Monday, 13 March 2017

Book Review: Pour Me, AA Gill, 2015

Pour Me is short as memoirs go: just 241 pages. In part that's because, as Gill says early on in it, the alcoholism from which he suffered in his twenties meant that "there was no film in the camera" for those years, and that earlier memories were also dissolved: "childhood, school, holidays, friends ... all seemed to be faded and incomplete".

Incomplete, but not erased entirely: Pour Me does cover some of Gill's childhood, as well as the time between when he managed to stop drinking, aged 30, and when he wrote the book, 30 years later.

Stopping drinking saved Gill's life, and after "thousands of hours of learning the wrong thing" - art, cooking, gardening, bartending - he finally "failed into journalism", becoming one of the best-known food and TV critics in the country.

So I'll borrow a description of journalism that Gill says he liked - "journalism is what will be grasped at once" - and come to the point: Gill was a fantastic and endearing writer, and he had an interesting life. What more can you ask from a memoir?

He could be brilliant, as perhaps best demonstrated by the section on the speech he gave to a room full of dyslexic schoolchildren (he himself was dyslexic), telling them that the English language was theirs to manipulate no matter what their school might tell them about their abilities. This echoed two transformative elements in his own life: the moment when he came upon his English teacher literally tearing apart books to show them who was boss, and a crucifixion painting that particularly moved him with its depiction of human suffering, which was made in the period of the Lutheran reformation.

He was also enviably insightful - something he attributed to his artistic training ("It made me look, as opposed to merely see"). Consider for example this, from page 2: "I wonder what the rest of nature makes of a lawn? Arrogant, snobbish, entitled, needy, effortfully polite, sober." Or this, on famine (he wasn't just a critic), a subject that sadly is timely again: "It isn't staring into the face of starvation that thuds like a blow to your heart, it is having starvation stare back at you".

His turns of phrase were up there with the best of them, and he was funny, and he was empathetic, having experienced loneliness and sickness and desperation by the gallon.

I'm using the past tense, because Gill died in December 2016, a year or two after Pour Me was published. Could that be another reason why the book is so short? I'm not sure: it wasn't clear to me whether he'd received his diagnosis of terminal cancer before the book was finished.

I suspect not, because I suspect he'd have carried on writing it until the end if he'd known it was coming, just as he did with his articles, the last of which was about his experience of dying on the NHS. But then the book is so dense with insight and tales told only in snatches that it could easily have been four times the size, and the final paragraphs are filled with finality: "I misused a life for 30 years and I had 30 more of a second chance that I used better, though not as well as I might."

Perhaps those tales are told only in snatches here because they have already been told elsewhere - in Gill's journalism, a compendium of which is due to be published this year. I'll certainly be buying that too, so maybe I'll let you know.

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