How do you interview your hero?
That was the question I was grappling with in early 2011, after successfully pitching a story on AA Gill to the West Weekend magazine. The British journalist widely regarded as the best food critic in the world was heading to Australia to promote Here and There, an anthology of his travel writing. In the lead-up to my phone interview with Gill, I set aside more time than usual for research purposes, asked those close to him about the best approach (“Leave the jokes to him,” was particularly sage advice) and called in a favour with one of his mates to put in a good word for me prior to our chat.
I don't know whether it was my preparation, catching Gill on a good day or simply luck, but the interview went great guns and he was as generous with his time as I could have hoped. (“Take as long as you need,” he told me when I asked him how much time he could spare. “But I haven’t had a cup of coffee yet this morning, so I may start gnashing my teeth”). After 20 minutes of conversation, I had enough material for both my original commission and a second piece. More than enough, in fact. One of the things about writing to (dwindling) word counts is that good stuff inevitably gets left on the cutting room floor, and my Gill stories were no exception.
Fortunately, the published pieces read great – not hard, admittedly, when you’re essentially acting as scribe for one of the planet’s canniest writers. Less great, however, was the way I nervously introduced myself after Gill's first session at that year's Sydney Writers Festival. As he signed my copy of AA Gill is Away, it was hard to figure out which of us was more embarrassed.
Since that first (mostly good) encounter, I've had the fortune of crossing paths with Gill a handful of times, most notably during last year's Margaret River Gourmet Escape where we worked together on the maiden edition of the Gourmet Gazette, the festival's newsletter. I'm not too cool to admit that Gill, unprompted, offering me both his hand and warm words on how impressed he was with the newsletter, remains a career highlight.
Sadly, following the terrible news of Gill’s passing overnight, neither I nor any other journalist will have the opportunity to again work alongside the great man. With many taking to social media to pay tribute to Gill and his impressive body of work, now seems an apt time to revisit that first interview and share the transcript as testament to the wit, humour, insight and genius of a true original.
No one observed and wrote about the world like AA Gill. This weekend, journalism lost one of its giants.
AA GILL, interviewed March 29, 2011
Broadsheet: Do you mind if I ask about your dyslexia?
AA Gill: A, I’m not touchy about anything and B, I read fine, but I read very slowly. When you read, assuming you’re not dyslexic, you read words as patterns. You read the beginning and the end and because of the context, you know what the word is. I don’t see those patterns. I have to read words for the letters of the words. And even then I may mix them up. It’s a bit more hit and miss. I tell you what – and nobody has really written about this – people write a lot about how computers help dyslexic kids, and they really do, I mean, it was really when I first got a computer in an office that I first started properly writing. It makes a big difference. Another one of the things nobody tells you is what a fucking nightmare the internet is if you’re dyslexic, because there’s no leeway. You can’t spell something nearly right. You can’t put in an email address that’s one letter or one dot out. It’s a fucking nightmare. If I write an envelope to you and I misspell your name or I get a letter wrong in the place you live, the postman’s still going to know where it is. But if you do it on the internet, you’re fucked.
I really love reading and I’ve read all my life. I got into the habit of it quite early, or early for dyslexics. My grandmother, god bless her, used to always give me a book for Christmas, which is, you know, the last present you wanted as a kid. By the time I finished breaking all the other presents four days after Christmas or everything had been played with or smashed, I was left with the book. I picked up this book after Christmas and it was Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome, and it was something about the first paragraph. I can’t even remember what it is now. But it grabbed me and I started reading it. I think it took me probably the better part of three or four months to read it. I walked around with huge bruises on my forehead because I’d keep walking into doors because I couldn’t put it down. That was the beginning of it. That was the first book I read that didn’t have pictures in it, or more pictures than writing. It’s a weird story, it’s this English Edwardian story about upper-class kids who go boating in the Lake District and I was a middle class kid who lived in the suburbs of London. It couldn’t have been further from me but somehow it struck me. But while my reading’s slow, my comprehension’s good. I remember a lot of it.
