Tag Archives: A.A.Gill

78. ‘Previous Convictions,’ A.A.Gill…

78. ‘Previous Convictions,’ A.A.Gill…
Previous Convictions,’ A.A.Gill
OK, so I have already blogged on A.A.Gill.
But when  writing is this good, this enjoyable, this damn quotable, how am I meant to resist? This latest offering was read during my stay in Guatemala, (which may have led to little squeals of excitement when I came across the chapter ‘Guatemala’), and I’m going to leave the man to speak for himself with a selection of witty, biting and/or informative quotes.
On Golf:
“The first time you try to hit a golf ball, lifting the stick higher than your elbow, you’ll miss. Not only will you miss the ball, I confidently predict you will miss the entire Earth. The world is a pretty big potato. It’s a planet, and to miss a planet with a stick while actually standing on it might give you some indication of the difficulty in getting on feel-good terms with the rudiments of golf…”
“So far, in purely golfing terms, I have half a swing. Having half a swing is like having half a breaststroke. In functional terms, you’re still drowning. You’re just drowning with intent…”
Casual (and hilarious) racism:
“…being Italian – and therefore more superstitious than a convention of clairvoyants in a ladder factory…”
A theory of dogs which is echoed by Michael Pollan in his book on plant adaptation:
“The first dogs realised that, alone in the natural world, humans crave variety. Everything else wants continuity and certainty; people want novelty. And dogs provide it. What they came up with is the cleverest thing in all of nature: reverse-Darwinism – not the survival of the fittest but the survival of the least fit, the most needy…”
On journalists in Haiti:
“Over dinner on the veranda, the photographers commiserate with Gigi over her lost film. They compare tear-gas vintages: not as peppery as Israel 2000, but with a stronger choking aftertaste than Serbia ’98…”
On why Guatemala is better than Mexico:
“Where the Aztecs are all threats and instructions, the Maya are all observations and questions…”
The shortest version of four decades of brutal Guatemalan history you will ever read:
“Guatemala suffered an intractable civil war that started in 1960, instigated by the CIA on behalf of American fruit companies. Thirty years later, nobody could remember what it was they were fighting about, so they decided to give elections a go…”
AntiguaGuatemalaOn Antigua, Guatemala, where I spent some of my favourite days in the country:
“…there are no road signs, in any language, and indeed often not much road either…”
“Outside in the courtyard, a drunk with rheumy eyes and an idiot’s grin tries to sell us good luck: he doesn’t look as if he has much stock…”
On Vietnam:
“The president’s palace is now a half-hearted museum, kept as it was left – a perfect example not just of the banality of despotism but of the political law that military dictators have taste in inverse proportion to their power…”
On Oman:
“Travel  should question, not confirm. It should excite, not relax…”
On Africa:
“Africans have buckets of sympathy but thimbles of empathy…”
On the absurdities of icy Greenland:
“Greenland has four time zones – two of them don’t even contain a clock…”
And finally, on Brazil, my probably destination for 2014 in time for the World Cup:
“But the favelas are also the engine of culture, which means music and dance. The best parties, the best clubs are up here. There was a dance called the ‘Little Train’; popular with nubile youth, it was a sort of lap-dancing conga. There were reports that teenage girls were getting pregnant not after the dance but during. Now that’s a party…”
Could be an interesting trip!…
Come join me in Rio, 2014?...

Come join me in Rio, 2014?…

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Posted by on August 15, 2013 in BOOKS


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54. The Year In (Book) Review…

54. The Year In (Book) Review…

My 2012 In Books

302 books bought, approximately 156 books read, in 4 countries, on 3 continents.

Not a bad year’s ‘work’ for a bibliophile.

I began this blog just over a year ago for several reasons. Partly a place to save and record my favourites quotes, partly a way of sharing my opinions of books with friends and strangers, and partly a way to keep track of my reading habits over time. Given the latter, the first blog entry of 2013 seemed an ideal time to look back over the calendar year and summarise my year in books.

Unfortunately, when I looked back over the past 12 months of blogs, I found that whereas I had been keeping a methodical list of Books Bought since Day 1, the practice of doing the same for Books Read only began in July, meaning that whereas I can say with relative certainty that I purchased a moderately ridiculous 302 books in 2012, (the equivalent of more than one every weekday), I had to extrapolate the quantity of books read from the fact that I got through 78 of the papery pleasures in 6 months.

