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From the NHS to Londoners: AA Gill’s finest arguments

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Joe Ellison
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If anyone could set the world to rights, it was AA Gill, the esteemed author and restaurant critic who passed away this weekend following a short battle with cancer. He was 62.

Never a man to let a trivial thing such as death get in his way, he was a journalistic force to the end, his final piece, published in yesterday’s Sunday Times, laying bare his battle with lung cancer, as well as NHS’s inability to grant him a potentially life-extending new treatment.

Through his recent experience on the frontline, Gill debunked the myths of the national health service, asking why one of Europe’s most developed nations also suffered from the worst rates of cancer survival. However, such was the man, he also praised it, saying the NHS triumphed on a human level where private healthcare did not.

The NHS was “the best of us”, he said. And more often than not, Gill was the best of us too, able to strip back layers of public outrage, to ignore the Twitteresphere, give us a collective kicking when we needed it and do so eloquently, he delivered opinion that mattered.

Here are eight times of the many, many times that AA was on the money.

On the NHS

“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 the 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, either. You will live longer in France and Germany, get treated faster and more comfortably in Scandinavia, and everything costs more in America.

Please do read the full piece of Gill’s last Sunday Times column – it’s heartbreaking yet wonderful

On why people shouldn’t be snobby about America

“Stupid, stupid. Americans are stupid. America is stupid. A stupid, stupid country made stupid by stupid, stupid people.” I particularly remember that because of the nine stupids.” It was said over a dinner table by a professional woman, a clever, clever, clever woman. Hardback-educated, bespokely traveled, liberally humane, worked in the arts. I can’t remember specifically why she said it, what evidence of New World idiocy triggered the trope. Nor do I remember what the reaction was, but I don’t need to remember. It would have been a nodded and muttered agreement. Even from me. I’ve heard this cock crow so often I don’t even feel guilt for not wringing its neck.

“Among the educated, enlightened, expensive middle classes of Europe, this is a received wisdom. A given. Stronger in some countries like France, less so somewhere like Germany, but overall the Old World patronizes America for being a big, dumb, fat, belligerent child. The intellectuals, the movers and the makers and the creators, the dinner-party establishments of people who count, are united in the belief—no, the knowledge—that Americans are stupid, crass, ignorant, soul-less, naïve oafs without attention, irony, or intellect.

“These same people will use every comforting, clever, and ingenious American invention, will demand America’s medicine, wear its clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York. More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations’ and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold. Who, whether they credit it or not, also owe their concepts of freedom, equality, and civil rights in no small part to America. Of course, they will also sign collective letters accusing America of being a Fascist, totalitarian, racist state.”

On the importance of newspapers

“Freedom of speech is what all the other human rights and freedoms balance on. That may sound like unspeakable arrogance when applied to restaurant reviews or gossip columns. But that’s not the point. Journalism isn’t an individual sport like books and plays; it’s a team effort. The power of the press is cumulative. It has a conscious humming momentum. You can — and probably do — pick up bits of it and sneer or sigh or fling them with great force at the dog. But together they make up the most precious thing we own. “It’s all very well for him,” I hear you say, “on his high horse about freedom, but just look at the papers. They’re full of lies and gossip and laziness.

“The theory’s fine, the practice is disgusting.” Well, let’s just look at that. I don’t know what it is you do, what you make or sell, but consider this. Consider starting each morning with three or so dozen blank sheets of broadsheet paper. And then having to fill them with columns of facts, opinions based on facts and predictions extrapolated from facts. I don’t know how many facts a newspaper has in it. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Millions. From the Stock Market to TV listings by way of courtrooms, parliaments, disasters, wars, celebrity denials, births, deaths, horoscopes and the pictures to go with them.

“Now tell me, how long did your last annual general report take? Days? Weeks? And you had all that information to hand. How long did the last letter you wrote take? You just made that up. Newspapers are the size of long novels. They’re put together from around the globe from sources who lie, manipulate, want to sell things, hide things, spin things.

“Despite threats, injunctions, bullets, jails and non-returned phone calls, journalists do it every single day, from scratch. What’s amazing, what’s utterly staggering, is not the things papers get wrong, it’s just how much they get right. Your business, no other business, could guarantee the percentage of accuracy that a newspaper does. And what’s more, if you live in Britain, you don’t get just one, you have the choice of a dozen national papers. Oh, and a small boy will come and put it through your letter box before you’ve even got out of bed. Nothing, but nothing, makes me prouder than being a hack.”

