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How to spoil an argument

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.

8 comments to How to spoil an argument

  • Giles

    Surprisingly wide of the mark. Gill is
    a) most certainly not a soft lefty as you imply
    b) its not natiness – its simply a type of humour called in england variously “taking the piss” of what ever that Gill excells at and the English like reading.
    c) You’d have to be pretty thin skined to construe it as a savage attack on Hislop.

  • I do not think he is wide of the mark at all. Gill is a detestable little man and he is all about the ‘cheap shot’. I have no time for him whatsoever and these days I just turn the page when I see his name rather than waste my time reading his drivel.

  • Nostalgic

    Have to agree entirely with the last comment. Because he and that other shit Clarkson both write for the Sunday Times I have given up the newspaper.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    You’d have to be pretty thin skined to construe it as a savage attack on Hislop

    Indeed, which is why I called it a “cheap shot,” Giles. Gill is cheap. Cheap and nasty.

  • Gill would be mad to change – if he cares about the massive pay packet he takes from News Corp. He is paid precisely to be nasty. (I had a long conversation about this with the very sadly departed John Diamond, one of Gill’s best friends, shortly before his death. In the same chat, John also mentioned that Jane Moore – the irritating Sun columnist – is just as much of an old lefty as most other Fleet Streeters. She just knows the audience for whom she is writing, and for which she is paid handsomely to write.)

    Gill’s politics are an odd mish-mash, but he seems to come down on the side of Clarkson on most things. I also suspect he is deeply insecure, hence his practiced savagery towards others. For one thing, he is so horribly dyslexic that you could not recognize his writing as anything resembling English (he transcribes his columns for a PA).

  • Eamon Brennan

    I have never understood this antipathy in some quarters towards Baden-Powell.

    I remember a program. “Reputations”, I believe it was called. Which set out to portray him as a pederast. The evidence for this seemed to amount to the fact that he had set up an organisation called scouting for boys and nothing else. Otherwise the program was nothing but a series of silly assertions. He was in the army (peadophile), he went pig-hunting in africa (paedophile), he was a racist* (paedophile).

    *In my own view the accusation of racism against B-P is about as tenuous as that of child-molester. He may have made the odd disparaging remark about Negroes in his youth, but he worked hard to get all races and classes into the scouting movement.

  • Giles

    I have to say I’m surprised about the consensus against Gill here as I thought that someone like say perry would have found a soulmate. An objection seems to be that his invective isn’t (politically)uni directional but so what? Gill’s sonsnstent targets are pretence, artifice and hypocracy, which being universal human charateristics makes him come accross as “nasty”.

    But he normally has a point and its normally a good one
    The reason Panorama was so fired up about Scientology is that it’s rich and American and attracts celebrities. . ” is bang on

    Gills’ one of the first writers I turn to when I read the times – but guess that means I’m just a w@nker too!

  • Johnathan Pearce

    I have to say I’m surprised about the consensus against Gill here as I thought that someone like say perry would have found a soulmate.

    You plainly have not much idea about Perry, have you?

    An objection seems to be that his invective isn’t (politically)uni directional but so what


    So what, indeed? It is not a criticism that I focused on.