Steven Mcgregor

Remembering Gilbert Adair

Text settings

Gilbert Adair was a mentor to me, even in the year following his stroke, which was when we became closest, and I knew him best.

I had just left the US Army and moved to London when I met Gilbert at a cocktail party at a friend’s flat in Maida Vale. Though it was an unseasonably warm autumn evening, he still wore a suit and tie, with a gray scarf draped around his shoulders. He looked remarkably urbane, every bit the author and critic, and we launched into a conversation about Christopher Isherwood, a writer that we both admired.

“Do you want to touch the hem of my sleeve?” he asked, with mock-seriousness. “I interviewed him once—during a trip to California.” And he told me a story of when they met, in a crescent shaped bar in Santa Monica, and Isherwood appeared at the far end, his tanned handsome face glowing. As he crossed the room, however, it was as though a special effect from a film occurred, and his face aged with every step, becoming wrinkled and lined.

Not wanting to take off his jacket, Gilbert was sweating hot and so we went out on the porch, three stories above Warwick Avenue, and he smoked a cigarette. Later that week my friend who hosted the party explained that she’d never seen Gilbert without a necktie, that he was always impeccably dressed and his other eccentricities varied: he never rode the Underground, he always arrived on time for parties and then left early, he never had visitors at his flat. 

I was to learn later that this stubbornness, a kind of fastidious decorum, was as much a part of his prose style as his personality. The Death of the Author, the first of his books he suggested I read, vibrates with a measured precision that enables the plot twists and intelligent characters that he so much enjoyed.

After our first meeting, Gilbert read a story of mine in the Edinburgh Review. He said it was cinematic and encouraged me to be a writer. He urged me to write a collection of short fiction, similar to Tales of the South Pacific, of short stories that focus on different characters all fighting the same war. I began working on the project and we met several more times.

Then he was admitted to hospital. And it occurred one night we were meant to have dinner together. He couldn’t get up the stairs but he didn’t want help. He was still holding the world at arm’s length. When he reached the door at the top, he wanted to be alone and he lay on the bed, in the room by himself, breathing loudly. In the army, I had held the hands of men who were wounded in battle, reassuring them while we waited on the helicopters; as my wife called the ambulance, I couldn’t keep from going in to be with him. I took his hand and said everything would be okay. He looked at the ceiling and nodded. This event connected us somehow, and he seemed very alone and stubborn and I wished to be nearby and comfort him. He had his first stroke several days later.

I visited him in hospital as he recovered over the next few months. At first they were short visits, hardly twenty minutes. But after two months he was greatly improved and eventually he was moved to Princess Louise Hospital in Ladbroke Grove. Because the stroke had damaged his eyesight, he was no longer able to read or write so I began reading a draft of my novel to him. It gave me an overwhelming urge to write the end. And in those few weeks I wrote the last twelve thousand words to try and finish.

Gilbert was never in the military or even that concerned with war. But he helped me to figure out how I felt about serving in Iraq and to describe the manner in which it affected me — not in the sense of a victimisation or a helplessness, but to consider the event as a narrative inhabited by real people, and, of course, in the style of Gilbert Adair, a narrative with a plot twist.

Personal experience was a significant part of his work as well. The Holy Innocents describes a young British cinephile in Paris during the time he himself lived in the city. Love and Death on Long Island, written when he was forty-six, features a delightfully staid, literary author. Stories he told me about the women he was engaged to or the men he loved — they all had a narrative arc. It was as though he had learned how to detect the story hidden in every aspect of his life.

I feel embarrassed when considering our relationship because it seems frightfully one-sided, as though I can only describe him by talking about myself. But I think this must be how mentorship works, really.

Gilbert enabled me to achieve something on my own, something that, had I not met him, would not have been possible. In early December we talked for almost twenty minutes on the phone: chatting about the title of my novel and then about nightlife in Cairo, where I was working on another book, and the interesting characters there. It was to be our last conversation.

He died early in the morning from a brain haemorrhage, and I heard the news from one of his close friends who sat through the night with him. I hadn’t even risen from bed yet and I lay in a darkened room, alone, hearing the sounds of traffic below on the street.

“You’re wearing a tie,” my friend said, later that morning, when she came in the sunroom where I was writing. Then, in a twist that feels positively fictional she stood to one side and casually observed, “It makes you look like Christopher Isherwood.”

And I didn’t cry, instead I found myself feeling quite distinguished. It was because I had known Gilbert Adair.

Steven McGregor's first novel, about a soldier returning from Iraq, is forthcoming. He tweets @SHMcGregor.