Is Further Away: A.A. Gill

I bought a book for two sentences lodged deep in my head; two sentences from an essay Arctic — ‘The snow is a heaving, undulating, living thing. It feels as if the surface of the earth is sloughing its skin.’ To make them mine, I ordered A.A. Gill Is Further Away, a collection of essays by journalist, TV and restaurant critic Gill. And I was delighted all over again by Gill’s sharp, snarky prose — shockingly honest opinions, freely expressed and superbly defended. Dubai, for instance, he says “has been mugged by its own greed”; Algeria he calls “a butcher’s shop of fury and fundamentalism”; and New York “has its own particular strut and conceit”. But more than the faraway and the exotic (titled ‘far’, about Madagascar, Sicily, Haiti…) it was Gill’s pieces about his backyard —London, England — titled ‘near’ that impressed. “Travel is never about distance,” he says in the foreword, and names the Hyde Park piece as his favourite piece from the collection. It’s at Hyde Park that he writes about cavalrymen, the horses’ “hooves sounding brittle and beautiful in the damp early morning”; then he moves up the coast to Scarborough, where “penny arcades wink fitfully on the front, the fish and chip shops congeal in the chilly dawn, the cliffs hotch with seabirds”.

It works because…

Take your pick — there’s Gill’s masterly eye, his polished prose, and his razor-sharp wit. And then there’s the choice of places, because Gill does not simply settle for the busiest, coldest, farthest place, where it’s easy to form impressions. After all, when everything is new, every sense is freshly stimulated, the prose gets breathless and every sentence trembles with wondrous sights and sounds. But how much harder to do the same about your backyard, the city you grew up in! And that’s where Gill really scores. He speaks up for not just his home-town (London) but also little towns (St Leonards-on-sea), with nothing to show the world… no famous sons, no famous buildings, where boring and ordinary are the watchwords. Gill writes about people in such places, the old, the dyslexic (he, too, is one) and also about English pre-occupations — poetry, Morris dancing, that sort of thing. In the ‘far’ essays, he traipses across the globe, to Bombay (which he likens to New York or London, “when they were still vital, before they got scared and wanted peace and quiet”), Maldives (where the atoll is “as vulnerable and endangered as a white tiger in a Chinese chemist”) and the ethereal opalescence of Stockholm in December. By the time I was done, I realised Gill had delivered his promise — “I’m always conscious that the first thing I have to do is to bring whoever picks up this page with me.” And I was left with, long after I had shut the book, the feeling that I had, indeed, travelled with him…

And this one stays with you…

On Hyde Park, ‘the great green daddy’ of all parks — “Like all great journeys, trysts, campaigns and fresh starts, Hyde Park begins at dawn. It’s the longest weekend of the year, and the grand and impervious gates are open to let in the sullen grey morning. Hyde is the most famous park in the world.” “… I’ve been coming to the park since I was a child. I’ve lost boats, failed to fly kites, played cricket, lain in the long grass with girlfriends, walked dogs, pushed prams, taught my children to ride bikes here. If I claim to belong to any piece of country, if I feel a bond with any place, then it’s with this park. This is its story for a day”.

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