The winner of the AA Gill Award for Emerging Food Critics, Jemma Paek, was announced in The Sunday Times today. Gill, who died in 2016, came late to writing after a long-lost period as a chronic alcoholic.
The idea of the award is to find similar undiscovered writing talents (though there was some controversy that the winner of the inaugural awards last year wasn’t exactly an unknown). What tickled me when I was looking through the list of rules, I entered and didn’t win, was that Gill himself would almost certainly have been ineligible. This passage stood out:
“(ii) does not contain any content that is defamatory, libellous, racist, homophobic, derogatory, pornographic, obscene, sexist, illegal, and/or otherwise inappropriate.”
Gill in his time was accused of pretty much all of the above. The Welsh in particular came in for a bashing so much so that he was reported to the Campaign for Racial Equality and questions asked in the Welsh Assembly. But Gill was also not terribly keen on the Manx, or the English (he was a Scot) and wrote a book called “The Angry Island: Hunting the English”. In his well-publicised run-ins with Clare Balding, he described her as a “dyke on a bike” and Mary Beard, Gill was disparaging about her appearance, he was accused of both homophobia and sexism.
Gill was one of the last of a breed of writers who wrote without looking over his shoulder
It’s rather forgotten now that he has been effectively canonised, how much vitriol Gill’s columns used to receive on social media. His paper, The Sunday Times, constantly had to field calls for him to be dropped especially over the baboon incident – he shot a baboon in Tanzania and then wrote about it in a restaurant column. Though loved by the paper’s readers, he was disliked by most right-thinking people on Twitter. Gill didn’t care, he pronounced that he “didn’t internet” and, like JK Rowling, I think he was too big to cancel. I am sure like many people I bought The Sunday Times purely to read Gill despite his, or maybe because of his unpleasantness.
Gill redeemed himself in the eyes of many with one of his last columns in 2016 where he strongly came out against Brexit. It was vintage Gill, dripping with snobbery and disdain, but because the target was the Shire middle class, nobody minded much. Gill, until that point almost as hated as fellow Sunday Times writers, Jeremy Clarkson and Rod Liddle, was cheered to the rafters.
It wasn’t all bile, of course. Gill as a former alcoholic wrote movingly about people on the margins of society like the homeless in London. Perhaps even more than his food-writing, he thought perceptively and intelligently about television as a genuine lover of the medium. He was an auto-didact and understood how good television could be when it didn’t talk down to viewers (Gill’s father was the producer on that high point of British TV, Kenneth Clark’s Civilization).
The Gill style was much-imitated (guilty, I’m afraid): that seemingly irrelevant introduction crammed with ideas, barbs and jokes, expertly linked or sometimes not linked at all with whatever he was meant to be covering that week. But what I think also kept people reading week in, week out was his sheer recklessness; “did he really say?!” I imagine readers snorting in horror or humour or both into their breakfast marmalade. He was one of the last of a breed of writers who wrote without looking over his shoulder at what the response might be, for better or worse. And he certainly would not have a hope in hell of winning his own award.
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