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Toby Young
Wednesday 18th July 2012

The Golden Door: Letters to America by AA Gill


The subtitle of AA Gill’s new book is “Letters to America”, but it reads more like a single, continues letter from a love-struck teenager. Be in no doubt: Gill really, really likes America, which he describes as “the best and finest creation of Europe, the culmination of all its deepest aspirations, the fruit of rue, of wisdom and experience”.

He’s less like his normal, witty, acerbic self, than the writer of a glossy brochure for an upmarket American travel company. Here he is on Colorado: “Fields of purple, yellow and white, thick and fetlock-deep, rest like plum salads between hanging redstone walls, flocked in aspect and fir whose leaves flicker like pale sequins in the wind.”

Family packages at the Rocky Mountain Redstone Lodge begin at $999.99.

He only reverts to type when dealing with those snobbish, metropolitan bores who dismiss Americans as “stupid” and “without irony”. “These same people will use every comforting, clever and ingenious American invention, will demand its medicine, wear American clothes, eat its food, drink its drink, go to its cinema, love its music, thank God for its expertise in a hundred disciplines, and will all adore New York,” he writes. “More than that, more shaming and hypocritical than that, these are people who collectively owe their nations’ and their personal freedom to American intervention and protection in wars, both hot and cold.”

Thankfully, it isn’t just Gill’s passion that is awakened by America, it’s also his intellectual curiosity. The Golden Door begins with an account of the Wild West adventures of the Batley Cowboys, Gill’s Yorkshire ancestors, but quickly segues into a cultural history of America, encompassing its food, architecture, motor cars, universities and, of course, its film industry.

All this is well told, embellished by an obsessive attention to detail and the autodidact’s love of trivia. For instance, there’s a whole passage on a chain of fast-food restaurants in Utah called Chuck-a-rama. If you’re ever up against Gill in a pub quiz and the subject is 20th Century history, you should throw in the towel immediately.

One of the curiosities of this book is the elliptical way in which Gill introduces the subject of each chapter, preferring to approach it in a crab-like manner rather than head on. The chapter on skyscrapers, for instance, begins, as all of them do, with a nugget of pub-quiz wisdom: The modern lift was not invented by Elisha Otis, as is commonly believed, but by Frank Sprague, an employee of Thomas Edison (who, Gill cannot resist pointing out, did not invent electricity, either). It was Sprague who came up with the idea of equipping lifts with motors, thereby enabling architectural engineers to replace hydraulic lifts with electronic ones and, in the process, paving the way for the invention of tall buildings.

You can imagine Gill narrating this in person as he stands next to a workbench at Menlo Park, Edison’s commercial laboratory in New Jersey, before popping up on the roof of the world’s first ever skyscraper. The Golden Door often reads like a script for a highbrow television series about America – something in the same mould as Civilisation, the landmark BBC series, which, not coincidentally, was produced by the author’s late father.

The ghost of Michael Gill haunts this book. The narrative begins with the death of Gill’s father’s and the scrapbook he bequeaths to him detailing the exploits of his forebears in the New World. But The Golden Door isn’t just a compendium of miscellaneous facts about various American pioneers; it’s an act of fealty, an attempt on Gill’s part to write something serious and thoughtful and, you can’t help feeling, win his father’s approval.

“Look dad,” he seems to be saying. “I’m not just an acerbic TV and restaurant critic with a gift for pithy one-liners. I’m an intellectual, just like you.”

Apart from wearing his erudition a little too heavily, Gill succeeds in convincing us that he possesses a deep knowledge of his subject. Having read the book, I look forward to the lavish TV series, jointly produced by the BBC and PBS.

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