A.A. Gill says that great food is cooked by people with a dark and twisted past. They cook because the process is cathartic and healing,
“Everybody I’ve met along the way who’s been doing excessive, obsessive things to ingredients, making restaurants, working in kitchens, writing books – they’re not happy… One of the great misconceptions about dinner is that nice people make good food. But it’s almost exactly the opposite.”
It is the transformative nature of cooking – ingredients into meals – that provides solace. With his memoir, Pour Me: A Life, A.A. Gill has taken his hazy, dark-spirited past and through the alchemy of a hack turned it into a moving feast of a read.
A.A. Gill’s younger brother got him into food. Nick Gill started to cook for their family at the age of 13 when their mother had had enough:
“My father would leave £20 on the kitchen table every Friday and disappear, and I would shop and Nick would cook… Right from the beginning he cooked with a hunched intensity, a ferocious perfectionism. I have never seen someone fall with such ecstatic serendipity into a calling.”
Nick’s fascination with the culinary arts was singular and his precociousness led him to Paris and then a Michelin Star by 1982. Still in his twenties, he was one of the first chefs in England to win the award.
The brothers bonded over food, it was their football. As a result Adrian Anthony (A.A.) became a good cook. As I will mention later, this was fortuitous for the older brother when he got his first serious chance in journalism.
Over fifteen years ago Nick came to visit his elder brother. His vocation had stalled somewhat and he was angry and resentful. They talked as brothers do, in tangents about important things, trivialities and their childhood. It was briefly like old times.
Then Nick asked for some money and borrowed a jacket before delivering parting words, “I’m going away now. France maybe. But I’m not coming back.” And true to his word, he vanished,
“Nothing. Not a hint, not a trace, not a court record, a hospital…not a headstone… Nick disappearing is like an unfinished sentence. I can’t grieve for him because I don’t know where he is or if he is dead or alive.”
Here the poignant memory of his brother’s disappearance is spoken about in detail for the first time.
The arc of the memoir is two significant events in Gill’s life: his first wife leaving him at a dinner party and the time he took his last drink in 1984. Other anecdotes and childhood memories are weaved into the tapestry of this rough, excavated past that looks for but never finds why he is an addict.
Neatly divided into two halves, each spanning thirty years, his life is examined for clues to these addictions. The first half was a blur dominated by dyslexia, alcohol and art, and in the second he finds himself busy with a celebrated career in journalism and family life.
Nick’s loss is the constant sadness binding the two. By stepping from one into the other, or perhaps being pulled by Nick’s ghost, he started to do some living, for both their sakes.
Early life was navigated with a crippling dyslexia at a time when the condition wasn’t acknowledged,
“The most infuriating thing about a stammer is that people finish your sentences for you… creating a great unsaid reservoir and terrible, bitter esprit d’escalier. There is an unstuttered assumption that stammering is the audible symptom of a simple mind.”
Gill, as a dyslexic, doesn’t write any of his copy. He dictates them all – the books, columns and features – to Michelle, one of the last of the old guard of copy takers, over the telephone: “Talking to her in the quiet evenings has been one of the most enduring pleasures of my life with words.”
The double entendre title deals with the curse of his dyslexia. As such he couldn’t differentiate between ‘poor’ and ‘pour’. To most of us they just sound the same but to a dyslexic they look the same too, and with that insightful expression Gill ensnares the self-pity of his twin devils of drink and dyslexia from the outset.
A.A. Gill describes himself as a “topper-upper alcoholic”, meaning he was never sober, “A lot of the book is about the vagaries, inconsistencies and duplicities of memory… As drunks we’re fantasists.”
With this in mind, we’re taken into the alcoves of his drinking years. Early morning beers blurred into after-hours bars such as The Lindsey Club, “The place was coated with nicotine and despair”, where he made friends with hard drinkers and was seduced by his first wife Cressida Connelly with the promise that if they were married there’d always be beer in the fridge, “Romantically we peaked too soon.”
Dreams of being an artist were juggled with addiction at St.Martin’s School of Art where he collected a group of friends, “The failed and the furious,” most of whom are now dead, victims of their excesses.
Weekend drinkers often come up to him and ask what the rock bottom was and there wasn’t one really,”The difference between you and us, you civilian amateur hobbyist drinkers and us professional, committed indentured alcoholics is that you drink for the lightness, we drink for the darkness.” But there’s no proselytising here, it isn’t a memoir saying how terrible drink and drugs are – he admits he had great times. What it is is a shuffling through his memories with therapy used as the metaphor. There just came a time for him when he’d had enough of the circle of sadness he found himself in.
Giving up drink started as a joke, but only because he did it on April 1st. At thirty he got the usual warning that if he kept it up life would be over by Christmas. He was broke and borrowed the money from his father to put himself into treatment. They took the train together to the clinic and had a bottle of champagne on their way. Some thirty years later there’s no punch line – he’s still an alcoholic he just hasn’t had a drink in those decades.
Journalism wasn’t some great epiphany, it was a chance fortuitous occurrence. Sober, he realised he was never going to be a successful artist. He worked at various jobs, including the dole; trying to become normal again after addiction took about eight years. He’s vague and unsure about this time.
Having learned cooking from his younger brother one of the odd jobs he got was to, “teach people the methods of cooking.” This he turned into a column for Tatler and a year later won Magazine Columnist of the Year (the runner-up was Jeremy Clarkson).
Gill was ten years older than his Oxbridge qualified colleagues when he got into journalism but he was equipped with plenty of failed life experiences that he mined for his copy. His writing contains an enthusiasm evident in his extended similes which are Homeric in proportion, hilarious in detail and crafted by many hours with patient editors.
Switching from a blank canvas to the blank page allowed him to flourish. He extended his palette to include television reviews, travel writing and features combining criticism and humour to fantastic effect. Ironically, despite earlier difficulties, words turned out to be the brush strokes that he wielded best.
Gill’s memoir is an extension of the crisp, caustic prose and acerbic wit that he has crystallised as Britain’s best television and restaurant critic in The Sunday Times. I don’t own a TV or have an opportunity to eat in any of the restaurants he reviews, but reading him every week is an abiding pleasure full of searing, quirky social insight.
However, in his memoir, the target is himself. And he delivers a deeply moving story about addiction and loss, and how he has got on with the living that’s left to be done both for his family and as a homage to the memory of his younger brother Nick.
“The last of the things I like about journalism is that it is ephemeral. We write for deadlines, not posterity. Both our triumphs and pratfalls are lining the parrot’s cage by Wednesday, and no one remembers journalists. Our bylines pass with the news… We look, we write, we file and depart, leaving nothing much behind.”
What’s the difference between literature and journalism? “Literature is the art of writing something that will be read twice, journalism is what will be grasped at once.” As I re-read passages of this memoir I found myself thinking, ‘If only there was a Michelin Star for journalism,’ then I remembered a magazine piece I read criticising the Michelin Guide, if only I could remember who wrote it.
Published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson: €18.95 Out now.