Tuesday, 27 October 2009

On AA Gill, Baboons and Criticism.

Everybody’s a critic. We can’t help it, we do it every day, sometimes publicly, sometimes in the privacy of our own homes or brains. Just in the last week via Twitter I voiced my less than flattering opinion of the new sci-fi series Defying Gravity and recommended the School of Seven Bells track Half Asleep to a friend. At no point in either of these did I recount the tale of beating a ring tailed lemur to death. When I once threw a Patricia Cornwell novel across the room after two chapters it was because I found the prose style infantile and the plot stupid, whether or not I’d once poisoned a pygmy marmoset was neither here nor there. When I walked out of a Sisters of Mercy gig at The Forum in Kentish Town it was because it appeared that the sound was being mixed by a man with his head in a bucket of porridge and socks, the possibility that I’d once strangled a howler monkey had no bearing on the matter.

This may seem strange to some, particularly AA Gill, but the reason for these omissions was in part that I have never knowingly wilfully maimed a primate but more importantly that they would have had nothing to do with my opinion of the cultural artefacts being subjected to my critical judgement.

Now I’m not going to get into the moral ins and outs of shooting a baboon, I’ve never been overly sentimental about animals, after all I eat and wear the things on a regular basis and once buried a mole that I’d found in the garden (already dead I hasten to add) up to its waist in one of my mum’s houseplant pots as a joke at a family gathering (She got her revenge by serving it to me as starter between two bits of bread). Oh and don’t get me started on the various molluscs and arthropods that regularly lay siege to my vegetable patch. Still, for the record, the notion of killing anything purely for sport strikes me as an act of testosterone-fuelled cockishness and killing something ‘to feel what it’s like to kill someone’ seems not only doubly cockish but also both zoologically and philosophically flawed at almost any level you care to view it.

Cockishness aside though, surely the point of a restaurant review is to review the restaurant – its food, the ambience, the service, the décor, the wine. I’m not averse to a bit of context that helps flesh out the review whether it’s Sue Perkins’s playmate Giles Coren explaining why he rarely orders pudding or Peter Griffin look-alike Charles Campion (he’s the one who huffs like a hypertensive bison if his pudding is 30 seconds late during his guest judging spots on Masterchef) giving us bit background on a chef and the logistics of his latest venture. These opening paragraphs can give us a sense of the reviewer’s tastes and let us work out whether they’re likely to match our own and that’s great, that’s relevant, that’s useful, that’s good criticism.

So to give Gill the benefit of the doubt (although God knows why – I actually read Sap Rising and thus feel I owe him no favours), is there a relevance to the baboon hunting reminiscences that take up more that half of the review? Are London’s finest eateries now largely patronised by strange hybrids of Hemingway and Johnny Cash? Probably not. Well not unless the demographics of Tower Hamlets and the great and good of Shoreditch have significantly changed since I was last there.

Perhaps as suggested by some commentators, Gill is holding up a mirror to the hypocrisy of those who are happy to munch their way through “some frogs, a pig, a cow and a chicken” but would really rather not connect the artfully prepared fillet in front of them with the realities of the life and death of the animal it came from. Now I’m of the Fearnley-Wittingstall school when it comes to knowing about where your food comes from. I once spent a summer in my teens working on a rare breeds farm getting hands on experience of the piggy life-cycle from artificial insemination to slaughter (the former admittedly more hands-on than the latter) and I’m perfectly aware that the pork steaks I’ve just guzzled were once snuffling around and rolling in the mud. That’s not to say that I’m claiming a moral superiority by virtue of witnessing the former life and demise of a very tasty sausage, nor do I think for a second that I enjoyed my supper any more than the other half, who, at least to my knowledge, has never given hand relief to a boar. But there is an important issue here, that if more people gave some time to researching the realities of food production and used the economic laws of supply and demand to change the behaviour of our food retailers, animal welfare would improve and consequently the quality of our food, which, oh I don’t know, might have some, you know, health benefits or something.

I’m getting a nice view up here on this soapbox (largely of the shiny and sweating tops of the heads of Daily Mail readers mooing ‘Nanny state’ and ‘Political Correctness’ – careful there, you’ll have a coronary due to arterial bottleneck of accumulated fats from those ‘Connective Tissue and Hormone Nuggets’ that nasty meddling liberals like me don’t think you should eat.) but to return to the matter in hand if Gill is showing us the fine diner’s nature red in tooth and claw, the argument falls at the first hurdle by his own admission, baboons aren’t good to eat, he wasn’t about to tuck in to Confit of Baboon with an Agave coulis and fondant yams.

So….what was the bloody point? And what’s my point? I suppose really that to my mind, aside from the various moral and ethical issues that I’ve lightly grazed and sidestepped, it was a lousy piece of criticism, half a review whose word count was bolstered by a few paragraphs of swaggering, preening braggadocio diluted with pointless wittering about hats. There’s a place for Gonzo journalism, there’s a place for shock journalism. but a restaurant review really isn’t it.

Oh and by the way I swatted a fly while writing this and then stared at its twitching oozing corpse. Aren’t I clever?

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