Poor Pat [Nourse, deputy editor at Australian Gourmet Traveller] gets the benefit of my copy. On each one of the publications I've written for, there is a Pat. My relationship with editors is the most important bit of my professional life. I rely on them, I think all journalists rely on editors. I think good editing is an essential part of what we do and it’s one of the great pleasures of what we do: that it’s collective, and we work together. That relationship that you have all together to make that thing that comes out once a day or once a week or once a month: that’s a pleasure. But if you’re like me and nobody can read your writing, then the editor, really, is like the small boy that leads the blind blokes around Africa. I have to have someone like that.
BS: How did you get into writing?
AG: It was quite late. Late in terms that most people who write know they want to write when they’re 13 or 14, or at least when they’re at university or college. But I was a painter. And that’s what I did. I don’t have any qualifications, though I went to art school. But I was passionate and that’s all I wanted to do all my life. There is a thing about dyslexia that people say dyslexics are more prone to be artistic, but there’s no evidence that dyslexics are any more artistic than anyone else. I have more trouble with numbers than with words. Dialling telephone numbers is all over the place, I can’t remember numbers at all. I can’t do any sort of maths. The currency of schools is words and numbers and if you’re shit at words and numbers, you’re never going to be rich in terms of what school values. So dyslexic kids tend to end up down the soft end of the corridor in the art room or doing design or cooking. We just end up there because at least these are things we’re not at a positive disadvantage. I think a lot of us do art, not because we’re particularly good at it, but because we’re not terribly bad at it. And if you do it a lot and you practice a lot you get to be better than people who don’t practice a lot.
The other big thing in my life before I was a journalist, before I started writing, is that I was an alcoholic. I am an alcoholic, a drug addict. I did a lot of drugs and a lot of booze. When I stopped doing that and got clean, it was obviously a time for me to look at all my life. I came seriously close to dying. I was in a bit of shabby state and all you’ve got then is the fact that you’re sober for the first time. A sort of messianic sense of relief and trepidation. A guy came to me and said; this is a completely new start. Instead of seeing this as what a failure I am, compared to all your mates that are getting married, got mortgages, got jobs, you can say this is a fresh start. And very, very few people get a fresh start. A completely clean slate. Everything’s been wiped. Everything’s gone. You can start all over again. I had nothing; I had a mattress on the floor in my mother’s flat and an incontinent dog - at least one of us was pissed, Max. Most people have to live with the mistakes they make when they’re 19, 20, 21. The course they do at college. The girl they ask to marry. The job they start doing. All of those things, You have none of that. You can make yourself. Again. And that struck home. That was a big deal for me. I did think that was a gift, potentially a gift. It depended what I did with it.
I fucked up so royally with the first 15 to 20 years of my life, drinking and taking drugs. I took quite a lot of trouble in making sure I didn’t do it again, and I thought one of the things I was going to stop doing was pretending I was an artist and just knock that on the head. I was never going to be great. And if you’re not going to be great, why devote your whole life to it? I was competent, I can draw quite nicely, but I’m the equivalent of a concert pianist who's really good at scales. Up to a point, that’s great, but after a point, no one really wants to listen. I stopped the art then cast around for something to do. I’d always took lots of menial jobs – mostly to keep myself in whisky, beer, speed and all the other crap I took – all those things that people did as students, I kept on doing, working as a waiter, being a gardener, working in warehouse and shops. All those odds and sods that people do when they don’t know what it is they’re going to do. Or when they can’t really do anything. But then I just sat and concentrated on keeping sober. You have to learn so much as a junkie, you’re so far out of society your whole life is based on borderline criminality and being illegal and being sick and being penniless. All of those things. You have to learn what it is just to get up and brush your teeth and make your bed and phone your mum. Those things are really new and big things.
