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The passing of a sharp tongue: the glorious hatchet of AA Gill

By Binoy Kampmark - posted Thursday, 15 December 2016

He goes over the top in all sorts of enjoyable ways, but then he also goes over the top in ways that make your heart sink with shame. Lynn Barber, The Telegraph, Dec 24, 2006.

AA Gill held sway with hatchet and prose in several areas where sensibilities can often be wounded: that of television, the restaurant and fashion scenes, and travel. In time, he became the critic of choice for the Sunday Times, assuming the voice of the paper. There was no target that would escape the scathing critique, no subject that could not be probed.

His writings did not so much get under the skin as tear strips off. With animal rights activists, he became a scented target. He shot a baboon as an exercise, wanting to know what it was "like to shoot someone, or someone's close relative." There were no excuses, "no mitigation. Baboon isn't good to eat, unless you're a leopard."


The act, and the commentary on it, triggered a hail of condemnation. Primatologists gave him a beating serve, arguing that the baboon was feeling and sentient, undeserving of such a cruel fate in journalistic experimentation. Animal rights groups wondered why it required a killing to forge experience.

His commentary on television could be brutal, sometimes insensibly so. Rather than scrutinising Mary Beard's intellectual content in Meet the Romans, he was far more interested in keeping her "away from the cameras altogether". It was not so much her immaculate classics pedigree as the fact that she was "this far away from being the subject of a Channel 4 dating documentary." She resembled an "aborted egg," no less. Commentary about what is on the idiot box can often veer into the terrain of idiocy itself.

Beard's counter to Gill (he was "afraid of intelligent women") provided a logical corrective, though it was, in many ways, beside the point. Hatchet jobs are not necessarily delivered with cerebral, archive governed precision, cutting through with a venal spread. Perhaps, suggested Beard, an absence of university education on Gill's part might have explained why "he never quite learned the rigour of intellectual argument and he thinks he can pass off insults as wit."

His lashing commentary did its fair share of unnecessary stoking. Cleverness became personal. He summarised presenter Clare Balding's effort in a travel program as being those of a Dyke on a Bike. He was duly censured by the Press Complaints Commission, despite claiming that such terms had, in fact, become empowering.

He frequently armed himself with grapeshot in his attacks on various groups. The Welsh, perhaps the softer of targets, were deemed "loquacious, dissemblers, immortal liars, stunted, bigoted, dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls".

It was such words that led to him being reported to the Commission for Racial Equality in 1998. If nothing else, it showed how Gill was immune, essentially, to the straightening tones of the politically correct. For any functioning critic, political correctness can be the kiss of death, an act of self-assumed blindness.


In short, the flesh wounding insult has its place in the critic's armoury. Gill just had a habit of doing it so well. "A cacophony of jangling, misheard and misused words… a sea of Stygian self-justification and stilted-self conscious prose" saw off Morrissey's Autobiography. It earned him the winner of the Hatchet Job of the Year prize from The Omnivore website.

Some of his linguistic constructions, given their breeziness, did see fellow critics pounce. He was also prone, as Lynn Barber would write in reviewing his Previous Convictions, to the odd "daffy" epigram amongst his "glittering rococo brilliance". "Geography is a journey," picks Barber from the selection on offer, "not a discussion."

To Barber's credit, Gill has a most powerful saving grace: "the power to convey a scene in words so that readers feel they are present." His account on Las Vegas is a gold standard. His discussion about a quest to find a beetle is delivered with fact-solid delight. And he had the power to command editors to send him puppies if they wished for brilliant copy to be delivered at short notice.

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About the Author

Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge. He currently lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne and blogs at Oz Moses.

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