Trillium Book Awards Author Reading 2015

BOOK REVIEW - Previous Convictions

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BOOK REVIEW - Previous Convictions

This piece isn’t about Toronto, nor is it about Canadian culture. I hope OBTO will forgive me. I’ve worked hard over the past month to keep that focus, but I wanted to stray a bit just this once to offer my review of a book by one of my favourite writers, who deserves to be better known here.

Previous Convictions: Assignments from Here and There
by AA Gill (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

On a road outside the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, while on an excursion to the suburb of Cité Soleil, the British journalist AA Gill spotted two young men "mucking around" up ahead on one of the pick-up trucks used locally for public transport.

Writes Gill: "...they jump off to fight in the road; that rutting grappling that young men casually commit in streets everywhere. We stop, and as if by sleight of hand, now they are fighting over a pistol."

What follows is a disturbing echo of Gill's conviction that Cité Soleil, home to some 250,000 people, is the most squalid and deprived place on earth. "This is a city built on shit," he writes of the slum. "That's not a euphemism: it's a stinking, sick dung mire that stretches as far as the eye can see, riven with streams of diarrhoeic runny shite that splatter the beaches and leak into the sea."

Here, we are at the low point—geographic and otherwise—of Gill's remarkable book, Previous Convictions.

A bon vivant who wears tailored suits, rides a bicycle (or drives a yellow Bentley) through London, keeps a valet, and is preternaturally handsome, Adrian Anthony Gill is that rarest of things in a world rife with pretenders, a writer so talented his name sells newspapers. In his mid-fifties, he is half-Scots half-English, a recovering alcoholic, and has a scimitar tongue. Officially, he is the restaurant reviewer (and TV critic) for The Sunday Times, in London, where his scabrous dinner write-ups have made him the bête noire of London chefs. Gordon Ramsay, for instance, in an act of retaliatory nastiness over a negative review, once tossed Gill and his dinner date out of his self-named London restaurant. The two remain mortal enemies, though Ramsay did eventually apologize publicly to Gill's date—actress Joan Collins.

When not chafing chefs, Gill writes travel pieces and other features for mags like The Sunday Times Magazine, GQ and Esquire. The scathing, satirical opinions voiced in his travel articles have raised hackles from Albania to Wales and beyond, generating official inquiry and threats of litigation.

Previous Convictions, Gill's second collection of such pieces, is divided into two sections: “Here” (Britain, with one foray to Paris), and “There” (everywhere else). Not all of these pieces are travel writing per se. There are also essays on such subjects as theatre, dogs, beetles and painting, constituting much of the “Here” section. But whether interviewing the photographer Cartier-Bresson (the first journalist invited to do so in many years), dissecting the Royal Geographic Society, or writing about his father's Alzheimer's, Gill maintains an explorer's curiosity and a journalist's vigilance.

On the road, in the “There” section, he visits such locales as war-torn Baghdad, where mortars “land with a crump, like a severed head hitting a Persian carpet", and New York where "everyone dresses four sizes too big in one of the city's two colour options—black or basketball." Meanwhile, a Celine Dion audience in Las Vegas "claps as best it can, with its hands full of napkins nestling pints of sticky cocktails and boxes of snacks to ward off the ninety minutes of rumbly pangs." In Greenland, the Piteraq wind is so cold it "will freeze the eyeballs in your head and turn your tongue into a meat lolly."

The high point of this rolling panoply of pan-global verbal sniping actually comes as Gill puts down his metaphorical rifle and picks up a real one, and delivers a breathtaking description of a deer hunt in, appropriately enough, the Scottish highlands.

Writes Gill: "Across a glen, we sight a river of them, five, six hundred stags raving across the hillside. Some are huge, holding their great heads up and back to support their crowns of bone. On and on we walk, drinking from tumbling burns. The ravens fly past, their wings creaking like starched linen. And then we're on a crag, a serrated spine of rock above the clouds. Far below are two bible-black lochs with cascading waterfalls."

Great travel writing is not about places, but rather about people, about delineating where people stand in relation to the world. Contrast is everything. Of those two grappling lads outside Port-Au-Prince, one dies, the other doesn't, as can be expected. "There is a pop, pop, pop," writes Gill; "guns make such a tinny, silly little noise." It's the banality of the event that disturbs. The killer struts in the road, casually finishing the job with more shots before ambling away. Meanwhile, Gill cowers in the car's footwell, his livid driver shouting, "See, see, see what it's like here! See, see how we have to live!"

Indeed we do, for Gill has carried us a long, long way from any posh London restaurant or soaring Scottish crag.

5 comments

Thank you for the info Shaun!!

@sbkatz - Book publishers are not going away. Not for a long while, anyway. There are no (or none that I know of) viable e-book publishers yet. Virtually all e-book content is still coming out of traditional publishing. I don't think we will see a viable e-book only publishing model until the jostling to develop an interface that the public accepts settles down. And even then, there is no reason to believe that traditional book publishing will vanish. Unless I've been missing something (entirely possible), for the moment, brick & mortar publishers are still pretty much your only choice when it comes to book publishing. If you are talking about one-off pieces of journalism, reviews, short fiction, etc... I would say right now place the work with whomever will pay for it - magazine, newspaper, website, wherever.

@calisaurus - Travel writing can also be an excellent way to see the world on someone else's tab. (But you gotta be able to place those articles.)

Shaun, would you still recommend pursuing the brick and mortar publishing houses for indie writers trying to get published, or is the digital route the new way?

It seems to me that online publication seems best with the way newspapers and magazines are losing market share to websites and digital media!!

I really enjoyed Snakes & Ladders !! I've done lots of travelling as well and hope to put the short stories I've written in each country into a book someday.. keep up the good work!

Travel writing is the ideal vehicle for creative writing; allowing an author to apply their craft to the exoticism of an alluring new stimulating backdrop. However, just as every person longs to leave their lives behind for a glimpse at Elsewhere, there are some things that every author cannot leave behind. Along with a suitcase of necessities, travel writers always bring along their own opinions, biases, persepctives, and subjectivities. A Baghdad-born writer may not observe Celine Dion's audiences' "rumbly pangs", as hunger may be as prevalent as mortar explosion. Although violence is globally forsaken, it may be as commonplace for a foreigner as $900 overpriced soiree admission for Las Vegas socialites. Normalcy is unfounded.

Travel writing really is about "where people stand in relation to the world", and it is that contrast that makes travel writing a medium which always empashizes the origin of the author's voice against the curious whereabouts. There really is "no place like home", and travel writers always carry their personal outset in the outpouring of their ink. No point of origin is neutral; objective; virgin. Although AA Gill has "carried us a long, long way from any posh London restaurant", the sense of connection to home is never lost, as it informs and paints the panoramic view of any foreign landscape.

The views expressed in the Writer-in-Residence blogs are those held by the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Open Book: Toronto.

Shaun Smith

Shaun Smith is a novelist and journalist living in Toronto. His young adult novel Snakes & Ladders was published in January 2009 by the Dundurn Group.

Go to Shaun Smith ’s Author Page