I had a friend who was in recovery, you get into a group of people, you lean on them for support. Some of them had started a very small arts magazine, Artscene, and they said; You used to be a painter and an artist, do you know this artist called Craig Yates? I did know him. They said; Would you interview him for us? I said, I can’t write, I’m dyslexic. I couldn’t. That doesn’t matter, we’ve got subeditors we’ve got stuff, it doesn’t matter what it looks like, what’s important is the interview. I said okay, and I went to speak to Craig who was a mate and that was great and we had a nice day and he was very interesting. So I spent, actually an embarrassing amount of time, a month, to write a thousand words. All in long-hand, and I gave it to this editor and I was very nervous and she said, This is great, we can really use this. This is really interesting, and they published it and I saw my by-line.
I decided, ridiculously, to use AA Gill rather than Adrian Gill. People often ask me why I use my initials and not my name. I don’t think I’d do it again if I started again. I did it because of two reasons: one you’ll appreciate and one will make you laugh. One was because I didn’t want people to know what gender I was. Actually, you just have to read five words and you know this is not some bird. The other thing is that it’s what cricketers were always known as. Cricketers are always known by their initials. I think subconsciously, I had a rough time with my dad. I was very aware I wasn’t just a worry to him but a disappointment, and you know what it’s like with sons and dads. I was very aware of that. One of the things we used to do was we’d go to the cricket together at Lords and The Oval. And one of the things with cricket someone very wisely told me once is that we watch the games of our fathers. Dad would talk about the great English and Australian teams he’d seen before the second war. I still think of them as my great cricketing heroes, but I never saw any of them play. But as a kid, those are the stories, they were like the mythology of my dad and me. Thinking back now, I think I called myself AA Gill because I wanted to impress my dad.
I did that one piece and they asked if I would you do more, I said Yes, I’d love to. Very quickly I began writing a lot, though I suspect it was because I was available and I was cheap. Then they got the first computers into the office – little green-screened Amstrad things. They said, This is brilliant, this is going to be it. Because I wanted to make a point and because I’m a ponce, I’ve always written everything with a dip pen. I remember when the computers came in, I went around the office and gave everyone a quill. And I said, This is brilliant, it’s portable, its lightweight, it has no moving part, it has fantastic memory, it can correct itself. (Laughs). Then one lunchtime, when everyone was out at lunch, I sat down and I started fiddling with the computer, and it was a revelation. Then I started writing, I made up an arts column about myself which was very little about art and a lot about me rambling, and when I started writing, it was like coming home. I’d never had this thing in my life, this revelation that this is what I should be doing. I realised that all the stuff that I’d wanted to do with painting and drawing, I should have been writing. What I was trying to do was write, but doing it in pictures. It was just this amazing sense, at last, that is something I can properly do. And I didn’t have to worry about spelling, didn’t have to worry about the syntax. Punctuation or anything. It was like coming home.
Artscene doesn’t exist anymore, it probably lasted 15 issues. I found one two years ago. What I was amazed about was how clearly it was me, how my voice in print has changed very little. It still sounded, you know, opinionated, bombastic, a bit smug, slightly patronising, exactly how I sound now. But by that time, other art magazines asked me to write. During this time, I had a girlfriend, we got married, I had a daughter, my life was getting on and moving on. One of the things I did to make money, I taught people to cook. When I was drunk and a junkie, one of the things I did was sit at home and teach myself to cook. That was quite fun. Jolly, one of the people who did the course, was a journalist. They worked on an English glossy called Tatler. They did an article on good treatment centre guides where posh kids go with their addiction. We need someone to write the introduction. [AA wrote anonymously as part of the Anonymous fellowship] The editor liked it and she called me in and asked if I’d like to write more. Would you like to do celebrity interviews? If you work at a glossy magazine that deals with celebrity and fashion, celebrity interviews are the best job. And I said in horror, Absolutely not. How awful, I couldn’t ask people about their private lives. She looked at me with this sort of who-the-fuck-do-you-think-you-are? look, and said, What would you like to do? I said Well, I notice you don’t have a recipe column, which now I think about it, makes me blush. She said No, this is Tatler, we assume that people don’t cook. We’ll do six and see how it goes. So I started writing recipe columns. And next year, I won Magazine Journalist of the Year. It just took off. At the time, I had a very, very good and kind editor, a very unlikely Sloaney upper-class English girl. She took an enormous amount of time with my copy. In most journalists’ lives, there’ll be someone who has taken a lot of time with you who says, That works, that doesn’t, don’t do this, do that, cut this. And she did that with me. And I’m eternally gratefully to her for that.
