Saturday, 10 December 2016

A A Gill: A Man for all Seasoning

It's been a busy year for obituary writers: David Bowie,Terry Wogan, Prince, Tony Warren, Cliff Michelmore, Ray Fitzwalter, Ronnie Corbett, Paul Daniels, Victoria Wood, Johan Cruyff, David Herd, Mohammed Ali, Keith Emerson, Greg Lake, Leonard Cohen, Robert Vaughn, Fidel Castro, Peter Vaughan, John Glenn and now the Sunday Times columnist A A Gill.

Not being a regular reader of the Sunday Times - it looks as though it's lost its style to me - I was not familiar with Adrian Gill's food criticism; but I imagine that it was every bit as witty and perceptive as his television criticism. Before I was shunted out of my job as a regional hack I had a book of his TV pieces. On my last Friday I passed it on to a colleague in the hope that it would provoke both thought and laughter as it had done for me.

Gill's favourite target was costume drama - oh no, it's Dame Judi in yet another Georgian/Victorian dress and hat. If I remember rightly not even my beloved Middlemarch was spared. Try defending your fondness for Andrew Davies's adaptation to Mr G, I thought. Well, I think I can. The serial was not about wigs, country houses and four-wheelers but humility in all its various emanations - Bulstrode's sanctimony, Casaubon's lifeless piety, Lydgate's frustration, Dorothea's resignation and Sir James Chettam's unrequited love for Dorothea.  You can't always get what you want and all that - although that doesn't appear to apply to Sir Mick Jagger, a father for the seventh time at 73. The sound-track was good as well, good enough to win a BAFTA. You can't say that about many TV sound-tracks.

What larks, eh Pip? Mr Gill had an eye and an ear for the false note, the bogus, the pretentious, the duplicitous. I'd love to know his thoughts about the current TV drama obsession with serial killers on BBC1, 2 and 4 as well as ITV. Men killing women seems to me the acting out of a subliminal fantasy. Aren't there other subjects to explore, for example: political correctness and corruption, grooming in Northern cities, paedophilia in sport, the proliferation of food programmes in an age of obesity and seven days of the girlie-whirly Strictly Come Dancing across BBC1 and BBC2? 

I think he also had an appreciation of that which was genuinely touching, funny or authentic. He approved of sentiment, the kind that is not accompanied by a piano score in a minor key. He was made to engage in mental strife with this tattooed age in which style, the appearance of things, dominates over substance. Twas ever thus, you may say. I disagree. It wasn't like that in 1963 when Philip Larkin made the Beatles' first LP and Bob Dylan's Freewheelin' articulated what a lot of people were feeling but couldn't put into words. Look at the first part of Martin Scorsese's No Direction Home bio-pic of Dylan dominated by Pete Seeger, Odetta, Woody Guthrie, Dave Van Ronk, Howlin' Wolf, Muddy Waters, John Jacob Niles, a young Nat King Cole, Izzy Young and Joan Baez. That wasn't an age for old men pretending to be wise or young men posturing.

After George Orwell died in 1950, W H Auden said he would miss Orwell's opinions, implying that the loss was public not private: national life as a whole would be poorer for Orwell's silence. I hope that's not the case with A A Gill's passing. We need all the judicious, fearless, oxyacetalyne voices we can get to cut through the climate of conceit and delusion that surrounds us.

As readers of The Sunday Times know, he wrote his last piece of journalism for the colour supplement. The subject was his diagnosis, treatment and reflections on the NHS which, he asserts, suffers from a kind of institutional cancer:-

We know it's the best of us. The National Health Service is the best of us. You can't walk into an NHS hospital and be a racist. That condition is cured instantly. But it's almost impossible to walk into a private hospital and not fleetingly feel that you are one: a plush waiting room with entitled and bad-tempered health tourists.

You can't be sexist on the NHS, nor patronising, and the care and the humour, the togetherness ranged against the teetering, chronic system by both the caring and the careworn is the Blitz, "back against the wall", stern and sentimental best of us - and so we tell lies about it.

We say it's the envy of world. It isn't. We say there's nothing else like it. There is. We say it's the best in the West. It's not. We think it's the cheapest. It isn't . Either that or we think it's the most expensive - it's not that eiher. You will live longer in France and Germany, get treated faster abd nore comfortably in Scandanavia, and everything costs more in America......

......Actually it's not being told you've got cancer that is the test of character, it's the retelling. Going home and saying to the missus: "That thing, that cricked neck. Actually it's a tumour, the size of a cigar." It ought to come with a roll of thunder and five Jewish violinists, instead of the creaky whisper of fear.

People react differently to different cancers: most women think they'll survive, and statistically they're right. Most men think they'll die - and likewise......

......I'm sitting in bed on the cancer ward trying to get the painkillers stabilised and a young nurse comes in. "There you are. I've been waiting for you all day. You are supposed to be with me down in chemotherapy. I saw your name. Why are you up here?"
"Well, it turns out the chemo isn't working." Her shoulders sag and her hand goes to her head. "F***, f***, that's dreadful." I think she might be crying.
I look away, so might I.
You don't get that with private healthcare.

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