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Razor-sharp voice

Special to The Times

A.A. GILL is a man in perpetual motion. Whether he’s flying around the world reporting on atrocities or settling in for tea in a hotel lobby, his hands gesticulate wildly and his facial expressions change by the moment. To spend time with Gill is not unlike reading his ever-increasing body of work -- it is to be caught up in a hyper-reality of enthusiasm and outrage.

In England, Gill is as famous for his journalism as many of the celebrities whose photos regularly fill the newspaper he writes for. Every week he files two columns for the London Sunday Times’ style section, one on television and one on restaurants, along with an endless series of travel stories. For the last three years he has also become known in America as an attack-dog columnist for Vanity Fair magazine. That reputation is set to expand here this month with the release of a collection of his journalism, “Previous Convictions,” 32 essays that redefine “vituperative.”

Recently, Gill was sitting in the lobby of the Bowery Hotel in New York, having just returned from Washington, D.C. His partner, journalist Nicola Formby, and an assistant were waiting for him upstairs while a sedan idled in the rainy street to take him to his flight back to London. He looked at a copy of the bound edition of “Previous Convictions” and began to intone, unprompted, as he poured tea for two.

“It’s a collection. They’re always awkward, collections. The nature of what we do is that it all happens very fast -- you get that instant gratification. But the other side of course is that it’s in the bottom of the poodle’s tray the next day, and I’m not sure that anyone who thought they were writing for anything longer than the poodle’s tray should be in our business. That’s in the nature of how we write. And I think that people who think that they are writing for posterity generally write very bad journalism. So you never really know if anything is going to have a life that makes it worth going into hardcover.”

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Going here and there

The book is divided into two sections -- the first half is called “Here,” all set in the U.K., where Gill sets his sights on the theater, on golf and on hunting, among other pursuits. The second half, “There,” is a series of dizzyingly entertaining and chilling dispatches from around the world, including pieces filed from Haiti, Iraq and New York.

Gill speaks fast, in clipped tones that sound like someone reading out loud. This makes sense, because Gill is famously dyslexic and, unusual for a writer, certainly one as prolific as him, he doesn’t actually write -- he dictates all of his stories and books to copy editors. He speaks in full paragraphs.

According to his editor at Simon & Schuster, Sarah Hochman, “His books work beautifully because of his sharp and delicious voice. Reading his essays feels something akin to being seated next to the most entertaining guest at a dinner party.”

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In England, though, that dinner-party seat is not universally coveted. Gill has inspired a strong resentment, because of his blatant success (his tailored suits are lined with Hermes scarves) and his ability to offend. Famously, he was once escorted, along with his date Joan Collins, from a Gordon Ramsay restaurant by Ramsay himself, who didn’t care for Gill’s reviews. He shrouds much of his outrage with a razor sharp wit that Vanity Fair has used several times on unsuspecting targets. But rather than bringing bitterness or cruelty to his work, he is more playful. He is asked if he ever feels that he gets too personal in his attacks.

“I hope not vindictive,” he said, his face a mask of innocence. “I hope that it’s always about what people do rather than who they are unless they make what they do inescapable from who they are. I think it would be asking an awful lot for people to like me, and you don’t get into any part of journalism short of writing the crossword clues if you want to be liked. The worst things to have to read are journalists frightened of not being liked.”

Gill came to journalism in a curious manner. He drank himself nearly to death by age 30 and in the process of cleaning himself up started writing for the British magazine Tatler. He was soon approached by the London Times to write television reviews and from there branched out into reviewing restaurants and traveling. He didn’t really begin working as a journalist, he said, until his early 40s.

Providing a service

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“I think of myself as being a craftsman,” Gill continued. “I produce a service just like a plumber does. Part of the problem with America is that journalists are too full of their own importance. And that makes journalism prissy and self-referential.”

His brand of journalism is firmly first person. He has written two novels, but that has only increased his passion for journalism. “I now know that I am not a frustrated novelist,” he said. “I know what I’m good at, I’m good at this sprint, good at the 1,000- to 5,000-word story -- that’s my distance.”

The first half of the book is deceptively light as Gill observes such topics as his father’s ailments and his appreciation of dogs and hunting. It does little to prepare for the first piece abroad, set in Haiti, where he witnessed a murder and comes close to being killed.

“Yes, that story was my idea, foolishly,” he said. “It is one of the most frightening things I have ever done. I am not a good traveler, but I am good when I am there. I continually test my fear.”

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The piece was inspired, he said, by a trip to South Africa, where he noted that South African President Thabo Mbeki was the only head of state outside of the Americas who went to Haiti’s 400th anniversary. “I wanted to see the oldest black republic in the world, the only black country to ever defeat a European army.” Asked if he had ever read Madison Smartt Bell’s great historical fiction about Haiti, he shrugged. “No, I never do any research,” he said.

“The terrible thing about traveling, and I have taken a lot of crack in my life actually -- but it’s like taking crack: There is never a point when you say, ‘No more for me, thanks.’ The more you travel, the horizon continually moves, you never get to the end.”

What is most jarring about Gill’s work is how he can go from a bitchy take on New York gyms to coming close to being shot and still maintain the same tone throughout -- he is no more emotional about imminent death than he is about a lukewarm bowl of soup. In one of the lightest, most satisfying pieces in the book, he visits several gyms in New York, coming to the inevitable conclusion, “New York is the loneliest city. . . . In a generation New York swapped Studio 54 for an African Dance Class.”

He recalled visiting one gym in New York where he stared at models learning how to box. “They were these incredibly spindly, fantastically beautiful girls learning to box. What I wanted to know is, do they have classes for boxers to learn catwalk turns? You may need it, you never know!”

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Unusual images

The first image in the book is too awful to describe but involves a porta-potty at the Glastonbury Festival. It’s a theme that runs through the book Third World shanty-towns, a refugee camp in the Sudan, the cities built on filth in South America. “It is a bit of a theme,” he said, as he poured more tea. “It is very English. It amazes my American friends how much we can talk about our bowels. But an awful lot does come down to that.”

In another section, Gill visits the British army in Iraq, making observations about how the Americans have taken all the best buildings for themselves. He seems impressed with the resolve of soldiers. “Armies have this odd reaction to journalists. The army wants to keep you away from the action, but they want you to see everything they want you to see. The army is constantly looking for good stories to validate what they do. It’s a very odd relationship.

“I do like soldiers. I like their competence. I don’t like what they’re doing, but I do think ‘Thank God for 18- to 25-year-olds.’ If they didn’t hold their lives in such cheap contempt we would never be able to fight a war, and as a man who is a long way past the demographic for having to fight anyone, I find that continually moving.”

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Gill turns 54 this month. “I’m a bit old,” he said. “You just get older and stuff starts falling to bits. All you’re ever doing is holding back on the inevitable. The idea that you are going to improve yourself into something else is nonsense. So I cycle and I go to the gym. I gave up smoking six years ago. It’s a sign of failure, not of success -- you do it because you’re frightened. I only stopped smoking because I had to give up. Giving up is a bad thing. Everyone says I stick with things and I’m a winner, except when it comes to drinking and taking drugs and smoking. I failed at those, I’m afraid.”

What keeps him going is the work. “I just had lunch with my editor at Vanity Fair, who said, ‘I’m working really hard now so I don’t have to work at all later.’ And I went, ‘That’s the exact opposite of me. I’m working really hard now, so that I can work really hard later on.’ ”


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