Jo Drinkwater, she was amazing. She said to me, which I suppose was a pivotal moment, You’re a funny writer, and I said No, no, I’m not. I’m a very serious writer. I want to change the world. And she said, You know Adrian, there are just dozens of people who will do that. And they’re all better educated than you. And they’ve all got 58,000 more degrees. They’re all smarter. But there are very few people who can write funny. And if you can write funny, people will remember what you write. Also, you’ll always have a job.
And that thing she said about a job, seemed to make a lot of sense. I said, I don’t think I am, and I really don’t have a sense of humour. I can’t bear jokes. And I’m not good at making people laugh. She said, You are, you can do it, you can write it. It’s just a skill. It’s about rhythm, it’s about, as they say up north, how you tell them.
She made me a funny writer. At the beginning, it was very nerve-wracking, very exposing. What if people don’t laugh? But then you realise everybody wants to laugh. If sex were as easy as making people laugh, we’d all get laid all the time, because everybody wants to laugh. Who doesn’t? That was that and then I got taken onto a national newspaper, The Sunday Times. They were plundering magazine stocks for writers to staff feature sections which used to be “the far end of the paper that had a little bit of fashion and the crossword.”
I so loved writing, I was so keen on it. I had this young family. And I realised that this was what the guy had told me I might get. This was my new start. If I worked hard at it and I didn’t blow it and I didn’t pick up a drink, I could look after my daughter.
BS: Tell me about your travel writing.
AG: I probably go on three or four big trips a year, so every couple of months. It’s maybe getting less now. I’ve got a family, Flora, my daughter, she’s now at university. I’ve got another new family. I’ve got little kids again. Their mother and I used to travel a lot. It was one thing we always did together. Now we’ve got small kids, it’s much more difficult for the two of us just to pick up sticks and go off. I now travel less and I don’t want to leave the kids. I’m getting old. That was exactly what we did. People say to me, haven’t you had enough now? Haven’t you gotten it out of your system? Having been a junkie once, it’s exactly the same. The more places you go to, the more places you want to go to. I know that when I lie on my deathbed and they say, Any regrets? It’s not going to be not enough sex, it’s not going to be not enough foie gras, what it’ll be is that I never got to see Timbuktu, or I never got to the Atacama Desert. Those are those things I’m really going to mind.
I’m mad about travelling. Seeing places again. If somebody said That’s it, you’re never going to Rome again, I’d have to go to bed for a month. I so love it. I’m a great fan of cities. I really like cities. I love Africa. The thing about travelling in Africa, you must travel without any expectation of arriving anywhere. If you do that, it’s fine. If you think, 'I’ve got to be somewhere by five', it’s a fucking nightmare. Because you never are. Because everything will collude to make sure that the plane doesn’t take off, the captain’s sick, the weather’s bad, the road’s out, the taxi driver hasn’t got any petrol. If you just sit there and go, This is it, this is the experience I came for, and what I came for may be sitting by the side of the road for five hours waiting for a new crankshaft, then you’re happy and it’s fine. If you think 'No, no I’ve got to be somewhere', that’s the western way, you’ve got to leave that behind. If I don’t see Africa at least once a year, I really mind it. Nicola, my partner, is South African, and that thing of just getting off the plane is so redolent, so unmistakable. Just fantastic. I don’t think people who write about travel writing write enough about smell. It’s a really important part of travelling.
BS: Yeah, it’s always about the visual isn’t it?
AG: Oh yeah, it’s what we do. We do speech and images. And actually, to smell a place, you can walk down a street and you get that – there’s a reason for it. Your olfactory senses are situated in the eldest bit of your brain. It’s the brain you share with crocodiles and it’s pre-language. Really, really old. So whereas you can control what you see and hear and you edit that and refer back to it all the time, this is like something else. All of the sophistication you bring to hearing and seeing, you don’t have any of that with smell. You just smell things and your emotions that go with it, it’s beyond control.
