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Adrian Gill was known for his withering reviews, but behind the bile was a gentle friend and wonderful father

By Fay Maschler

Try as I might I can't remember when or where I met Adrian Gill - I seem to have known him all my life. I suspect his readers think that too, and that was one of his gifts - to let you into his fascinating head and his complex heart with seemingly no roadblocks.

On September 29, I was having dinner - with a view to a review - in Philip Howard's new restaurant Elystan Street.

Adrian and Nicola, with Christa D'Souza, Nick Allott, Jeremy Clarkson - some of his usual posse - were at another table. Adrian came over to say "Hello" and as you do, I said, "How are you?" And as you do, he said "Fine" and then added, "I've got cancer".

It was Jeremy Clarkson giving me a cheery wave - he usually looks as if he doesn't know me from a bar of soap - as they all left that underlined the seriousness of the situation.

About a month later, Nicola got in touch to see if my husband, Reg, and I could join them for dinner at the newly opened Fucina in Marylebone.

Adrian's chemotherapy had already started, but he was almost his usual ebullient self. This awful illness hadn't dried up the underground stream of merriment that fed and watered his conversation.

His Fucina review of November 13 starts: "That's it. Enough already. I have officially, unequivocally, finally, terminally, without remission and leave of appeal, passed the apex of…" With hindsight it is clear what, but he finished the sentence with "sharing plates".

We ate out together sporadically. I saw him more often at the restaurant Riva in Barnes that he visited at least twice a week in weeks he wasn't travelling. At Christmas gatherings, Andrea Riva would sit us side-by-side and we'd sing along to the execrable Peter Sarstedt song Where Do you Go to (My Lovely), particularly enjoying the annoying "yes you do, yes you do" and the "ha ha ha".

Last year, between us sat Isaac, one of the twins born to him and Nicola nine years ago. Isaac was drawing studiously and well, having seemingly inherited his dad's artistic talent, and calmly eating absolutely everything that was put in front of him.

This summer, Reg's daughter, Amy, was on holiday with her family in the San Juan National Forest, Colorado, where Adrian and his family were also staying. She observed what a fantastic father he was: involved, patient, keen to explain and illuminate, just as his own father, Michael, had been.

His love for his four children was one manifestation of the deep well of kindness that inside him shared space with a phial of bile and the complete incapacity to suffer fools gladly.

I experienced the kindness. Some years ago I had a womanly sort of operation and was off games for a while. Adrian, who probably thought I'd had a hysterectomy - I hadn't - invited me to lunch at The Square, at the time maybe his favourite restaurant.

He was tremendous, stimulating company, his beautiful blue eyes twinkling, his smile crinkling and then spreading - and also a sage judge of what we were eating.

I missed his 60th birthday, but he came to my 70th. Afterwards, both he and Nicola were staunchly supportive when my eldest daughter Hannah was undergoing treatment for breast cancer.

His restaurant reviews tend to get remembered and anthologised for mean put-downs and repulsive similes, but it was his practical knowledge of cooking and his profound understanding of the function of food in society that is the important baseline in his restaurant writing.

Simon Hopkinson, who sometimes ate with him at his flat in South Kensington, said: "He was a wonderful cook, a natural cook. He just knew."

When I met Simon for lunch two weeks ago at Six Portland Road, he was about to make Adrian some consommé.

Adrian described dinner parties as "the work of the devil", but he seemed rather to like coming to our house. On one occasion he said: "I would walk barefoot over broken glass to eat with (Reg's best mate) David Hare."

When, as usual, I had started cooking four courses from scratch at 5pm he pulled me back to the table. As he understood, if the most interesting thing about dinner is the food, then you haven't got good enough friends.

So much has been written about a man who wasn't a journalist; he was a newspaper.

The Sunday Times has lost the embodiment of a way of approaching and appreciating the sensations of life - marvelling, exploring, deploring, empathising, explaining, arraigning.

I listen again to his Desert Island Discs, recorded in 2006. It is good just to be able to hear his modulated herringbone voice.

His choice of luxury - his children's pillows - breaks my heart again. He was a Christian, a believer.

I believe that now he is slumbering peacefully on goose down with the innocent scent of his offspring all around.

Belfast Telegraph


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