Anyone who has lived a decent span of years knows that sayings such as “The good die young” aren’t true. Whether we are good or bad, rich or poor, noble or base, death takes us whenever it damn well pleases. We know this and grudgingly accept it, but sometimes death’s visits seem unnecessarily cruel. That is certainly how I feel about the passing on 10 December 2016 of the famed British food and travel writer, AA Gill.
His death was also swift. Barely had his fans around the world learned in one of his last columns for Australian Gourmet Traveller magazine that he had become “a patchwork quilt, a smorgasbord, a litany of malformed cells” than he was gone. Sixty-two years of age is young these days and if fate had been kinder we could have enjoyed of his peerless work for several more decades.
Not everyone will be sorry to see him go, most notably the inhabitants of Dubai whom he once famously described as being lazy, stupid and titanically rude. The place itself, he added, was a monumental example of what money can do when it is left to its own devices and is completely divorced from taste. But remarks like that are one of the reasons why AA Gill had such a huge following: you read him for the singularity and acuity of his vision and for his refusal to be shackled by political correctness. Like his 18th-century predecessor Alexander Pope, of whom he reminds me strongly, he had a piercing intelligence and wit, and a command of English that conveyed “what oft was thought but ne’er so well expressed.”
I had the privilege of meeting AA Gill at a Tourism Australia event in Tasmania in 2014. “Invite the World to Dinner“ brought 80 food writers and influencers from around the world to a gala dinner at the futuristic Museum of Old and New Art (MONA) in Hobart. The evening began on the Hobart waterfront with a high-speed run up the Derwent River in a fleet of Naiad vessels belonging to Pennicott Wilderness Journeys. Although it was November the weather was cool and when the guests reached a riverside staging-point at the Glenorchy Art and Sculpture Park, a freezing wind was blowing. A number of guests wrapped themselves in blankets taken from the boats and clustered for warmth around several braziers and cooking stations where two courses of the evening’s dinner were being prepared. The blanketless majority sought shelter in the entertainment pavilion.
The food and wine flowed freely and so did the parade of famous culinary faces from around the globe. At one point I turned around looking for a server for a drink refill and found myself face to face with AA Gill. I asked if I could take his photo, “In a non-stalkerish way, of course.” He chuckled, posed and asked where I was from.
“I’m a gastronomy writer working on a book about New Zealand cuisine.”
“Oh, that sounds interesting,” he said. “I was there a few years ago. A rather strange little country. Oddly Presbyterian.”
I nodded in agreement.
“And very repressed about matters of sex,” he continued.
“Yes,” I replied, ” but secretly licentious.”
“Please send me a copy of the book when it’s done,” he said, moving off. “I don’t have a business card. I’m at the Sunday Times.”
And with a wave he circulated back into the crowd. I didn’t see him at the MONA event further up the river that night but the next evening he arrived at the end of a long table where I was dining at Garagistes, a now-defunct Hobart restaurant that served avant-garde food.
AA Gill was in the company of his partner, Nicola Formby, and I discreetly pointed them out to my Tourism Tasmania minder and said that I had chatted with him the night before.
“Go and say hello,” he said.
“Oh God. no, I never do things like that. I always leave famous people alone.”
I never saw what AA Gill thought of Garagistes as his review appeared behind the Sunday Times’ pay wall, but I think that he would have found it interesting, and hopefully not in a piercing way. He will now never see my book but I think he would have found it interesting too. At the very least it might have given him a chuckle. #RestaurantAustralia
* Click the links below to read my articles about Tourism Australia’s Invite the World to Dinner event. Magic moments and A Taste of Tasmania first appeared in the Sunday Star-Times: