bout four years ago Brookside’s whingeing teenage wannabe Karen Grant told her saintly mother that she had decided to be a writer ‘like Julie Burchill’. It was an example of cult margins invading the mainstream to rival the time Joy Division were mentioned on Coronation Street. Forget awards, the plaudits of your peers and inflated salary cheques, you know you‘ve Made It when you’re mentioned on a soap opera.

No one knows what happened to Karen Grant, but Julie Burchill inhabits the margins no longer. The former Bristol comprehensive girl turned NME ‘hip young gunslinger’ has become an accepted addition to Britain’s middle-brow chattering classes’ lifester accessories. via her column in the Mail On Sunday. In the meantime. she’s thrown down a challenge to the cultural establishment with the

Peter York called her ‘the cleverest woman of all time’. Every day she wakes up she thanks God she wasn’t born middle-class. Tom Lappin speaks to Britain’s most notorious columnist Julie Burchill.

determinedly pop po-mo apologia The Modern Review and still found time to write two blockbuster novels of an unashamedly lurid bent.

Julie Burchill’s voice is like Kate Bush auditioning for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, a breathy Western purr punctuated by excited exclamations and giggles. In print she is a cheerful slaughterer of sacred cows, casually abusive, a supporter of capital punishment and liable to castigate the entire Arab race at regular intervals. In person the nearest she gets to profanity is the occasional ‘bloody’, and she is possessed of considerable charm, even when the round of interviews have turned her into a ‘living-dead zombie’.

‘I’m not like my public image,’ she says. ‘I don’t think anyone really is. In fact I think most people construct a public image which is almost diametrically opposite to what they really are. something to hide behind.’ The subject of most of the recent profiles has been ‘the real Julie Burchill’ which according to some sources is a recluse who stays at home with her husband, playing Nintendo and looking after son Jack, shunning society, and living in fear of reprisals from the numerous targets of her columns. It’s an exaggeration, although she admits to an unsurprising inability to be as nasty to people face-to-face as she is in print. ‘I don‘t really think of myself as being private.’ she says. ‘Tell you what it is, when you turn down one hack because you think they’re spiteful or nasty, they think you’re a recluse and they ignore the fact that you’ve spoken to seven other hacks that day.’

The reason for the current media feeding frenzy is the publication of her second novel,

No Exit. Unsurprisingly the interviews and profiles have tended to concentrate on the Burchill phenomenon rather than the less-than- remarkable book. In fact the only really interesting thing about No Exit is how such a formulaic slice of sex, Semtex and conspiracy hokum came to be written by a writer who has always, and rightly, prided herself on being an original.

Not that our Julie is over-worried about critical reaction to the novel. She’s under no illusions about its shallowness, displaying an alarming lack of loyalty towards No Exit’s hero, Gary First, a painfully ambitious pretty- boy journalist. ‘Isn’t he unbearable,’ she says. ‘l’m not interested in writing about men, and I think it shows. I know he’s a terrible excuse for a human being. He’s just a brilliant name. Gary First, who didn’t really progress any further than that name, the hair and the description of the suit. That was it.’

Her first novel Ambition, a shagging ’n’ shopping tale of a painfully ambitious woman journalist Susan Street, sold close on half a million. ‘I’ll tell you what,’ she says, ‘it wasn’t that successful, compared to things like The Carpetbaggers or Valley Of The Dolls. To be frank, compared to literary novels, it sold a lot, but if we’re talking mega blockbuster it ain’t that good.’ It’s a revealing remark. Julie knows that her books live or die by the market rather than the TLS review columns. She describes the novels as her ‘entertainments’, with no literary pretensions, although she doesn’t rule out turning out a ‘Jeanette Winterson’ (a current bugbear of hers) type novel in the future.

‘You’ve got to treat it to some extent as a game,’ she says. ‘If people want to change the world, they don’t go into joumalism, they go into politics or relief work. People don’t write to save the world, they write to save their bacon. I like to play different parts of the market.’ ;

At least Ambition had the saving grace of i being crammed full of bizarre sexual interludes : (Julie reread it recently and found it ‘incredibly ? crude.’ She isn’t kidding). The sex in No Exit is mostly as pedestrian as the descriptions of Prague, which draw on Cadogan’s City Guide rather than the actual city, Julie never having felt the need to leave England in her life.

‘Yeah, pathetic isn’t it? It’s a combination of lack of interest and lack of time. I feel if I’d gone to Prague for say three months and lived there I could have known something about it, but I couldn’t do that. I’ve got a big bias against toun'sm, so if] went for a weekend or a couple of weeks I would know as little as if I took a guide book.’

No Exit will probably emulate Ambition’s lengthy spell in the best-sellers chart, and that’s . enough for its author, but what’s disappointing about her_ novels is how little of herself she puts into them. Like Mills and Boon it’s not 7 possible to write a convincing blockbuster with your tongue in your cheek and there’s a distinct j sense of pastiche in both Ambition and No Exit F that makes them failures even in their chosen i genre.

By contrast, Julie’s BBC play Prince. a poignant and witty tale of a family dominated by their pet Alsatian, rang very true indeed.

‘It’s the most wonderful thing I’ve ever done.’ she agrees, ‘and it was 75 per cent true. It’s the only piece of work I’ve ever been really happy with, and there is a lot of myself in it.’

Prince’s strength was its grounding in realitLJ

5 The List l2 —25 March l993