‘A.A.Gill Is Away,’ A.A.Gill
You know the rules of creating a mix tape. I know the rules of making a mix tape. Anyone who knows what a cassette tape is knows the rules of making a mix tape. There are indigenous peoples living in huts in parts of the world untouched by modern society who, given a tape-to-tape stereo system, a stack of albums and a blank C60 tape would instinctively know the rules of making a mix tape. And yet here I am, less than a year into this blog, breaking the book blog equivalent.
Yes, with hundreds of read books to choose from, I am already writing a second review of an author I have already reviewed.
The problem is, his books are just so damn readable, (apart from his singular love of the bizarre term ‘hugger-mugger’: five times in a 300-page book, A.A? Really?). This one was a compilation of his early travel writing, (he is a reviewer of everything from TV programmes to restaurants to foreign countries for a variety of English newspapers and magazines and, according to the blurb, ‘one of the most feared writers in Britain‘), and since I have leanings in that direction myself, I like to keep an eye on the competition.
Gill is not only eminently readable, but also eminently quotable: by the end of the reading, there were no less than 22 Post-It notes poking out from the pages, waiting to be returned to and entered here, possibly a record so far. Why do I enjoy his writing so much? A commonality of taste must be one explanation: a love of travel mixed with an apparent addiction to bad puns, (chapter titles included: ‘Born To Be Riled’ for the chapter on California, ‘Hunforgiven’ for a jaunt across Germany, and the self-explanatory ‘Mad In Japan’).
The native Scot also does a good line in biting insults, (how often must he meet a celebrity he has offended? a city? an entire country?!), but probably more importantly, he clearly has a deep love of similes and metaphors, with the knack of spotting the perfect comparison to make you not only wish you’d thought of it before, but realise you had seen it before, just never made the connection. (The prefect example was this definition of the evolution of Fidel Castro’s communist stronghold:
“Forty years later, Cuba is famous for failed politics, syncopated music, immoral women and cigars, and if an island could be a person, then Cuba would be Bill Clinton…”
Or how about this unshakeable image from Tanzania:
“Hippos look and sound like the House of Commons. Fat, self-satisfied gents with patronizing smirks and fierce pink short-sighted eyes in wrinkled gray suits going ‘haw-haw’ and telling each other dirty jokes…”
Finally, Gill writes like a slightly crazy, probably slightly tipsy uncle at a family reunion, regaling you with tales of far-off lands and offering often unsought, but sometimes invaluable advice. For me, a budding author, this one came towards the end of the book, (in my least favourite chapter, a self-indulgent tale of how he came to own his first Rolls Royce, not entirely fitting with the travel theme):
“My advice to all aspiring writers: always get an agent with a really extravagant motor and an unfeasibly pretty wife. They only get 10 percent. Think what you can do with the other 90…”
And as both a traveler, and a potential travel writer, these two pearls of uncly wisdom came in the introduction:
“One of the most important reasons to travel is to learn to be a foreigner…”
“I’m a reluctant travel writer. I don’t read other people’s travel writing. I can never get over the feeling that I’m subsidizing someone else’s holiday…”
A.A.Gill on MONTE CARLO:
“It’s time to go. It was time to go before I got here…”
“…a family that befitted Monaco. A trailer-trash aristocracy. A princeling who was so characterless he’d get off in a police line-up of one…”
on GERMANY (specifically, the newly built Reichstag building):
“Norman Foster is having a party to hand over his beautiful re-creation to the city. It’s very impressive, with its glass dome and mirrored funnel for extracting all the hot air of German irregular verbs…”
“Patagonia is unfeasibly beautiful and vast. The beauty never lets up, it is like ocular tinnitus, a repetitive deafening of the eye…”
(‘ocular tinnitus’? What an amazing turn of phrase…)
“The girls are beautiful and bewitching, and they maybe know ways of not having sex that even the Vatican hasn’t considered. One of them is the tango. On every street corner and bar there are people being in flagrante tangoed…”
on CUBA (another genius metaphor):
“There’s music and mess and clots of policemen and 1950’s cars and posters of Che. It’s Che that really does it, really reminds you that this is the last untidied student bedroom in the world…”
on being asked to direct a PORN MOVIE (a hilarious, informative article):
“An American computer company wanted to advertise the power of the Internet by listing the top ten most popular sites. It gave up, because all of them were porn. In fact, the top twenty sites are all porn with the singular exception of the Mormons’ Doomsday Census…”
“Ask anyone who lives here what the best thing about LA is and the answer is invariably valet parking. And that tells you about everything you need to know about LA…”
on INDIA (a fittingly wide-ranging report, which staggered from the humorously scatological to the fascinatingly factual to the deeply thought-provoking):
“…farting in India is playing Raj roulette with the linen…”
“There are more beggars in Soho than there are in Bombay…”
“India is a poor place, but only in economic terms. On any other scale you care to think of, it’s rich beyond the dreams of avarice…if we measure wealth in terms of any of the things that really matter – family, spirituality, manners, inquisitiveness, inventiveness, dexterity, culture, history and food – then India would be hosting the next G7 conference and sending charity workers to California…”
on ETHIOPIA (a name apparently meaning ‘sunburnt people‘ in Greek):
“Ethiopia is the only African country that was never a European colony…”
(Can this be true? If so, it may well be the most amazing fact I have learned this year!)
“I try to make some sense out of the royal family, but it’s like juggling mud…”
(I need to start thinking more in similes…)
on UGANDA (mostly consisting of a damning indictment of Big Pharma):
“Have you ever stopped to think how weird it is that you have to take malaria pills to go to places where the population doesn’t take them? Or that you you get injections for yellow fever, cholera, typhus and hepatitis? None of the locals are immune to these things. They just suffer them…?
Finally, no compilation of travel writing would be complete without an (admittedly wholly accurate, and fairly mild) dig at the French, (whilst simultaneously defending the US, no less):
“Europeans who have grown up with American films, music and soda imagine they know who and what America is. Put that the other way round and consider what you’d know about France based solely on French TV and pop music. There is French TV by the way, just nobody watches it – not even the French…”
Time to find every other A.A.Gill book I can get my mitts on…