The journalist AA Gill, The Sunday Times food (and occasionally TV) critic, died last week, only three weeks after writing about his cancer diagnosis in his weekly column.
He broke the news with the kind sumptuousness of words he used in his criticisms; writing “there is barely a morsel of offal that is not included. I have a trucker’s gut-buster, gimpy, malevolent, meaty malignancy.” These were the kinds of turns of phrase that distinguished him from all other writers – he had an almost archaic way of writing, as if his descriptions had run away from him whilst he was speaking. It was a type of writing that was so particular to him, perhaps precisely because he did not write like most journalists do. Profoundly dyslexic, words, to which he had dedicated his whole working life, did not come naturally to him, so he dictated his columns, his essays, and his novels to copy takers. Keeping the typists at the end of the line, as well as the readers picking up the writing in print entertained must then have been the challenge. It was a challenge to which he took to with gusto.
One got the distinct impression that he relished eviscerating those who did not meet his exacting standards, or when he wanted to court controversy. He was regularly regarded as a snob (he wore only Savile Row suits lined with Hermes scarves), and frequently a misogynist – he once referred to Clare Balding as a “dyke on a bike”, and historian Mary Beard as too ugly to be on television, his own partner of more than twenty years, Nicola Formby, often starred in his columns referred only by the moniker “the Blonde”.
For all his failings and his snobbery he could sometimes reveal the full enormity of his generosity of spirit – in February he wrote a deeply moving review of the canteens that had sprung up in the Jungle refugee camp in which he likened the act of the refugees setting up camp by a river and gathering to eat at the beginnings of every civilisation. In announcing Gill’s death, Tim Shipman, political editor of the Sunday Times, wrote: “AA Gill, the writer who first made me buy the Sunday Times, the best of us for 30 years, has died. Very sombre mood in the office.” AA Gill wasn’t the reason I bought The Sunday Times, but his columns were the first pieces I turned to in the paper, always feeling a twinge of disappointment when the line ‘AA Gill is away’ appeared in fine print at the bottom of his regular food column Table Talk .
No one else wrote quite like AA Gill, and it is hard to imagine that anyone ever will.