I go to slightly less dangerous places than I used to. Again, partly from getting old or older, and partially having a small family and being sort of responsible. Nicola, she gets upset if she thinks I’m purposely putting myself somewhere that’s dangerous for the sake of 3000 words in a magazine. But on the other hand, I was doing my stuff with the editor of the Times last year and she said, Where do you want to go next year? And I said, There’s some really interesting places, but I really want to go to Yemen, I want to go to Egypt, and I’ve never been to Libya (Laughs).
I’m looking at my diary now. I’m coming to Australia in a couple of months. Going to Denmark next week, got to do a story in Belgium, I’m supposed to be going to Burma for a bit. There’s usually enough there to do a couple of pieces. What I like doing with GT is writing about the sort of experience of travel. Not necessarily "go to this destination", though I do a bit of that. But most of the time, it’s why we travel, what we look for, what our aspirations and expectations are. It’s the metaphysics of travel. I suppose they don’t get written about as much as the travel destinations holiday thing. I think that it’s a shame, although understandable. Most people’s travel is a holiday deal. You go for two weeks a year or whatever it is, but the point of it is, you’ve already laden it with things you need to do. You need to relax, you want to have a bit of a luxury time, you want to have a beach, you want to have cocktails with umbrellas in them, you want to see girls in bikinis, so all of that, that thing that you’ve laden on travelling, means where you’re going to get to go is quite limited. A lot of travelling is really the same experience repeated once a year in five or six different places.
I love a beach holiday as much as anyone and I love a five-star hotel more than most, but when people ask, What are the most exciting places I’ve been to? It won’t be a five-star hotel on Coral Island. It’s the things that really move you and really change your life and the things that give you perspective of who you are and where you are. Mostly for me, they’re being in cities. Cities are where most people live. The world has tipped over. The world is more urban than it is rural. There are more people in cities than they live in the country. I say that, but I also love deserts. I spend as much time as I can in deserts.
BS: Where did this love of travel come from?
AG: I really don’t know. I’m a bad traveller, I’m not a very good traveller. I’m not at all brave or adventurous. I’m nervous. I need to pee all the time. I get homesick. I get terrible train fever. I travel a lot with the same photographer [Tom Craig] and he always laughs at me because every time we turn up at an airport I’m there an hour early. I’m there an hour early for everything. I’m not one of those people who can just run down the aisle and get on the plane. I’m quite a nervous traveller. But you just do it. I think it’s the best thing in the world. It is the world. We’re only travelling this way once. There may be something afterwards, who knows, but at the moment, all we know is that we’re going through this place, once. And it’s a big place compared to us. But we live in a moment where it is relatively cheap and easy to get all around it. There isn’t really anywhere in the world where you can’t get to with a bit of application and a bit of hard work and a bit of a flog. And that’s never ever happened before in the history of people. We are the first generation that can travel anywhere if we really want to. That is amazing. All the other facts about the world pale into insignificance compared to that as your birthright. Particularly, of course, there’s a caveat to that, you and I coming from countries whose passports are welcome almost anywhere. Most people in the world, can’t travel anywhere and have a terrible, terrible time when they do travel. But us, we can. And not to do it seems to be the most sinful waste of an opportunity. Not to just want to go everywhere. Because it’s so amazing. I never get bored, I never think, 'I’ve seen this before'. Or, 'This is like somewhere else'. Or, 'Actually, I don’t want to do anymore'. it’s all fantastic.
BS: What are your plans when you’re in Sydney?
AG: They’ve got me pretty much buttoned up. I hope Pat’s going to take me out to dinner a lot. I just think if someone flies you out you owe them your time and I’m happy to do all the stuff they want, but I do hope they let me explore. The food is very good, unless it’s taken a tumble since last time I was there. (AA was last here in Tasmania, around three four years ago). Tasmania, that was a colossal trip. That is the most amazing place. Absolutely spectacular. And you go to those forests, and they are the most beautiful vegetation I’ve ever seen. The combination of the gum trees and the smaller trees and the tree ferns. It’s just so beautiful. Amazing. I love Tasmania.
