A.A. Gill’s new book
Spending the weekend in the shadow of the soaring peaks of Collingwood, checking out the local restaurant scene for a forthcoming story, I have been filling the precious moments between bouts of garlic bread by dipping into A.A. Gill’s latest book, Table Talk. It is a compendium of the famous British journalist’s restaurant reviews—I was going to say ‘in all their acerbic glory’ but they have been castrated, presumably with Gill’s permission. The names of restaurants, chefs and restaurateurs have been omitted so the reader is left with mere invective, undirected and irrelevant—a spinning woozle-bird of malevolent wit floating in space with nothing to give it impetus but its own self-satisfied imagination.
Don’t get me wrong, I love reading A.A. Gill when my mum sends me his two-page review torn from the Sunday Times’s Style section. But years and years of articles laid end to end to end become a tad repetitive; the arch tone of voice and schoolboy gross-out similes eventually seem laboured and predictable. Fortunately, you don’t have to read the whole book. Gill and his editors have lifted some of the best bits free of the matrix of contextual meaning, wiped their noses, italicized them, and told them to stand still and pose at the end of every section in case an errant critic wanders by looking for representative bons mots. Here are some examples:
“I’m naturally wary of cannelloni—once bitten… This one arrived inescapably imitating a nuked sanitary towel.”
“Foie gras sushi. Like eating a vet’s biopsy tray.”
“The chicken broth was boisterous, but had that slightly ossified flavour from being boiled too hard, a bit as if it had been made out of George Hamilton’s ears.”
“For lunch on a dreary Wednesday it offered the warm welcome and bonhomous hospitality of a Norwegian small-claims court.”
It’s the italics that make these observations so breathlessly, rib-achingly hilarious—as if Gill is saying them very loudly in a funny foreign accent, like Basil Fawlty remembering the war.
The most puzzlingly vainglorious section of the book is the index—page after page of peoples’ names and other proper nouns. Peter Ustinov, for instance. If this were an actor’s memoir there would be an anecdote or two, a reminiscence of some connection, no matter how small. We turn to page 32: “Bear with me, I’m going to read you a menu. It may help if you imagine it in the voice of Joyce Grenfell or perhaps Peter Ustinov. ” And that’s it. Gill is actually referencing his own throwaway references and similes for our edification and amusement. Hang on, I know A.A. said something really funny about Peter Ustinov. Now, what was it. Ah yes, it’ll be in the index! Page 32…
Bill Wyman’s name is also there. Page 215. Did Gill once run with the Stones? “The argan tree is gnarly and uncultivated, like Bill Wyman with bark. ” Oh, right. And George Hamilton is indexed, too (see above). Gill fans will argue that this is all a marvellous joke, a parlour game for those in the know, a brilliantly ironic and subversive mockery of the very notion of the index and all things indicial. Or maybe he’s just giving his readers the finger.
Occasionally, he finds something important to say and says it well enough to draw a genuine smile of recognition and admiration—his nutshell defence and condemnation of nouvelle cuisine, for example. Like finding a real cherry in a bag of lemon drops.