but I thought: Back from what? Back to what?” He goes on to describe what: “Back from Johnny Foreigner, back from the brink, back from the future, back-to-back … Back to vicars-and-tarts parties and Carry On farts jokes, back to Elgar and fudge and proper weather and herbaceous borders and cars called Morris.”
Gill was no stranger to controversy, having been the subject of sixty-two Press Complaints Commission complaints in five years. He no doubt spared himself another by not naming the lady in this piece, although, on a “bad day” he might well have done. He does, however, name the singer Morrissey, whose autobiography he reviewed in 2013. Not surprisingly perhaps, the piece won “Hatchet Job of the Year Award” in 2014. “Nothing incites intemperate cultural hyperbole like cheap music,” he writes before going on to eviscerate somebody he clearly despises. He starts with his name. “[Morrissey] tells us he ditched ‘Steve’ his given name, to be known by his portentous moniker – deep reverential breath here – great classical composers have only one name. Mussorgsky, Mozart, Morrissey …” However, he continues. “His most pooterishly embarrassing piece of intellectual social climbing is having this autobiography published by Penguin Classics. Not Modern Classics, you understand, where the authors can still do book signings, but the classic Classics where they’re dead and some of them have only one name. Moliere, Machiavelli, Morrissey.” There is no coming back from that and indeed it only gets worse as he concludes the piece: “Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer, or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim.” Ouch, what can one possibly say?
Gill had gone under my reading radar apart from an occasional glance at his television reviews, which I didn’t pay much attention to simply because I don’t watch much television. I will now certainly go back to his travel writing, which is showcased here in the second section. I particularly enjoyed the piece on India and certainly agree with his assessment: “[If] you’re only planning on visiting one foreign country in this life, you should probably make it India.” He also offers advice on going to Bhutan, where I plan to go next year: “If you’re flying to Bhutan, sit on the left. You overtake eight of the ten highest mountains in the world on the left-hand side, and that alone is worth the steep price of the ticket.”
I had a Harris tweed jacket when I was a boy and I loved it above anything I had ever worn and I would have worn it forever. A few years ago I bought a second-hand one for €67, in mint condition, in the Harlequin second-hand shop in Dublin and I love it just as much. It’s the jacket that is me, a marvellous deep, dark landscape green, all “tint and fleck” as Heaney once put it, writing of trout flies. Just putting it on feels right. I have now come to think of it as the same one I wore as a boy: it feels ageless and it will never wear. It’s hardly surprising then that I loved Gill’s “Tweed”: “Tweed is a parable, a stereotype of Britishness. We are tweedy. Tweed is taciturn and hardworking, sturdy, dependable, loyal. Tweed doesn’t get soppy or go limp. It fits with the familiarity of first-name terms, and it always has a mint, a penknife and a pebble in its pocket.” Indeed, it does.
Style indeed, Bojo was right for once.
Patrick Claffey is Wallace Adjunct associate professor in the department of religions and theology at Trinity College Dublin.