Steve Braunias interviews the amazing AA Gill.
AA Gill phoned from Australia to talk about his new memoir, Pour Me, which has many familiar qualities of his writing – it’s a wonder to behold, it’s luminous with bright and glowing prose, it’s got a lot of similes in it. It’s also hectoring, monotonal, rambling, seemingly unedited and often unforgivably boring.
Gill has never revealed a first-rate mind; he expresses something more interesting, an original mind. A wonderful writer, a stylist nonpareil, but not much of an author. All his books are too long, because they’re book-length. His newspaper columns – 1300 words surrounding a byline photo – are perfectly formed entertainments. Pour Me is pith and miss. It’s a haphazard arrangement of writings about his school days, his marriages, his missing brother, his Christian faith, his newspaper writing, his dyslexia, his various assorted etcetera. Like all his books, he dictated it down the phone to a copytaker. She gave it what his word blindness couldn’t: punctuation, and sense. She was unable to give it what it needed: shape, and purpose.
Pour Me advertises itself as a confessional of Gill’s long-ago life as an alcoholic. “It is a classic about drunken abandon,” wrote some poor devil sent to slave away at making things up on the back cover. But there isn’t a lot of drunken abandon to speak of, because Gill can’t remember much about drinking or about anything, really. “The unexamined life may not be worth living,” he notes, “but what’s to examine if you can’t remember it?”
There are small, neatly defined portraits of drinking in the pubs of Soho. He drank with Alex Trocchi, who was kind of Britain’s version of William Burroughs, with his packets of junk and his experimental prose. He had the DTs. He found strange things in his pocket The Morning After. Then he dried out, and the rest of the book are stray thoughts on his school days, his marriages…What’s the point of the exercise? It’s like a progress report, a brisk little check-up on the state of his life. It’s a very thin 240 pages.
Still, it’s interesting when he writes about his writing work. And now and then it’s good for a laugh though not often. He writes, “I’m aware that this isn’t a funny book, which I readily admit is a disappointment to both of us.”
He was generous with his time when he called. He was relaxed, he was charming; he spoke like a parody of a fruity haw-haw toff. “I’ve got a ridiculous voice,” he once told an English newspaper. “I sound like a camp friend of Bertie Wooster.” He was very good company.
The photographs taken at your book launch show an immensely cheerful Monica Lewinsky.
I was so pleased she came. She’s a friend of a friend. I’m very taken with Monica. She’s an amazingly resilient and incredibly funny and perceptive woman. In all the times I’ve met I her, I’ve never spoken to her about her .. her .. you know, about the reason we all know her.
But what I can say is that I always thought she was one of the really tragic victims of the media, and of people who manipulate the media. As a young woman she was thrown to the lions in a way that was cynical and cruel and very shabby. I hope to see more of her.
You make passing reference in Pour Me to an old drinking friend of yours when you were a sot – the writer Alex Trocchi.
Oh, Alex. I’m pleased you picked out him. I think he’s a great writer. He was a junkie, and he had the longest writer’s block I’ve ever seen. We used to drink in the same pub and he became a great friend. He was tough, he was funny. He was an immensely cultivated man. He looked amazing; he had this fantastic eagle-like face, and was always hunched over a book. There was nothing he hadn’t read. He was marvellously good at talking about books and literature and writing. But at the heart of it was this sort of sadness that this phosphorescent talent he had as a young man, this explosive, white-hot way with words, had departed.
I would be surprised if any of his works are now in print. But anybody who’s got nothing to better to do with the next ten minutes of their life should get on the computer and read him.
You write about your brother Nick with considerable miserable reluctance.
Yes. I never ever spoke about Nick. I couldn’t stand people’s sympathy, and I couldn’t, you know, I couldn’t stand the trite things that people come up with when they’re being kind and thoughtful. I had a brother who disappeared. I mean what do you say to that?
He was troubled in all sorts of ways. He was a brilliant chef. He was two years younger than me. We had a funny separation for a while, and then quite a close relationship. He was the person in life who was closest to me.
He came to see me one day. I hadn’t seen him for a bit. He’d been difficult. He’d been angry and he was drunk too much and he didn’t know what he was going to do. He started off with this very glittering career, being the youngest English chef to get a Michelin star, and it had all dissipated and fallen apart.
He came to see me and we had one last meeting. He sat in my house for the first time in a long time. We had a really easy, nice conversation. We talked about our childhood, and holidays, people we knew. And he just got up and said, “I think I’m going to disappear.”
I gave him what I had in my wallet, and a coat, because it was cold. And I said, “Well, just don’t disappear. Phone.” And he smiled. He had this funny half-smile. He gave me this crooked smile. I hope I told him I loved him. But I’m not sure I did.
You mention in your book that all your letters home from boarding school ended, “Give my love to Nick.”
I missed him. But I’d completely forgotten about what school was really like until my mother showed me these letters. She’d kept them all. She gave them back to me, and it was like being repeatedly waterboarded.
