At the end of November, A.A. Gill, writing in his usual column for The Sunday Times, announced that he’d ‘got an embarrassment of cancer, the full English’. On the 11th of December his last ever piece was published, under the headline ‘A.A. Gill faces up to his cancer’. He had died the day before.
Born in 1954, Gill encapsulated everything that journalism should be. Suffering from dyslexia, he dictated his writings down the telephone and this created a superb, conversational, tone to everything he wrote. Even when he was calmly deconstructing a restaurant, a reader felt that they were right there next to him, listening to him speak verbatim. This ease had the effect of providing completely uncensored criticism, such as when he called L’Ami Louis in Paris ‘singularly unprepossessing’, where the fat of its foie gras clung to the roof of his mouth ‘with the oleaginous insistence of dentist’s wax’.
It wasn’t simply his prose that has secured his position as a giant in his craft: he was fearless too. This is the man who, in 2009, playfully described how he shot a baboon just so he could ‘get a sense of what it might be like to kill someone’. Unflinchingly he acknowledged ‘I know perfectly well there is absolutely no excuse for this’, almost in defiance of the inevitable backlash, which did indeed come.
In 2010 the biggest threat to his professional credibility came when he described Clare Balding – in reference to her ‘Britain by Bike’ TV programme – as ‘a big lesbian’ and ‘a dyke on a bike’. She complained to the PCC – a complaint it chose to uphold. For some, this would be enough to have crippled them, but not Gill. He refused to apologise and reached the headlines again in 2012 after he dismissed the classicist Mary Beard on the basis that she ‘should be kept away from cameras altogether’. In a testament to his (and her) character, Professor Beard tweeted in memory of him, describing his style as ‘old fashioned journalism’.
This assessment has it quite right. One does not need to agree with everything he said in order to admire his unflinching attitude to writing. As Brendan O’Neill reminded us, A.A. Gill frequently exercised his fundamental ‘right to offend’. Very few journalists, when they die, will be able to lay claim to that accolade. He refused to back down, refused to apologise for himself, and that is the cornerstone of effective, joyful writing.
His defence of the free press, which is increasingly under threat, is something we should emulate. During a time when freedom of the press is actually just a euphemism for publishing things that makes people feel good about themselves, his memory should inspire us all to write what we want, read what we want, and stand fearlessly beside the freedom of people.
His final piece was an encapsulation of everything that was brilliant about his writing, and solidified his position as a giant amongst critics. In closing he narrated a conversation he had with a nurse, who asked why he hadn’t attended chemotherapy that day. He explained to her the treatment hadn’t been working, and leaves us with one final touching image:
‘Her shoulders sag and her hand goes to her head…I think she might be crying.’
‘I look away, so might I.’