I was extremely sad to learn the weekend before last that AA Gill has died of a cancer he described as a ‘trucker’s gut buster’, a ‘gimpy, malevolent, meaty, malignancy’. Lung cancer had migrated to the pancreas. ‘There is,’ he said, ‘barely a morsel of offal not included.’ He called it the ‘full English’ of cancers.
As eminently repeatable as they might be, these are not sound bites. I’ve just reread Adrian’s last piece for the Sunday Times. It’s long and beautiful and equally arresting. It’s a love letter to the NHS, and in particular to Charing Cross Hospital, that ‘monstrous, hideous, crumbling, patched-up mess… I love it: it’s how I feel.’ It exposes eloquently the institutionalised slowness of the pace with which diagnoses are made. It praises the treatment and the expertise and the real humanness of the care received. It laments the fact that immunotherapy – particularly successful in the treatment of tumours caused by smoking – isn’t available on the NHS. It’s a wonderful, heartrending piece.
This power to speak originally and interestingly about something as old and raked over as cancer is typical of Adrian’s writing, whatever the subject. My own interest in it begins in 1999, in admittedly self-serving circumstances. I had only very recently founded Journeys by Design when I was introduced to Adrian at the World Travel Market. Already a renowned food critic, he was on the hunt for good travel stories. I was on the hunt for someone just like Adrian, a writer at the top of his game, someone who was interested in so much more than the lodge-beach gold tap luxury that seemed to mark so much of the travel industry at the time. He found me. I was lucky to find him. A year later, we were in Ethiopia, attending the burial of Haile Selassie, whose remains had been discovered some years previously beneath a toilet in the Royal Palace.
While we would go on to work together in the years that followed, I remember this first trip as something of a baptism of AA Gill fire. He’d lost his bags in transit between Frankfurt and Addis. He didn’t take notes. Highly tuned, able to converse and watch TV and scan the world as it passed by, he was an information junkie. He absorbed data – lots of it, in different forms, simultaneously. His wry, hard, soft, tender interest in everything was unusual and an inspiration. He saw through everything. His write up on the trip was piercingly honest, and rather put the Selassie family nose out of joint. Brilliant, seasoned, unrelentingly honest, occasionally ruthless, fazed by nothing, Adrian was very much his own man.
In this respect, his support for Journeys by Design was unexpected and (it turned out) critical to our early successes. Getting a small, niche-focussed business off the ground is no easy thing. The fact that AA Gill not only wrote so engagingly about that first trip to Ethiopia, but was happy to endorse us was extraordinary. AA Gill was not about pleasing people – as anyone who has read his work will testify. His integrity as a writer preceded him. Clearly, he liked us, and even more so, I believe, after my wife rang him from my mobile, mistaking him for AA Grill, our local kebab joint. Adrian’s support came at a time when it was most needed. It was a powerful, independent, unsolicited support. I am – and will always be – most grateful.
So, here’s to AA Gill, a life extremely well lived. He died Saturday 10th, December at Charing Cross hospital. My heart goes out to his family, to his children, and to Nicola Formby, his partner and who accompanied us all those years ago to Ethiopia. I will miss our intermittent lunches.