As countless moody indie band frontmen will tell you, being The Voice of a Generation is a cross to bear.
Gavin Hills took up that role for The Face in the ‘90s, writing about dancing, drugs, hooliganism, Northern Ireland, trainers, what it felt like to be a ‘bloke’ – and what it felt like to be a bit rubbish at it. And, in the era of New Laddism, he tackled his own depression head-on and with unflinching honesty.
But most of all, it was his ability to empathise that stood him apart from his peers. Travelling to areas of conflict, from Somalia to Angola, El Salvador to the former Yugoslavia, he witnessed horrors affecting people who are all too easy to dehumanise, deftly placing them within the readers’ sphere of reference.
Take this from his article on child conscripts in Angola from March 1994 (Claret Thick Shake on a Ripped Cherry, for which he won an Amnesty International Press Award): “When you pass your local McDonald’s, look at the young lads who hang out there. Imagine the police pulling up, sticking all of them in a van at gunpoint, then sending them off to fight and die.”
Photographer Zed Nelson, who often accompanied Gavin on his most dangerous trips, remarks how the writer’s empathy and charm could diffuse the most tense of situations. Once, when they were sitting in the back of a truck surrounded by jittery soldiers in Somalia, Gavin calmly asked to look at their rifles. He then promptly stripped down and reassembled the weapons, deploying hidden skills he’d learnt as a keen member of the Territorial Army. By the end of the trip the soldiers were laughing at Gavin’s terrible jokes, just like everyone else who crossed his path.
Humour was key in his writing. He could deploy a disarming punchline masterfully, whether he was writing about the socio-economic importance of the Adidas Gazelle or white supremacism. Going undercover during a match in Bruges, he rooted-out the then-notorious Neo-Nazi element among Chelsea football fans. On finding young men chanting the Nazi salute, ‘sieg heil’ he acerbically pointed out that any interpretation of a “master race” would by necessity rule “rule out their mutant genetic bloodlines.”
While that article brought him death threats, it also won him the role as editor of the official magazine in the build-up to Euro ’96, held in England. He commissioned a series on untouchable English icons, from the cuppa to the cabbie.
He was incisive, too. In another oft-referenced piece for The Face, Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads? (December 1991), Gavin questioned the received opinion that ecstasy use had heralded the end of violence on the football terraces. As he pointed out, the newly popular “love drug” had simply made fighting more enjoyable for those already that way inclined.
The combination of an obsession with pop culture trivia and dark comedy was to the fore in his more serious writing. In that same article about Somalia, he detailed one child’s harrowing story of murder and rape, ending with the line: “And there are some people back in Blighty who think the world ended when The Smiths split up.”
And then: “On arriving in Angola I noticed several things. There was the heat, the smell and the poverty. There were people everywhere buying, selling, trying to earn a living. There were soldiers without legs and kids without a home. You had burnt-out tanks on the roundabouts and cheesy music in the bars. But the thing I noticed most, the one thing that stuck in my head in the first few days, wasn’t any one of these. It was the fact that every second person seemed to be wearing a New Kids On The Block t-shirt. Poor old Africa, still paying for our mistakes,” he concluded with pitch-black sardonicism.
Hills also wrote brilliantly for The Idler, skate magazine RaD and The Guardian. When he passed away he was about to start filming a travel series for Rough Guide alongside his fellow Face writer and friend Miranda Sawyer. He would have been brilliant at it.
In summarising what made his approach so unique, it’s only fitting that Gavin Hills gets the last word – in his description of the Berlin Love Parade from 1994 (Berlin: Of Love and Lycra): “I can now confirm that, No no, No no no no, No no no no, There’s no limits.”
With thanks to Gavin’s sister Rona and brother Fraser, and to the uncredited photographers. The Face has made a donation in Gavin’s name to Amnesty International. Bliss To Be Alive – The Collected Writings of Gavin Hills (Penguin, 2000) should be bought anywhere you can find a copy.