I am therefore claiming an approximately 2:1 purchase to reading ratio, although given the fact that many of the books bought were presents to be given, and an embarrassing amount were books I already owned and had forgotten about or just felt like buying in a nicer edition, I think the ratio may be quite a lot higher than that.


I wrote 45 blogs in 2012 which were seen by 2,719 viewers, or 7.66 readers per day, (I’m presuming the .66 were children). Apparently, plenty of you had nothing to do on January 22nd, as that was my record viewing day with 73 hits, although I’m sure we can beat that this year. I jazzed things up a bit by figuring out how to include photos in my post, and you were treated to 176 of them, with plenty more to come this year, (not to mention video links!).

Most rewarding for me was the fact that readers came from an amazing 66 different countries, with the UK, US and Japan taking top three spots, (although I expect Guatemala to catch up in the coming months).

Highlights of the year included meeting childhood heroes Michael Rosen and Sue Townsend, and adult heroes Jonathan Safron Foer and Salman Rushdie, at the 2012 Hay Literature Festival and 2012 London Jewish Book Week, (Rushdie will almost certainly be the first review of 2013 next week, having just finished his incredible autobiography ‘Joseph Anton‘), not to mention actually getting to have the briefest possible chat with the charming J.K.Rowling. Technologically, a milestone occurred when author and UK journalist Luke Harding rewteeted my review of his critique of Russia, ‘Mafia State,’ which led to me not only gaining a few more readers, both within Russia and with Russian interests, but also learning what a retweet is.

I discovered new authors, from A.A.Gill to Geoff Dyer to Tibor Fischer, and cemented relationships with favourites, from Alain de Botton to anything produced by the fine folk at McSweeney’s. In a sharing sense, as well as spreading my bookish thoughts with all of you on the interweb, I was thrilled to be chosen to physically distribute books, (in this case, the excellent ‘The Damned Utd.‘ by David Peace), when I got to take part in the incredible international event which is World Book Night.


For the sake of completeness, here is my list of Books Bought and Read in December 2012, and it provides a bit of a shock, (to me, if not to you): for the first time all year, (and, come to think of it, possibly all lifetime), I didn’t buy a single book. Not one. Not even a pamphlet.

True, I am living in the middle of nowhere in Central America with a shelf-full of great books to get through, but even I wasn’t expecting that. The fact that I ‘only’ read seven I put down to the unfortunate circumstance of having a job at the moment, one which saw me running a fairly popular bar a mere week after arriving in Guatemala, but now that I’ve learned how to do that, there should be plenty of time to beat that target of 156 books read this year.

Come join me on that adventure.


Books Bought, December 2012


Books Read, December 2012

Born To Run,’ Christopher McDougall

Comet In Moominland,’ Tove Jansson

Joseph Anton,’ Salman Rushdie

Dr.Tatiana’s Sex Advice To All Creation,’ Olivia Judson

Maldicíon Eterna A Quien Lea Estas Páginas,’ (‘Eternal Curse On The Reader Of These Pages‘), Manuel Puig

Don’t Eat This Book,’ Morgan Spurlock

Hope: a tragedy,’ Shalom Auslander


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Posted by on January 8, 2013 in BOOKS


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19. Angry English…

19. Angry English…

‘The Angry Island: Hunting the English,’ A.A.Gill

My recent reading has been considerably skewed by my decision to finally plunge back into the world of work and become a tour guide again. Back in 2006 I led walking tours of central Berlin lasting anything from four to six hours, and as a result every spare minute was spent reading up on the Nazis, the Communists, the Iron Curtain and the astonishing statistic that 97% of all workers in the German capital were, whatever the actual job they were doing at the time, really DJ’s. (Well,every spare minute which wasn’t already dedicated to wandering the dull, grey, fascinating streets aimlessly; eating obscenely cheap döner kebabs; and drinking cold, local beer in ad hoc riverside beaches).

