AA Gill dies: 'One of the last great stylists of modern journalism' and the 'heart and soul' of The Sunday Times

Sunday Times writer AA Gill, who died on Saturday, was described by colleague Lynne Barber as “the best journalist of my lifetime”.

He made his name as a TV critic and restaurant reviewer but went on to prove himself as a foreign correspondent.

His final piece was published in The Sunday Times magazine yesterday and was a warmly critical account of his cancer treatment from the NHS and the shortcomings in the state-funded system which meant Britain lags behind other countries in its treatment of cancer.

His severe dyslexia meant he had great trouble reading and writing and needed to dictate his columns and features.

His copytaker Clare Conway told The Sunday Times: “This last article was very important to him. After I’d typed it up at the office, it was time to read it back to him. By then he was in hospital, his daughter Flora beside him.

“I had to stop five or six times and phone him back because he was in such agony. At the end, as he always did, he asked, ‘Is it OK?’ And I said, ‘Yes, Adrian, it’s brilliant. But it’s very sad.’ And that was the last I spoke to him.”

Although Gill had revealed that he was dying of cancer in a restaurant review three weeks ago, the suddenness of his death came as a shock to colleagues.

Long-serving former Sunday Times magazine editor Robin Morgan told Press Gazette how he persuaded Gill to first use his writing talents on a foreign news story.

“When he first built his reputation as a restaurant critic in The Sunday Times his luminous observational writing had a cutting edge and a descriptive narrative so unique I called him and asked him if he would like to write serious articles for the magazine.

“‘Such as?’ he asked. ‘I thought it over and called him back. I wanted him to go and cover the Sudan famine. I thought his unique eye and writing would give us a new perspective because I feared readers were suffering famine fatigue from the usual club of foreign correspondents, who, with the greatest respect wrote predictably.

“Adrian questioned his own ability and said ‘No’. A day or two later another editor on the Sunday Times described the idea as a ‘sick tasteless joke’. Adrian called me back right away: ‘OK I’m doing it’. He was outraged that he had been pigeon holed.

“The cover story he turned in was the first of many award-winning triumphs. It was so powerfully written newspapers all over the world syndicated it.

“For the next dozen years or so he was my go-to-guy wherever we needed a new set of eyeballs on the ground.

“His article on the environmental desecration of the Aral Sea, reporting from the Haiti earthquake, or deepest Africa’s tragedies he was at his best; his reporting was awe inspiring at times, breathtaking in his ability to see things others missed and say things others feared to say.

“He wrote on preventable blindness in the Third World and Sunday Times responded with £2.5m raised which was used to treat more than a million mainly children and mothers who were going blind for want of vitamin A.

“Adrian used to say ‘I like interviewing places’. It didn’t matter if it was a refugee camp or a deserted medieval battlefield – he delivered copy we were excited to read and proud to publish.

“He did without a doubt gift me most of the proudest moments of my 19 years editing the magazine.”

Gill was born in Edinburgh in 1954 and lost much of the first 30 years of his life to alcohol abuse.

He was teaching cookery when he got his first break in journalism, asked by then Tatler editor Jane Procter to write an account of his detox.

According to The Sunday Times: “Procter said that she cried when she read it and Gill was soon called upon for regular recipes. ”

He was recruited by The Sunday Times Style magazine in 1993 and then made TV critic, a column which ran throughout his life.

According to The Sunday Times: “He was soon begging to become the paper’s restaurant critic. He said that he “made such a nuisance of myself, I got a letter from the deputy editor that said, ‘Dear Adrian, f*** off.’ ” Eventually he was given that job too…”

He was quoted in the paper yesterday explaining why he did so well there: “When I joined The Sunday Times the people I was competing with were all 10 or 15 years younger, they had double firsts from Oxford or Cambridge, and were as bright as new pins.

“But I’d spent that 15 years wetting myself and getting into fights and living a sort of subterranean life, but it meant I had had 15 years more experience — which was incredibly useful, and meant that I just wrote better than they did . . . It has very little to do with grammar and everything to do with knowing.”

On writing he said: “The closer you can make writing to speech the better, I think, so that it sounds like someone telling you an anecdote.”

Gill’s acerbic wit saw him frequently appear in the pages of Press Gazette:

Reporting from Pakistan in 2002 he said: “There’s precious little journalism being done out here. Most of these Bhutto Babes and Dicks in blue shirts are only used to putting subtitles to pictures. They couldn’t find a story if it were printed on the English-language menu in the coffee shop.

He was threatened with legal action for inciting racial hatred in 2006, and cleared by the PCC after he described the Albania as a “Ruritania of brigands and vendettas” and the people as “short and ferret faced, with the unisex stumpy, slightly bowed legs of Shetland ponies”.

He upset the inhabitants of Stow-on-Wold by describing it as a “honey-coloured hell”, described the Welsh as “dark, ugly, pugnacious little trolls” and saw a PCC complaint against The Sunday Times upheld in 2010 when he described Claire Balding as a “dyke on a bike” in a TV review.

In 2009 he upset animal rights activists by writing about killing a baboon: “A soft-nosed .357 blew his lungs out.”

He always picked his own restaurants (never the PRs) and paid for his own meals (on a company credit cads). He never made notes.

Writing about “destination journalism” in 2008, Press Gazette’s Grey Cardigan  columnist said: “Do you pay any attention to the Style magazine restaurant review if ‘AA Gill is away’? Of course not.”

Sunday Times interviewer Lynn Barber was among those to pay tribute to Gill in yesterday’s paper.

She said: “I know for sure that he was the best journalist of my lifetime.”

Camilla Long said: “Just listening to him dictate his columns taught me more about journalism than I’d learnt in the previous 10 years. He was a close friend, a mentor, and I am utterly heartbroken.”

And foreign secretary Boris Johnson said: “AA Gill was one of the last great stylists of modern journalism and one of the very few who could write a column so full of gags and original similes that it was actually worth reading twice.”

Sunday times editor Martin Ivens: “He was the heart and soul of the paper. His wit was incomparable, his writing was dazzling and fearless, his intelligence was matched by compassion. Adrian was a giant among journalists. He was also our friend. We will miss him.”

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