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Lines in the Sand by A.A. Gill (2017) 295 p.

It feels odd to call this the “final” collection of A.A. Gill pieces, since he wrote a lot of stuff in his life and his estate and publishers will doubtless be putting out various bundles for years to come, but this is a collection of some of the columns he wrote in the years before his sudden death of pancreatic cancer, aged 62, in December 2016; an untimely passing and quite genuinely society’s loss.

Gill was disliked in a lot of left-wing circles because he was a rich toff who often said witty but offensive things, went on gourmet travel expeditions and hunting safaris, married Amber Rudd and once shot a baboon. Nobody who has actually read any of the man’s writing or opinions could dismiss him on such second-hand impressions. The enemy of the people that exists in the mind of Guardian commenters would not have dedicated a huge amount of his journalism in the 2010s to the plight of refugees, which makes up the first third of Lines in the Sand. In a confronting series of pieces he travels from from the vast UNHCR camps in Jordan…

This isn’t a salvation, it’s not a new start, it’s not a lucky escape when a man, a widow, a family, a village are forced to make the choice to become refugees. It is an unconditional surrender, not just of the house you live in or your profession, but of your security, community, your web of friendships, your dignity, your respect, your history and your future – not just yours, your children’s future. The middle-aged man is never going to get his grocery shop back; the mechanic is never going to return to servicing Mercedes… A refugee camp is a community with everything good and hopeful and comforting about community taken out. There is precious little peace, no belonging, no civic pride.

…to the Rohingyas exiled from Burma into Bangladesh…

Not only is this the worst, it is the least known and reported pogrom in the world today. Compared to all the other degrading and murderous bullying on Earth, this has one startling and contrary ingredient: the Rohingya are Muslim, the Burmese are Buddhist. The gravest, cruellest state-sponsored persecution of any people anywhere is being practised by pacifist Buddhists on jihadi-mad, sharia-loving Muslims. It doesn’t really fit in with the received wisdom of how the world works. The Burmese say the Rohingyas are dogs, filth, less than human, that they are too ugly to be Burmese, that they are a stain, a racial insult, and that, anyway, they are Bengali – illegally imported coolie immigrants, colonial flotsam.

…to the huge numbers of Syrians and Iraqis who fled into eastern Europe in the early 2010s:

The truth of this exodus is that those who steeple their fingers and shake their heads and claim to have clear and sensible, firm but fair, arm’s-length solutions to all of this have not met a refugee. It is only possible to put up the no-vacancy sign if you don’t see who’s knocking at the door. For most of us it’s simple. We couldn’t stand face-to-face with our neighbours and say: “I feel no obligation to help.” None of you would sit opposite a stricken, bereft, lonely, 22-year-old gay man and say: “Sorry, son, you’re on your own.” Or not take in a young poet and his delicate Juliet and their awkward, gooseberry friend. The one thing the refugees and the Europeans agree on is that Europe is a place of freedom, fairness and safety. It turns out that one of us is mistaken and the other is lying.

The remainder of the book is a collection of Gill’s typically perceptive and peripatetic pieces on any number of subjects, ranging from parenting to Rudyard Kipling to the humble joy of train travel. But as a politically-minded person I found his insights on politics by far the most interesting. On the Scottish independence referendum of 2014:

I should come clean and declare that if I had a vote, I would vote for independence in a heartbeat, and if Scots take what is theirs I’ll be the first in the queue for a passport. But like all expats I do not have a vote, and our view looking back is more tweedy and heathery and smells more of shortbread than that of people who have to live there. I do know that making a nation is more than just your pension and your water rates, your fear about a currency and whether or not you’ll be able to get the BBC. A country isn’t just for life, it’s for all the lives to come, and the final lesson from history is not actually Scots, but from just over the way.

Ireland had a far more fraught and aggressive struggle for independence. They did not have oil and they don’t even have a fishing fleet, they’ve got second-rate whiskey and tweed and, finally, they gained a grudging and penurious independence without the EU, with a currency that was tied to the pound, and they immediately fell into a vicious civil war and then a depression. The new Eire had precious little goodwill from London or the continent. The Republic will be 100 years old in eight years, and if they had a referendum and were asked “Look, you’ve had a century of this, wouldn’t you rather come back and be part of the UK again?” do you imagine there would be a single vote for yes? Because whatever happens, it is always better to be yourself.

To 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.

The dream of Brexit isn’t that we might be able to make a brighter, new, energetic tomorrow, it’s a desire to shuffle back to a regret-curdled inward-looking yesterday. In the Brexit fantasy, the best we can hope for is to kick out all the work-all-hours foreigners and become caretakers to our own past in this self-congratulatory island of moaning and pomposity.

To an appraisal of the people attending a Trump “University” convention in 2009:

Their battered faces didn’t smile a lot. They were weather-proofed for disappointment. They were the Americans we never see in Europe, the ones who don’t travel. They are the children and grandchildren of immigrants for whom the American dream reneged and passed over to others. What none of us knew was that seven years later there would be a collective name for all these people: Trump voters.

The millions of Americans who now vote for Trump are an unpalatable, embarrassing and inexplicable mystery to the Americans who wouldn’t consider voting for him, as they are to everyone watching from the bleachers of the rest of the world. But they were and are the natural consequence of a society that lauds and mythologises winners. The non-winners don’t just go away to be good, acquiescent losers; they get furious and bitter, and they blame the rules and the establishment referee, and they want comeuppance, someone to blame, and they attach themselves to the biggest, flashiest, self-proclaimed carnival-headed winner out there.

And then, finally, to his sudden diagnosis of cancer in 2016, and his final weeks in 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.

Why is our reaction to cancer so medieval, so wrapped in fortune-cookie runes and votive memory shards, like the teeth and metatarsals of dead saints? Cancer is frightening. One in two of us will get it. It has dark memories, unmentionably euphemised. In the public eye, not all cancers are equal. There is little sympathy for lung cancer. It’s mostly men, mostly old men, mostly working-class old men and mostly smokers. There is a lot more money and public sympathy for the cancers that affect women and the young. Why wouldn’t there be?

“How do men react when you tell them their cancers are fatal?” I ask Dr Lewanski.

“Always the same way — with stoicism.”

“Bollocks,” I think. “I thought that was just me.”

Gill’s writing – perhaps minus the emotionally draining catalogue of human misery that makes up the refugee pieces at the beginning of Lines in the Sand – has always made me happy, in some ineffable way. It makes me want to view the world with different eyes. He may have been privileged and wealthy, but he’s someone you instinctively feel would have lived a full and rewarding life regardless of his station in it; a man who enjoyed both the finer things and the simpler pleasures; a writer able to pen a column with astute articulations of a major political issue or with an ode to the pleasure of seaside fish and chips, and devote equal panache and vitality to both. 62 is unacceptably young, but if I’m unfortunate enough to depart this world that early, I hope I’ll be able to look back and say I valued it as much as A.A. Gill did.

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