This time, it’s London, and for the past two weeks I have been snapping up every book I could find on the town, its history, the royal family and various people’s opinions on my country and its citizens. I began with the monster 800-page biography of London by Peter Ackroyd, which was simultaneously incredibly detailed, fairly dry and top of my reading list; the shorter, more concise and enjoyable miniature version of the same by A.N.Wilson; and a vast array of the surprisingly excellent Horrible Histories series of cartoon histories recommended by a friend from Canadia.

But the one I’ve enjoyed most over the past 14 days has been an afterthought, picked up in a charity shop for 50p simply because it was 50p, and because I’d bought one of A.A.Gill‘s books a few weeks earlier, (on travel), and there’s nothing I like more than collecting things, (and once you have two of something, that officially makes it a collection).

A.A.Gill is renowned in the UK as a restaurant and TV critic but has written several books which, according to the very opening lines of his Wikipedia entry, have led to him offending all manner of minorities. (This helps explain a line I was unsure whether to laugh out loud at or be offended by, that he drinks “…like an Aborigine,” not to mention the opening line of the forward that: “This is a collection of prejudice”). Born in Scotland, but having grown up with an English accent in England, he takes this opportunity to offend the majority for a change with a brutally honest, aggressive look at just what makes the English English and, according to his thesis, just what makes them so angry.

The book is divided into sixteen short chapters each of which is fascinating in its own way, be it for its insight, its dubious premise, or the fact that it seems Gill was following me around on my tour and decided to write a chapter on it.

1. The Angry Island: in which he lays out his theory that the true nature of The English, despite all claims of gentlemanliness, is in fact being angry: everything else, including their addiction to fair-play and stiff-upper-liposity, springs from their (our?) constant attempts to keep our (their?) true nature in check. There is also some very interesting stuff about our pride in our history, negated by the observation that we haven’t actually experienced as much history as many other European countries.

Favourite quotes? On neighbours:

“For the Scots, as for so many countries with powerful neighbours, history is something that’s done to you. For the English, it’s something you do to others…”

On fetishising history:

“In England, changing the shape of a telephone box evokes a fury that might be justified by grave-robbing…”

And a taste of his (somewhat accurate but nonetheless vaguely racist) penchant for stereotyping:

“When the national characteristics and talents were being handed out and the French got style, and the Germans got order and the Italians got being Italian, the English got history…”

2. Face: In which Gill provides a potted history of the National Portrait Gallery in London, (the first in the world and, incidentally, one of the stops on my guided tour), and through the portraits also skims through the history of the British Royal Family. Most interestingly, he has a theory that the English fear art, but that portaiture is a perfect fit for our character, our ‘timid philistinism’:

“[The English] like a thing to mean the same thing to everyone, like a chair or a steam engine does…”

3. Voice: An offshoot of class, this was a fascinating chapter on the prejudices lurking behind RP, (Received Pronunciation, aka The Queen’s English, aka Oxford English, aka the accent you need to be ‘received’ into polite society, although I could see that being more true in the 20th century than present day England). Top fact:

“Britain has over 200 identifiable accents, probably more than any comparable country. English, outside Britain, has hundreds more, and every single one of them makes someone else laugh…”

Most incisive of all is Gill’s comment that the English are less expressive, in face and action, than most other cultures, with the stunningly true observation that:

“If you watch American films with the sound turned off, you can usually tell what’s happening…But with an English film, it’s almost always impossible…”

4. Memorials: A spooky chapter, where Gill stands in a spot on central London and explains, in depth, the history and philosophy behind each of the war memorials to be found there. It just happens to be the place where my guided tours begin.

5. Class: In which Gill espouses a fairly radical belief that the class system no longer exists in England, based solely on the fact that classes are apparently a bit difficult to define. This was the point in the book, (almost halfway through), when I feared that the book may have peaked. I was right.

6. Humour: Rather than an in-depth look at the (in)famous English sense of humour, this chapter involved Gill attending a few back-room comedy clubs in London. He clearly disapproves of England’s funny-bone, (deeming “much of it dreadful, repetitive, derivative, pointless, unpleasant and unfunny.” Has he not seen ‘The Office,’ ‘Monty Python’ or ‘Blackadder’? Is his TV stuck on…I was going to insert the name of a universally acknowledged awful English comedy show, but I can’t even think of one!). Ironically, I found much of his book funny, but as he says:

“I write humour for a living. There’s no reason why you should have noticed. I don’t do comedy or jokes. I suppose you might call it wit, and the definition of wit is a joke that doesn’t make you laugh…”

7. Cotswolds: A forgettable chapter, name-checking Morris dancing and Aga cookers. I can’t tell you any more: like I say, it was forgettable, and I’ve forgotten it.

8. Sorry: A mini chapter which packs a punch, rising to the heights of the earliest sections of the book: the theory that ‘the S-word’ is the English equivalent of the Inuits’ ‘snow,’ their very own f-bomb: a word with a million meanings:

“sorry, I apologize; sorry, I don’t apologize; sorry, you can take this as an apology but we both know it isn’t one; sorry, will you shut up; sorry, empathy; sorry for your loss; sorry, I can’t hear you; sorry, incredulity; sorry, I don’t understand you; sorry, you don’t understand me; sorry, excuse me; sorry, will you hurry up; sorry, I don’t believe you; sorry, I’m interrupting; sorry, this won’t do; sorry, I’ve reached the end of my patience; sorry, sad and pathetic – as in, sorry excuse or sorry little man…”

If I was only still teaching, Im not sure I could think of a better game to demonstrate inflection and emotion. As Gill concludes:

“If you’ve learnt the language abroad, or don’t speak it very well, then you just think the English are cringingly, obsequiously apologetic all the time and are possibly the politest people in the world.”

Now I know how we got away with it for so long.

9. Animals: English people love animals. But not foreigners so much. And Cruft’s dog show is very silly.

10. Drink: The most depressing chapter, where an ex-alcoholic discusses the English predilection to alcoholism, as another form of suppression. No solutions offered, just the image of a culture where binge-drinking “…isn’t their problem: it’s their raison d’être.”

11. Gardens: Some Shakespeare, some history, a little Robin Hood mythology, and some boring stuff about gardens. It’d take a lot to make gardens interesting to me.

12. Sport: From the schadenfreude felt in London when we beat Paris to the 2012 Olympics, to the excellent description of football being a horrible addiction he has deliberately avoided, being ‘frightened of it’ and excellently diluting it down to

“…a life-long tease of little false endings in a drama without a plot,”

this is a chapter with my name written all over it. There are some cute observations on the English desire for order having led us to codify, if not actually invent, many of the world’s sports, and a decent deconstruction of our propensity to side with the valiant loser rather than the jubilant winner:

“The English don’t like winners, and they don’t like people who behave like winners. The best thing to do if you’re caught winning is to slip away blushing. If you’re cornered, then mutter something about luck and flukes…”

‘Caught winning’…what a fantastic turn of phrase!

13. Political Correctness: Aside from learning that the origin of the phrase comes from the U.S.Supreme Court over 200 years ago, this was a confused rant firstly on how embarrassing and ridiculous it is, then in defence of it not due to it protecting human dignity, but due to it showcasing the flexibility of the human language.

14. Queues: One final upswing of observational genius amidst an ever-increasing ramble: one of the ultimate symbols of Englishness, a word so English that a) it is actually French and b) the Americans use a different word for it. Gill ranges from the general, (on queues being a microcosm of the idea of English fairness), to the specific, (a hilarious story on the comeuppance of a German queue transgressor), to the bombastically historical, (with the claim that it was the queue which saved the English at the Dunkirk evacuations, and therefore saved the free world from the Nazis). Great stuff.

15. Letchworth Garden City: A foray into architecture and town planning now which, even though I have a friend who actually lives in Letchworth Garden City, entirely fails to overcome my caveat stated under the ‘Gardens‘ chapter.

16. Nostalgia: Sadly, after such a strong start, we end in declamatory, angry mode again, with an attack on the English obsession with nostalgia and abandonment of the future. It may be true, it may be pertinent, but it isn’t presented with the same sense of panache as the first half of the book.

Still, for much of the book I was treated to a new look at my fellow countrymen (and -women), and picked up some great facts and trivia to impart to my future guidees. I can’t be angry about that.


Posted by on March 19, 2012 in BOOKS


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