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Things I've Learnt

A.A. Gill

Any journalist who wants to be liked by readers, by anonymous people they've never met, is not going to have a happy or long career. We are not here to tell people things that will make them feel better about themselves, or about us. I aim for a mailbag that's 50-50. I think it should be half people saying "I hope you get cancer and die" and half people saying "I want to name my second child after you." As polemicists you need to be constantly starting bar fights that you're not in. You're there to stimulate the national debate, even if the national debate is only about sushi.

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All restaurants can be good, even Starbucks. Every religion has, somewhere in it, a central part for food. Food is the great metaphor for life. It's a packet of crisps, the body and blood of Christ, and everything in between. But there are things you need to do to make a restaurant work and they are nothing to do with a kitchen. You must live in a society where you have freedom of association, and of speech, where people are allowed to get together and talk about things. You must have streets that are safe at night. You need a system of transport that means you can get raw ingredients on a regular and predictable basis. When you complain that there are too many Starbucks in the world, you also have to say that the presence of a Starbucks indicates the presence of loads of other things as well. Restaurants are the great indicators of a growing and healthy society.

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I manage not to drink, but that's because I am an alcoholic. There was a moment when drink and drugs were great and then there was a much larger moment when they weren't. Most of it was boring, some of it was very frightening, an enormous amount was incredibly depressing, and right at the end it was pretty nearly mortal. It gives you a sense of proportion about your life. You know how bad things can get and you tend not to fret so much in a traffic jam. I was very much aware, when I got sober and clean, that I was being given a second shot. Most people who are alcoholics die of alcoholism.

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Criticism is an essential part of civilization, and what I am is culture's traffic warden. That doesn't make you popular. In some moments, most people say that traffic wardens are important, but they don't want to be one, they don't want to marry one, and they don't want their daughters to bring one home. The other thing that people you criticize never understand is that, like the mafia, it's not personal. It isn't about you, or me. It is about the third set of people in the equation: your audience and my readers. One of the great traps for critics is to believe they are part of the business they are criticizing.

When I was about 13 my mother walked into the kitchen and said "That's it, I'm not cooking for any of you fuckers ever again." My brother was a great cook and he wound up doing all the cooking. Later on, when I was drinking quite a lot and spending some of my beer money on food, I asked him to teach me two things that would fed me. "Cooking isn't difficult" he said. "Forget about ingredients, there are only six ways of cooking anything. If you learn those all the rest of it comes." I didn't have a job. I was sitiing in a basement flat and signing on the dole pretending to be an artist. I would but dead people's cookbooks from charity shops. My local butcher was my drinking buddy. I would ask if he was throwing anything away, and he'd say "I don't know, we've got a couple of pig's ears." I would take them home, look up one of my cookbooks for a recipe, and, having nothing else to do, spend four hours cooking pig's ears. That was how I learned to cook.

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When I was at school I was one of the first to be diagnosed with dyslexia. My school said they could help, but what they did was give me extra reading and writing, which was a bit like taking people in wheelchairs and telling them they can learn to walk by going further than everyone else. Dyslexia is not my problem. It's someone else's problem. If I work on a newspaper it's a sub-editor's problem. It's amazing how many people devote disproportionate amounts of time and energy to stuff they can't do, rather than saying "I'm going to get on and do better at the things I can do well." I do half of my job really well. There's a bit I'm really shit at but, actually, there's somebody else that can do it for me.

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I tend not to write caustic things about waiters and waitresses, simply because it's too easy for managers to get a bad review, and sack everyone. Invariably, if a restaurant isn't working, the last people who need to be fired are the staff, and the first people who need to be fired are the managers. If the service is slow or ignorant or clumsy, it's because the training isn't good enough, or because they're overworked, or because they're not being paid enough to care. I'm very aware of my responsibility to people - you can't take away people's livelihoods for the sake of a funny line.

Awards and Stars are at best amusing, but generally unhelpful. Up to a certain age, compliments make you. After a certain age, they ruin you. The whole idea that you van judge your dinner like an Oscar is absurd. I used to think that value for money was one of those things that depended on how much money you had, and to make an arbitrary decision for your readers was patronising. That's changed recently. I was eating in a restaurant where a steak would cost 70 or 80 pounds ... I don't want to be in a place where my main course costs more than the waiter is going to make in a day. What restaurants sell is hospitality. I feel uncomfortable eating in a restaurant when the people who are working there are excluded from that hospitality.

I dislike the competitive nature of sport; there's only so much of a metaphor you can get from the battle of life on the field. Following a sport seriously demands an incredible amount of your daily emotional allotment, and ultimately it's always going to be disappointing. You pour your emotion, not into a relationship, not into your family, not into your work, but into a collective bucket with 100,000 other people for something that doesn't even notice or care.

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