People are just genuinely very friendly and straight forward. All the things that we’re not. Again, they say, England always talks about England and America being separated by a common language. You notice it much more in Australia, We’re separated by so many more things that are familiar. I often come away, not just from Australia, but being with Australians, thinking that we exported an awful lot of the best of it.
That’s one of the great pleasures for writing for the other side of the world. I don’t meet people in the street, I don’t get letters. For me its always the middle of the night. There’s something childishly magic, it’s like the beginning of a children’s story where you get up in the middle of the night and there’s this other world, and that other world is Australia. Its just getting light, now its getting morning. And I love that feeling. I love that sense of the smallness of the world and the distance. I think I said in one of the pieces that I wrote, that we’re closer than we imagined and we’re further than we think. The world shrinks and expands. I’m excited about coming to Australia. I love it. I haven’t seen an awful lot of it. I haven’t been to Perth. Both times I’ve been, I’ve been to Sydney, I think it’s one of the great cities. All great cities are either built on bays or rivers. That water, in Sydney, is just spectacular, just fantastic.
BS: You’re talking [in your visit] about social media. What can we expect?
AG: I’ve got a question mark. I don’t know what the fuck I’m going to say about that. I’ll do it but I don’t know if I’ve got anything interesting to say about it. I don’t blog or tweet, I don’t read things online. I’ve got an iPad that I like, but mostly my kids play games on it. I’m of an age and generation where I like paper. I like books to be books and I like newspapers to be newspapers. I like the feel of it, I like the way it works. I like being able to get my way around it. I still feel slightly wary of screens and keyboards, which my grown-up kids aren’t at all. I don’t think my son’s picked up a book. Because I’m old and old-fashioned about it, I feel quite nervous, I’m quite nervous about the type of communication the internet brings. What I’m aware of is that there is an incredible amount of anger. It seems to be a place where people can act out, I suppose, in an apparently safe way. But because it’s a virtual environment, there’s an absurd amount of fury.
BS: What’s the most important thing you take with you when travelling?
AG: It is always the thing you forget to pack. Whatever it is. The usual stuff. The wrong charger. I suppose the thing I take with me everywhere is a head torch. I have two books I always travel with. I either travel with Herodotus or I travel with The Icelandic Sagas. The reason is that they both come in very small sets of stories. If you’re stuck in an airport, or you’ve got a layover for 24 hours or you’re in your hotel room on your own, they’re just great little reads. They’re big books but there’s tonnes of little stories in them. They’re endlessly brilliant, both of them. Herodotus invented what we do. And The Icelandic Sagas, if you’ve never read them, I can’t recommend them highly enough, they’re fantastic stories and it’s really the birth of the novel. They're 11th century, they’re formal. If you haven’t been to Iceland, run, don’t walk. It’s one of my favourite places in the world.
BS: I’ve also read that you’re a big believer in sleeping bag liners.
AG: You’re quite right. There’s always one in the bottom of my bag. I made my daughter take one with her on her gap year and she’s like, “oh Dad, no. Why?” She went round Asia, Thailand, Cambodia and Laos. She came back and said it was the best thing she took, the bed bugs were horrendous.
BS: As someone who doesn’t drink or take drugs, how do you deal with long-haul flights?
AG: You get into your place, you just settle down, you get all your things. I think one of things I like is often familiar smells. Something like a lavender spray. It’s an immediate thing to make you feel like it’s your space, it smells like me. I have an old Pakistani soft blanket which I can wear as a scarf, use as a towel, or use it to sleep in. That goes everywhere with me. It’s all purpose. It’s rather ratty but deliciously soft. You just sort of settle down. I read my books and I read my books very slowly. On aeroplanes is where I mostly see my movies. And you just have to take it as it comes.