(photo Evening Standard)
Adrian Gill would have been pleased and amused by the way his too-early death, aged only 62, has been noticed. It was repeatedly announced in the national BBC radio and TV news yesterday (10 December) ; and today his own newspaper, The Sunday Times, has a magazine cover-feature on his cancer, which he wrote himself last week, plus a front page story, and no fewer than three of its 32 pages are dedicated to his demise (as opposed to a single but full-page obituary for the 87-year-old distinguished veteran reporter, Philip Knightley). For any readers of this who don’t recognise the by-line “A.A. Gill”, since 1993 Adrian had been the TV and restaurant critic of this national British Sunday paper, and more recently a superb travel and features writer, with a – surprising, almost unnerving to me – penchant for writing about endangered people in war zones. It seemed an odd fit: Adrian, the dandy outfitted by Dougie Hayward, more used to three star restaurants than to refugee camps. I normally saw my old friend at first nights at the theatre.
The obituaries haven’t been published yet. They will be lengthy and full; but I am writing this because his “back story” deserves telling, and I doubt that the other writers will have known him so well or for so long a time.
Our connection came via his family. His father, Michael Gill, whose obituary I did write, was one of the greatest TV producers ever, responsible for Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation, Alistair Cooke’s America, Robert Hughes’ The Shock of the New and, with Michael’s second wife, Adrian’s stepmother, Georgina Denison, my own (more modest) The Feast of Christmas. When I first met Adrian with Michael and Georgina he was a chain-smoking, recovering alcoholic with the remnants of a confidence-impairing stammer. He was giving cookery lessons to earn a bit of money, as this was well before he was given a food column by Tatler in 1991. I didn’t know Adrian when he was married to Cressida Connolly – indeed, I didn’t know he had been married to her; he married Amber Rudd, the current Home Secretary and mother of two of his four children, in 1990. I hope he managed to marry Nicola Formby as they intended; but he died only three weeks after the announcement of his illness.
Food was the family business of his generation, as his younger brother, Nicholas, was a Michelin-starred chef. Michael, Georgina and I had endless discussions about trying to make an ambitious TV series about the history and culture of food, on the model of Civilisation, and Michael was determined to find a role in the project for Nick, perhaps even as co-presenter. I admired Nick’s culinary skills, and was fond of him – I once cooked lunch for him and his and Adrian’s mother, the actress Yvonne Gilon, in my farmhouse kitchen; and I knew Nick’s wife. You have to suspect that the alcohol problem was in the genes, because in 1998 Nick simply disappeared, leaving a grieving mother, father, wife and children, stepmother, half-sister, and brother, Adrian. Adrian was, I think, devastated by Nick’s vanishing, and made some pained (disguised as ironic) reference to it when we talked at Michael’s memorial drinks in 2005.
By the time of Nick’s going missing, Adrian was well into his new career as writer. This was despite the truly dramatic dyslexia from which he suffered. He was the writer who could not physically write; and he dictated every syllable of the rich, witty, allusive, well-turned, sometimes beautiful copy published in The Sunday Times and later Vanity Fair. He could, however, read, and his capacious memory made it possible for him to allude to, if not quote from, the otherwise closed world of letters; though it was his visual memory that got him through ordinary life. He’d been an art student and was a good draughtsman, though his best canvas was his own body, which he dressed with the care and craft for costume of a Van Dyck crossed with colour sense of a Rothko. (I read today that he had Dougie Hayward line his suits with Hermès silk scarves.)
This was a big part part of his edgy camp sensibility. He once wrote that he was gay in every way except what he liked to do in the bedroom, and he always greeted me with a glimmer in his eye and an inappropriately arch “Hello, darling.” Apart from briefly seeing each other once a month or so at the theatre, when he became celebrated we no longer shared any social life – I don’t “get” Jeremy Clarkson (or the rest of that set of our Cotswold neighbours) – but Adrian remained in touch with and close to our mutual friend, Lucy Sisman, with whom he’d been at school. Despite an awful lot of complaints to various Press Councils and Commissions occasioned by his disparaging comments about groups (such as Welshmen) and individuals, he was un-snobbish and old-school gentlemanly. And I think he was a pretty good, hands-on father. His devotion and love for Michael following the onset of Alzheimer’s were palpable and touching.
The rate of acceleration of his career astonished me. As an old Fleet Street hack myself, I once said to Michael and Georgina that I thought Adrian was taking on too much, too quickly, and was in danger of burn-out. How wrong I was – every deadline made him up his game. If his novels, Sap Rising and Starcrossed were not his best prose, his 2015 addiction memoir, Pour Me, was Adrian on top form. Behind the bow tie, the willowy figure and the love of the dressing-up box there was one hell of a tough guy. Adrian had been through the wars, and won. Maybe that was why he relished journalism assignments that would distress most of us – he understood the plight and sorrow of the innocent victim from the inside, and needed to share his strength.