Writers who hate a lot are often more compelling to read than pleasant, nice folk. We want some, if not all, of our newspaper columns to have a fair measure of sulphur, a bit of bile and a pinch of basic malice. Rod Liddle of The Spectator comes to mind. Christopher Hitchens, when he is on form and slaying some religious nonsense or attacking George Gallway, fairly curls the edges of a newspaper. But the supreme purveyor of sustained, gratuitous nastiness is AA Gill. He sometimes hits the target with great accuracy, but there is this level of personal animus that he directs to certain targets that makes me wonder what exactly is eating this man, or whether he is ever so slightly off his trolley (“Nurse!”). Many of his targets seem to come from the same background, in terms of income, culture and education, as himself. There seems to a lot of score-settling between that small, suffocating clique of London media types going on, if you read between the lines of Gill’s writings, which must leave a lot of ordinary folk bemused.
Consider this paragraph about a recent TV documentary by Ian Hislop. Hislop profiled the founder of the Boy Scouts, Robert Baden-Powell, who founded the movement 100 years ago. Hislop was rather kind to the man, and although he mentioned the imperialistic overtones of the Edwardian times in which B-P operated, generally urged us to admire the old fella. For Gill, who clearly loathes so much about England and its history, Hislop’s sin is unforgivable:
Hislop is good at documentary TV. He has a bright, hobbity enthusiasm and is smarter than he looks, which, frankly, isn’t much of a stretch. He comes from a great tradition of English pamphleteers and iconoclasts who are very eccentric and partial about the bits of the Establishment they want to put on the tumbril and those they want to preserve in aspic. Baden-Powell’s Scouting for Boys was, predictably, a good thing, though very few of today’s scouts were allowed to sully the halcyon, Hentyesque nostalgia for a simpler, stiffer, perter time.
He has half a decent point, of course. Hislop is editor of Private Eye, which unfailingly hammers away at all manner of targets, not all of them deserved. On the Have I Got News for You satire programme, Hislop and his opposite number, Paul Merton, send up the news stories of the week through a generally left-liberal lens (a lens that I suspect is shared more or less by AA Gill). But occasionally Hislop goes “off the reservation” and says nice things about people, which must clearly upset Gill. Hislop once, memorably attacked the European Union on the show, to the horror of his fellow panelists. Hislop is also a devout Anglican Christian and clearly has a lot of affection for many of the traditions of this country. He comes from the sort of upper-middle class background that formed much of the backbone of institutions like the old Indian Civil Service. Gill’s insult about his intelligence is a cheap shot and damaged what could have been an actually quite decent argument (Hislop may be selective in his choice of victims and heroes.) But Gill’s vileness gets the better of him and masks the point. A shame. If you read the link to the article and read his first point about another, awful TV programme, you can see why Gill remains the master of sustained and justified invective. But he needs to cut out the personal and thank his lucky stars that the practice of duelling is now outlawed.