Sacred, profane and hilarious: AA Gill’s memoir is a monument to one of the great journalistic stylists

My first encounter with the work of AA Gill was in the late nineties. I have an image of his terrifying handsomeness, staring out at me between columns of a glossy feature. He’s smiling, the picture of Satan as we might imagine him in the Rolling Stones song – well-dressed, worldly, grinning eyes filled with irritating insight.

He was also smoking. That was what the feature was about. It was either Loaded magazine or GQ, published in what was absolutely a golden age of male culture.

I don’t remember much about the piece, other than the tone – a classy, intemperate defence of smoking as a sophisticated and beautiful occupation, and an impatience with the do-goodery anti-smoking lobby, a lobby which eventually won that, and many other, culture wars.

aagill
AA Gill as a young artist. This picture graces the dust sheet of his autobiography Pour Me

The writer died last week, and I felt the strange pang of loss that you feel for someone unconsciously valued but who has not been on your mind for some time. Some public people don’t need to be a part of your life to be of value. Like public libraries, I don’t need to visit them regularly to be angry they are gone.

Gill’s autobiography was released (on paperback) in November, by Weidenfeld & Nicolson.

It is a beautifully funny, honest and crafted work, from a writer who harnessed all his flaws and turned them into his genius. In some ways that’s what being a writer is all about. In the absence of redemption, he settles for perspective.

Gill has the extraordinary ability to navigate the sacred and the profane. He’s brutally honest, but doesn’t use self-deprecation as a writerly tool, like some comic writers do – particularly those who confront addiction and debauchery.

Gill is as cruelly incisive about his own failings, as he is as a critic of art, food or culture. Despite the image of having been a socialite rake, he is acutely egalitarian, gracious even, in his appraisal of human folly, personal or otherwise.

Gill’s writing itself is peculiarly artistic. No one writes like this anymore, especially no one in journalism. Gill savoured his craft, understood the possibilities and the beauty of newspaper writing at its best, and intuitively mastered the ability to speak through rhythm and style, rather than simply relying on the safe choices of Anglo-Saxon prose.

Nearly every sentence bursts with joy, a joy tinged with the inescapable melancholy of observed truth.

This is my favourite passage from the book:

‘I loved Soho. Its loose, weary, dog-eared, smutty brilliance. The pubs full of bitter, drunk nearly was’s – men with ancient tweed jackets that were too lazy to leave them and yellow fingers, who smelt of Gitanes and whisky at ten in the morning. Men with everything behind them, for whom a lacerating envy and general livid malevolence were the sour elixir of life. They had once all been promising novelists championed by Hugh MacDairmid or John Braine, they’d come down from the grit of the North to take London by the throat and now chased reviewing jobs for the Staggers or as freelance subs on late-night shifts for the tabloids.’

In his younger years, Gill seemed to inhabit an underworld, a London still reeling from the swinging 60s, full of ageing dandys and horsewhip fillies, brawling Irishmen and Machiavellian bohemians. It’s a kind of Sherlock Holmes London that he admits no longer exists.

These characters and subterranean dungeons are not recalled with nostalgia so much as through a fog of nightmarish forgetting. There is an absence of sentimentality and regret, which seems to be at the root of Gill’s ability for unrepentant honesty.

Right at the beginning of the book, Gill warns against expecting any tales of redemption, or Road-to-Damascus moments. His battles with addiction are not won through slaying his inner demons, so much as understanding them, taming them, confronting them and learning to live with them.

The challenge we face as human beings is to accept our status as beautiful sinners, capable of cruelty and magic in equal measure. Gill seems to have done this. Healing, forgiveness, personal growth and self-betterment come not from lying to ourselves, repressing sexuality and our prurient greediness, but in embracing it all, becoming an integrated whole of stupidity and ingenious beauty.

Gill moves swiftly from Hunter Thompson honesty about alcoholic breakdown, into near-Keatsian elegance in his discussions of art and culture. The reputation as an unforgiving, almost nihilistic punk-gentleman is confounded in these moments.

Art, culture, and the holiness of creative beauty are all a serious business. Not because of their redemptive ability to save us from ourselves. Gill’s love of art, even sacred art, didn’t save him from the piss-ridden depths of alcoholism.

No, these things matter because they make us confront the truth about our greatness and our weakness, our boorish animalism as well as our angelic capacity for self-transcendence.

Alcoholism, for Gill, is intimately entwined with the love and fascination of death. Death begins the book and haunts his prose throughout. But it doesn’t come coated in self-pity or Burroughs-eque horror.

A painting that moved Gill from an early age is the depiction of the Crucifixion by Matthias Grünewald for the Order Of St. Anthony.

Again honesty and beauty go hand in hand, the painting of Christ being completely devoid of idealisation and super-human beauty.

The power of the painting, for Gill, is the picture of Christ as a man, whose body is condemned to tortured frailty and disease, just like our own.

A little further on in the same section of the book, Gill describes his encounter with the broken, fractured statues of Greek gods while visiting Greece as an aspiring young art student. The lost limbs and cracked faces, the imperfect perfection of these relics of human triumph seem to hold the most power and resonance for Gill.

In passages such as these we get a clearer idea of Gill’s mission as a writer and a critic. His aim is never to dehumanise or humiliate, or even to gloat on the shortcomings of a tasteless dish or boring television show.

The critic’s job, if he is a good critic, is to unravel the beauty hidden in human ineptitude, to find the common sinfulness in our greatest achievements, and the saint-like struggle in our most shameful acts of egotistical blundering.

We live in an age when it is fashionable to be sneering and nihilistic. Especially in journalism and the arts, the model seems to be one of hipster insouciance. We all yearn to have the worldly wit and uncaring insight that Gill embodied in his writing, and which I remember from that feature back in the nineties.

Pour Me drives home the fact that you can’t affect this wisdom. You need to be raw. Joyful melancholy and satiric revelation are not the product of a fashion statement.

Curling your lip up and wearing skinny jeans does not turn you into the voice of your generation. The insight comes first, then the style. This generation of part-time Freudians has got the whole thing back to front.

Great writing, and important social commentary, come from the capacity to see the beauty in the horror of wilting life, and the preposterous cunning in the soul’s grasping, faulty brilliance.

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