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On Brexit

“We all know what “getting our country back” means. It’s snorting a line of the most pernicious and debilitating Little English drug, nostalgia. The warm, crumbly, honey-coloured, collective “yesterday” with its fond belief that everything was better back then, that Britain (England, really) is a worse place now than it was at some foggy point in the past where we achieved peak Blighty. It’s the knowledge that the best of us have been and gone, that nothing we can build will be as lovely as a National Trust Georgian country house, no art will be as good as a Turner, no poem as wonderful as If, no writer a touch on Shakespeare or Dickens, nothing will grow as lovely as a cottage garden, no hero greater than Nelson, no politician better than Churchill, no view more throat-catching than the White Cliffs and that we will never manufacture anything as great as a Rolls-Royce or Flying Scotsman again.

“Brexit is the fond belief that Britain is worse now than at some point in the foggy past where we achieved peak Blighty. We listen to the Brexit lot talk about the trade deals they’re going to make with Europe after we leave, and the blithe insouciance that what they’re offering instead of EU membership is a divorce where you can still have sex with your ex. They reckon they can get out of the marriage, keep the house, not pay alimony, take the kids out of school, stop the in-laws going to the doctor, get strict with the visiting rights, but, you know, still get a shag at the weekend and, obviously, see other people on the side.”

On why breakfast is the most important meal of the day

“Breakfast is everything. The beginning, the first thing. It is the mouthful that is the commitment to a new day, a continuing life.”

On Londoners

“London may be a great metropolis, but it’s not very nice to people. We’re not friendly. Not that we’re rude, like the Parisians with their theatrical and frankly risible haughtiness; nor do we have New Yorkers’ shouty impatience. Londoners are just permanently petulant, irritated. I think we wake up taking offense. All those English teacup manners, the exaggerated please and thank yous, are really the muzzle we put on our short tempers. There are, for instance, a dozen inflections of the word sorry. Only one of them means “I’m sorry.”

“So what you shouldn’t expect is to get on with the natives, or for them to take you to their bosoms, or to invite you to their homes, or to buy you a drink. They may, occasionally, if backed against a wall, be rudimentarily helpful, but mostly they’ll ignore you with the huffing sighs of people in a hurry. When you get lost, you’ll stay lost.”

On steak being the most macho meal of all

“What does steak say to us and about us? Well, it’s manly. If food came with gender appellations, steak would definitely be at the top of the bloke column. Women can eat it, they can appreciate it, but it’s like girls chugging pints of beer and then burping. It’s a cross-gender impersonation. Steak is a high-value food that doesn’t need a chef. You don’t want some twiddly-accented, jus-dribbling, foam-flicking chef mincing about with your meat.

“You want a guy in a checked shirt with his sleeves rolled up forking and tonging your T-bone. Steaks even come with their own butch utensils. It’s more like engineering or Lego than cooking. It’s boy stuff. The porterhouse used to be the dining choice of a gauche out-of-towner, a man who was uncomfortable with chic urban menus and didn’t know how to order—“Oh, I’ll just have the steak. Wipe its behind and bring it to the table,” they’d say, just to let the rest of us cheese-eating sophisticates know that they weren’t intimidated hicks.

“Restaurants would keep steak on the menu just for them because they knew there would always be a certain sort of guy who didn’t think it was an acceptable date restaurant if he couldn’t get a New York strip. Chefs hate steaks because their reputations are left in the hands of their butchers—two cuts off the same muscle can eat quite differerently.

On Morrissey’s attempt at an autobiography

"Putting it in Penguin Classics doesn’t diminish Aristotle or Homer or Tolstoy; it just roundly mocks Morrissey, and this is a humiliation constructed by the self-regard of its victim.

“What is surprising is that any publisher would want to publish the book, not because it is any worse than a lot of other pop memoirs, but because Morrissey is plainly the most ornery, cantankerous, entitled, whingeing, self-martyred human being who ever drew breath. And those are just his good qualities.

"There are many pop autobiographies that shouldn’t be written," he wrote. "Some to protect the unwary reader, and some to protect the author. In Morrissey’s case, he has managed both. This is a book that cries out like one of his maudlin ditties to be edited. But were an editor to start, there would be no stopping. It is a heavy tome, utterly devoid of insight, warmth, wisdom or likeability. It is a potential firelighter of vanity, self-pity and logorrhoeic dullness."

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Joe Ellison

Joe is a writer and editor. Specialising in film, food, sport, current affairs, travel writing and adept at pilfering David Brent quotes, Joe describes himself as ‘basically a chilled out entertainer’. Follow Joe on Twitter: @Chevychased 

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