I’m amazed at perhaps my ability, at perhaps our species’ ability, to get over and bury unhappiness. If you’d asked me before I started writing this book if I’d been happy at school, I’d have said yes. Then I started writing the book and I realised how deeply miserable I’d been. And just as a band-aid, as a plaster, I’d written home, “No, no, it’s all fine.” And it wasn’t fine. It was miserable.
Where are you right now?
On the Margaret River in western Australia. There’s a food thing going on [the annual Gourmet Escape food festival], and it’s my fourth year coming here.
There’s your food writing, and there’s also your travel or foreign correspondent writing, which inevitably touches on the most feared words in the world right now – Isis State.
Yes. I find now that the abiding story of my serious writing is the plight of refugees around the world. I’ve written stories about refugees from Iraq and Syria, and each of those stories touches on Isis.
They are an utter abhorrence. Look at what comes from Isis State. There’s the hideous little clips on YouTube which I won’t watch. I’ve just come back from Kos [in Greece] interviewing refugees there, and hearing their stories about their families being killed. It leads to a really unpleasant anti-Islamism around the rest of the world. I spend a lot of time travelling in Muslim countries and I’ve always been treated incredibly well and with fantastic kindness and hospitality. It’s always been a pleasure. What this is doing to Muslims around the world, and to our understanding of Muslims, is really crippling and a terrible shame.
Do you despair?
No, I never despair. This isn’t about despairing. I’ve seen things and spoken to people which have moved me to beyond words, and one of the things you can’t do in a refugee camp is burst into tears. The one thing they don’t really need is other people’s tears. I’ve heard stories and seen the plights of people which are really beyond sympathy. They’re just terrible. But I don’t despair about it, because Isis are only a few people, and they will lose. They will go. It will end. These countries will go back to something else. But at the moment it’s dire.
To go these places you go to – are you flirting with death?
Well. You know. Touch wood. I must say as I go on doing it, it gets harder. But there’s still that propulsion to get the story. I can’t go back to London with nothing.
But it makes it harder to leave the house.
Yes. I’ve got four children, the two twins who are eight, and it’s hard. Every time it’s hard. And every time they call the flight, I want to hear the announcement, you know, “Mr Gill, please come back to the gate.” But they are the best things I do. To leave home, to go out and find stories about other people across the globe, that’s the purest form of journalism.
Everyone has various interests, no one is just one thing all the time, and so one ought not be shocked that a foreign correspondent is also a restaurant critic. And yet there is a dichotomy about being assigned to some Third World hellhole and then going back to London and inspecting the merits of artichokes.
Yes. There absolutely is. That’s undeniable. But one mitigates the other. If all I did was eat in expensive restaurants, I’d have a pretty skewed view of the world. But I’ve observed in people who do a lot of work as war correspondents, there’s a post-traumatic stress involved which gives them a very uncomfortable relationship with the peaceful world. So I think I need both.
I began by asking you about other people – Lewinsky, Trocchi, Nick – and there’s someone else I want to ask you about, and that’s the person you used to be, the Adrian who was a sot, who drank solidly for ten years and nearly died, although you don’t really reveal much about who you were back then or your drinking routines. One of the few times you itemise things is that you write you were probably drinking a bottle of Scotch a day as well as two Special Brews and up to 12 pints of beer.
Something like that. The one thing people always ask addicts is, “How much did you drink?” But not one recovering alcoholic has ever once asked me for that. For us, it’s completely immaterial. It’s never about volume. Almost everybody who drinks socially worries about how much they drink, because of their liver, their waist, their memory, their bad breath. Everybody worries a bit about drink, and what they worry about is how much. And so people ask me how much did you drink, because they want to be able to say, “Haw! I don’t drink anything like as much as that.”
But this Adrian you used to be – who was he? You write in the book that “the act of writing might lead to clues”, but at the end you conclude it’s just “the same old cigar box of memories.” You must have learned something about this Adrian.
It’s a good question, and I wanted to be able to answer it by the end of the book. I wanted to be able to say, “Well, that was me. And that’s the why and the wherefore.” But I still don’t know.
One of the things about addicts is they often think their active addictive life, their life as a drunk, and it was 10-12 years for me, that there’s a sense that that was the real me. And that what I’ve been living ever since is this reconstructed me. It’s like Clark Kent and Superman. And I don’t know which one of us is the more real.
Maybe it’s like The Catcher in the Rye, and the younger Adrian is like the super-honest Holden Caulfield, who would look at the AA Gill you’ve become, and he’d assess him and condemn him with that great word: “Phoney.”
Well. I hope he wouldn’t. I think he might think I was cowardly. That I was ungrateful. That I didn’t take enough risks.
Would he be envious?
I think he’d be bloody surprised. The idea that I made it to 60 still surprises me.
Pour Me by AA Gill (Weidenfeld & Nicholson) is available at Unity Books.