Every reader knows the feeling: the sudden recognition that your favorite writer has run out of things to say. Maybe they’ve been slipping for a while, maybe you’ve already had to stick up for them. But once upon a time you had your world reconfigured by this writer. They deserve to be heard even when they’re wrong. And then they publish something that isn’t even recognizable as writing, and you just know. It’s over. They’re finished.
This will never happen to Adrian Chiles.
Adrian Chiles, who has been a columnist at The Guardian since 2019, will never run out of things to say, for the simple reason that he has never had anything to say. Similarly, his writing will never fall from a transformative peak, because peaks are not his style. In fact, none of the things we associate with newspaper columnists are his style. He’s not an analyst. He’s not a diarist. He’s not a polemicist. What he most resembles is a dog who turns up at your ankles hoping you’ll throw that rubber toy again. And you do, though you don’t know why. And the dog comes straight back, though it probably doesn’t know why. And before you know it, you’ve bonded with the dog. You begin to miss the dog when you don’t see it. After a while you start to hold conversations with the dog in your head. The dog is called Adrian and he is A Good Boy.
Adrian Chiles’s columns fall into three broad categories. There are columns of friendly but offbeat advice (In search of a marvelous meat-free treat? I have found the perfect fungus); columns where Adrian laments that experience is not knowledge, and that middle age has left him with much still to learn (Tomatoes are good for sperm count — if only I had known that years ago); and then columns of what I can only describe as cosmic bafflement, which range from the openly psychedelic (I took drugs recently and colours danced on the insides of my eyelids) to trembling apprehensions of mortality (At Easter I had a fall. The wild garlic smelled lovely, but I didn’t want to die there). What holds these disparate strands together is that every step of the way, in almost every column, Chiles makes it clear that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. This is what lifts him out of the common run of professional pundits. This is why he is beautiful. This is why Adrian Chiles will never be finished.
Chiles was hired by The Guardian as part of an overhaul of the newspaper’s daily features supplement, G2. The United Kingdom was at this point three years into a seemingly endless argument about its decision to leave the European Union, and the main section of the paper was a site of prim anguish from cover to cover. The Guardian’s editor-in-chief, Katharine Viner, decided that G2 was to be a respite from daily miseries. In short order G2 became home to content like Tree Of The Week and a regular column about being very slightly happy some of the time. Executive features editor Kira Cochrane was tasked with finding a new columnist — somebody approachable, with an existing public profile, and preferably not from London — and in The Guardian’s greatest editorial coup since the Edward Snowden leaks, Cochrane came back with Adrian Chiles.
Not everybody was pleased by this. The Guardian is a touchy institution, historically, where the greatest risk isn’t factual errors or making powerful enemies, but rather cringe. Adrian Chiles brought with him a twenty-year track record in public service broadcasting, and a face and voice known to millions from his work with the BBC and ITV, but he also brought a vibe: that of a dad-joke incarnated as an unassuming flesh container. He was cringe, and it only remained to see how much punishment the rest of the organization would take for it.
The punishment arrived in due course, but it has been swatted back both by the protean sublimity of Chiles’s talent (none of the parodies comes close) and by the fact that you can only be so mean about somebody so perpetually confused. Rival publications took a few swipes when it emerged that Chiles had begun dating Katharine Viner just months after being hired by The Guardian, but there wasn’t enough juice in the story to transform it into a nepotism crisis. More recently, the business editor of The Telegraph used The Guardian’s public accounts to allege that Chiles had received a 17 percent pay-rise last year, eliding the fact that Chiles is paid by the column. If he earned more, it’s because he wrote more. He worked for his money, goddammit.
By any measure, Adrian Chiles is one of the most successful journalists and broadcasters in the UK today, and if this has flown under the radar it’s precisely because very little of what Chiles does looks like work. The seemingly improvised and even disheveled quality of much of his output is what invites the condescension of his peers, but it’s also what allows him to convincingly inhabit an underdog’s perspective, and to advance beyond his rivals’ attitudinizing with displays of real principle. Where Allison Pearson of The Telegraph rejoices that her son has caught Covid, Adrian joins a vaccine trial. Where Sarah Vine of the Daily Mail laments the friends she has lost through supporting Brexit, Adrian sits in with MPs and their constituents to establish where the cost is likely to fall. Where Rod Liddle of The Sunday Times calls Greta Thunberg “imbecilic,” Adrian recruits teenage panellists to his politics show on BBC Radio 5 Live.
Chiles’s self-deprecation may be stage-managed, but the underlying modesty is real. Sitting alongside his propensity to admit his ignorance is an attractive willingness to listen to anyone, of any age or social station, who might tell him something meaningful. In a recent column about dispatching his younger daughter to university for the first time, Chiles recalls her inviting him to the pub with all her friends (“No such invitation had ever been extended to me before”) and trying to hold the tears back as they told him “their hopes for, and fears of, what the coming weeks and months might bring.” The column proceeds into a peroration of Chiles’ own hopes and fears, before his older daughter wades in to tell him to stop being pathetic.
It’s rare to read a column in which so many voices feature that aren’t those of the columnist, and in which the supporting cast are gladly granted all the best lines. This is why Adrian Chiles is beautiful. This is why he will never be finished.
Niall Anderson is a writer and archivist who lives in Dublin.