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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

...Like having your secret places massaged with soft butter - AA Gill

I have just discovered AA Gill. And like the year I lived in London, it’s a love-hate relationship. Then again, that ‘calling a spade a spade’ mentality is what makes AA Gill’s travel writing so hard to put down…he doesn’t gush.

And he certainly doesn’t adhere to the unsaid rule of most professional travel writers - that as a guest of their subject they must not pack their cynicism with their coconut oil. No, AA Gill says it like he sees it. There’s nothing brochure-like about his work…

‘…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.’

Then there’s his day job - the food reviews. The Scottish born writer is one of the most feared food critics in London. So much so that when his travel column ‘AA GILL IS AWAY’ runs in London’s Sunday Times, the city’s top chefs let out a collective garlic-breathed sigh.

In fact, they will soon be able to breathe easy thanks to us, because AA Gill will be jetting off again in May headed for the Sydney Writer’s Festival.

On hearing this news, I purchased the collection of his travel writings published under the same title as they first appeared in the Sunday Times. And I quickly began to fall head over heals for his writing equally as much as I loathed the author, largely thanks to the chapter following the book’s forward titled ‘How it Works’.

Here Gill lays it all out on the table so those, like me, unfamiliar with his writing know exactly what they are in for. Just like the disclaimer above the ticket booth – there will be no refund offered at the end of the tour, even if you don’t see dolphins.

So you ready? Here goes… Gill declares that he travels to a city and interviews it. He asks questions, he listens, looks, lives with it and then makes observations that have come from his eyes only. And he does this all in just two or three days. He refuses to stay any longer in a destination he is writing about to avoid dulling the senses.

‘The more I see the less I know,’ he states. ‘What I write are essentially impressions. I need them to be as vivid and surprising as possible.’

And he doesn’t take notes. Not one. He doesn’t collect brochures, maps or receipts and he certainly doesn’t do any research. Nope. And this next declaration is bound to have university writing lecturers around the world banging their heads against their lecterns in frustration… he waits a few weeks after he has returned home before starting to write.

Arrogance or supreme confidence in his razor sharp sense of recall? Well you decide because he states all of this before you even step foot on his literary tour bus headed North, South, East and West. But from where I am sitting, shaking my head as I angrily thump pages thinking I have been doing everything so wrong, I can almost hear what he is really saying, had his publisher perhaps not stepped in: ‘this is the way I am, this is the way I do it. And if you don’t like it – stop reading. I dare you.’

But wait, he’s not quite finished with the declarations. Here’s the clincher. AA Gill doesn’t read anyone else’s work either. Nope. Because that could potentially be classed as research – gasp!

At least, as I learnt when I finally got to the articles, his self-righteous tone is consistent.

And yet here begins my love affair… his travel writing is truly refreshing. No one seems to view their surroundings quite like AA Gill does. And if they do, they certainly aren’t putting down in black and white…

‘(Japanese) Kabuki theatre is only just preferable to amateur root-canal work. The three stringed guitar is a sad waste of cat….the samurai were thugs in frocks with stupid haircuts, and haiku poems are limericks that don’t make you laugh.’

Nor as witty…

‘It(Grumeti River in Tanzania) is home to turgid pods of hippo and crocodile you could land small planes on. Each big enough to make a set of luggage that world comfortably take Joan Collins on a world cruise.’

His sentences are packed with so many external references - from literature, politics, popular culture – that you sometimes need to sit and absorb each one for a few minutes to fully understand the meaning.

‘Modern Japanese people get born Shinto, married Christian, buried Buddhist and work Mazda. Consequently they believe everything and nothing…. I’ve never come across a place whose spiritual options were so barren. This pick-and-mix theology has stunted Japan like a tonsured, root-bound pine tree.’

Or this…

‘…Konisberg was the capital of Ost Prussia, a sort of Kraut Kosovo, the spiritual home of the Germanic chivalry and bellicosity. It’s also one of those historically buried fault lines, the scars that crisscross old Europe and occasionally ache with an ancient, half-remembered resentment.’

And other times, you’ll find yourself going back over sentences, just to check you read them correctly …

‘All Ethiopians have infinite reserves of charm. Talking to them is like having your secret places softly massaged with warm butter.’

He didn’t? Yes, yes he did. To gloss over AA Gill’s jam-packed sentences is to miss half of the observations, whether they be shocking, insightful or thought provoking. They say as much about AA Gill and his upbringing, education and views, as they do about the places he visits. Another point he is all to happy to admit…

‘I am often being accused of being contentious. I suppose I predictably and rather arrogantly I take that as a compliment. If my articles cause raised blood pressure, then good – that’s what first person journalism in for: we hacks do opposition. But while they may be the start of the argument, they’re never the last word. There is no last word.’

And what I came to admire the most about AA Gill’s writing is the element of surprise. Both in his prose but especially in his observations. He comes to Sydney to see the Opera House and doesn’t get caught up in the world famous architecture but the shockingly large bats flying overhead that are more often than not reduced only to dark blobs in the starry sky of tourist snap shots.

Only AA Gill goes to Milan to cover fashion shows and writes, not about clothing but about a stunningly dressed woman sitting in stilettos in a wheelchair trying to solo navigate her way up the stairs of Prada while the wafer-thin shop assistants look on bemused, not daring to tread a Prada-pumped foot outside to assist.

He sees the forest for the trees alright, but AA Gill writes about the bear crap on the forest floor.

Only AA Gill, while on safari in the Serengeti, would turn his attention away from the ‘teeming animals’ to focus his attention on the normally unnoticed but best-fed beasts of the safari…

‘I could sit and watch honeymooners for hours. They are endlessly fascinating and rewarding. The main reward being that I will never ever have to be one of them again. Africa is a perfect postnuptial ecosystem. It has danger, nature, adventure and the Tiffany of night skies. All the subliminal triggers for a really good ‘Me Tarzan – You Jane’ sex life.’

It is also, only fair to add, that the world renown critic isn’t above praise. He does let his guard down from time to time… well, almost.

‘I wouldn’t normally mention trees in the city, but BA’s (Buenos Aires) are spectacular. Jacarandas, eucalyptus, rubber trees, long, shady avenues in gardens, and it’s very Anglophile, which is always a relief.’

So if surprise is the element of success to Gill’s writing, and I long to be as successful as he, then what’s the shocking observation here? Well having just critiqued the critic, here’s my conclusion formed over three days and without notes…

AA Gill you want people not to like you. The very basis of using ‘AA’ instead of Adrian Anthony may initially have been because it ‘sounds like an aging Florida interior designer who once did Rock Hudson’s pool house out as a tiki-tiki wet bar’, but it conveniently distances the readers from the mysterious author. And I think this is what you thrive off. It’s the basis for your writing. It’s what allows you to make such searing critiques, it permits you to unashamedly scratch beneath the shiny tourist top layer and then sit there and pick the bits out from under your fingernails.

But this is also where you are becoming horribly unstuck. In a landscape riddled with lofty travel writing, overflowing with glowing adjectives you stands all alone, a top the Sydney Opera House covered in bat crap. There isn’t a travel writer so consistently real.

So I hope I can speak for more than just myself, when I say our love-hate relationship is now over.

Surprise AA Gill, we like you.

(AA Gill is currently in town for the Sydney Writers' Festival. I am seeing him talk tonight...can't wait.)