The time-bomb of substance abuse, even when it was no more than youthful folly, finally caught up with many of the brightest last year as a long furrow of celebrities began their gardening careers pushing up the daisies. But of all those beautiful and clever things the one that hurt me the most was A.A. Gill.
To many he was just the guy who did the funny restaurant reviews and the acerbic TV commentaries for The Sunday Times. For a plethora of others he was all that was wrong with privileged poshos, a crass, merciless, hateful man who was as willing to mock the weak and vulnerable as anybody else. Personally I never stopped cringing at the endless objectifying of his partner Nicola Formby as “The Blonde”. And with a clear predilection for intelligence and wit, maybe the hardest to comprehend was his friendship with Jeremy Clarkson. But then again perhaps Clarkson is mostly a persona, in which case they had much in common.
A.A. Gill had a secret. He and Adrian Gill were not exactly the same man. Adrian was performer, and, as an entertainer, he was one of the most dedicated I have ever met. An actor beyond the scope of any from the RADA, I watched him gently create A.A. Gill when we were young, a brilliant, compelling, raffish character, and he committed to acting it every day for the rest of his life. Angry, bitchy, superior, a vile hobnobber who never cared whom he insulted or hurt … but everyone who knew Adrian would tell you he was something different, in reality he was one of the most loving, big hearted, thoughtful and warm men you could ever meet.
I first met him when I was a puppy-excited 18-year-old, keen to get into journalism. He was cool and sophisticated in his late twenties and editing Artseen, an art magazine which seemed to exclusively employ the ex-inmates of Britain’s poshest drying out clinics. Though I fell short of the employment criteria, he still sent me off to rip-up Rodin, argue with artists and write for nothing.
My reward though was a seat at his table for Sunday lunches in Hasker Street, with the great and the, well, trying to be good. Because his guests were generally creamed from his ‘anonymous’ meetings; by far Chelsea’s most star-studded gatherings. Adrian’s genius was his charm. From rockstars to choirmasters, a glittering cast would come after the Sunday morning meetings, enchanted by his relaxed wit, his ability to put you at your ease and to make you laugh. Some were clearly swapping one addiction for this other entrancement.
One afternoon I looked around the table, which included at least two platinum selling pop stars and several residents of Burkes Peerage, and declared that I wasn’t entirely sure if his commitment to meetings wasn’t more about networking than battling demons.
“You’re too young to be so cynical.” Adrian chided me.
“And you’re not cynical?” I protested a little petulantly.
“No,” Adrian replied archly, “I’m experienced.”
He was right. He had a knack for exposing phoniness. My cynicism, my willingness to see the worst in people and wheedle out dark agendas, was a façade, a trick to make people think I was oldersmarterwiser than I was. But I was fresh out of school, he was fresh out of rehab.
Some of us were regulars at the table, stars would come to twinkle, and I was never less than a full fathom out of my league. I found myself being an Alan Davies to his Stephen Fry. The idiot that only amplifies the shining light of the host. But then, I got to sit next to Lionel Bart every week, who loved Adrian. Think of it. The genius who wrote Oliver! striking up a friendship with, a part-time doorman and occasional journalist still retaking the A-levels he failed the year before: me.
As Adrian’s star rose, as it was almost inevitable that it would, we saw less of each other. First at The Tatler and then The Sunday Times. The last time I saw him work a crowd was at his wedding to our present Home Secretary Amber Rudd. I only say that because I know he would be proud of the name dropping.
His greatest kindness, and biggest lie, was when I was being considered for a post at The Sunday Times. I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened if Adrian hadn’t rung the editor and said “he’s the best writer I know.”
The next time we met up I thanked him. “It wasn’t exactly high praise,” he said, “you know I’ve got absolutely crippling dyslexia.”
Of course when Adrian announced he had both cancer and proposed to Nicola, I was hoping it was one of his spelling mistakes and he had actually got a “racing car” instead. Or perhaps it was one of his poor taste jokes. But it was that trusty, ever ready, cynicism that immediately pointed to the truth: there’s no inheritance tax on property passed to a spouse. Adrian was dying.
I wrote to him, begging for him to tell me I was wrong, that it was just my cynicism.
The silence was deafening. Barely a week after the announcement, he was gone.
Adrian wasn’t a brave journalist who jumped in front of tanks, or a writer of deep profundity, but he touched millions and worked hard to make sure every week he made them laugh, or angry, or disgusted or just think. And for that he deserves to be celebrated. “If there’s just one thing you should make the effort to do in an article,” he once told me “it’s to try and make someone laugh. At least once.” I always have.
But now he’s gone I don’t much feel like laughing.
Still, for you Adrian. It reminds me of the time I got arrested for stealing helium balloons. The police held me for a while, and then they let me go.
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