Bliss to be alive: in cel­e­bra­tion of Gavin Hills

Honouring The Face's foremost features writer, who drowned in 1997, aged 31.

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.”

Filming the Rough Guides in Iceland.

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.

Winning the Amnesty International press award.

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.

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