JULIE BURCHILL FEATURE
Julie’s vitriolic diatribes in the Mail On Sunday are hit-and-miss affairs but her occasional bullseyes are usually when she’s writing from personal experience. Her next work returns to her personal history for inspiration. ‘It’s a companion piece to Prince called Gran which is about my grandmother. It’s about a very violent old lady who runs a ring of crime, a sort of Fagin character, and it’s based on her.’ Julie’s aged relative was apparently a bit of a character who threatened her with hot pokers and sent her out on shoplifting expeditions.
‘That experience is still there in my head, and it’s never going to go away. But obviously if I was going to try to write a play about the working class nowadays it would be slightly patronising of me. I admire people who can write about the working class like Terence Davies, but his stuff is all set in the past as well. It’s not particularly my forte. I’d find it rather depressing to tell the truth. I like to try different things. If I thought that all I could do was to write sex and shopping novels, obviously I would be distrait. But on the other hand if all I could do was write beautifully observed nostalgic plays for the BBC or just write a column in the same way I’d be distrait. [just want to do as many things as I can.’
One of the few incidents in N0 Exit to bear any resemblance to reality was a vignette of a group of working-class Essex girls temporarily made good, living it up in Stringfellows. It’s funny, sad and cruelly accurate, and as Julie admits, it belongs in another book. She has a particular talent for exposing the vanities, desires and vulnerability of young girls that began with her music writing, when she was always more interested in the idea of pop idols than the actual music. A celebration of current teen sensations Take That in The Modern Review shows she still has an acute eye for what makes a mass teenybop appeal. The girl as star is a closely-related obsession of hers, and her ongoing admiration for the Princess of Wales has taken on a worrying Sapphic tinge of late.
In a sense, Prince was a watershed for Julie in marking the point when she could cease her escape from the grim dullness of her provincial background and start to celebrate it. As a 17- year—old she, along with first husband Tony Parsons, radicalised the snoozing hippy haven of the NME (an unknown Mancunian called Steven Morrissey used to send her letters of adoration), but she looks back on her speed, nicotine and alcohol-fuelled teenage rants in the music press with huge embarrassment. ‘Oh my God I was such an awful kid,’ she squeals. ‘Everyone else who was on the pop press goes on about it being the best days of your life as if it was bloody school or something. I’m really embarrassed about my whole involvement with everything. I look back and think “What drugs was I taking to become involved in this folly?” It’s the aesthetics of it I can’t stand. I can’t look at pictures of punks, or whenever some concert footage of punks comes on the TV screen I’m going “Oh my God”, and I’m behind the sofa hiding, hoping I wasn’t there that night.’
Julie did an awful lot of growing up in public and her past hero-worships (Kim Philby, Joe Stalin, Margaret Thatcher) still come back to haunt her. It’s something of a nightmare having all your late adolescent ﬁxations down there in black and white. ‘Until the time I was 24 I was very embarrassed about my writing. I like getting older because I was very ill-at-ease
when I was young, very shy. I wasn’t happy basically, and I’m very happy now.’
What she has to cling on to is her firm sense of being working-class, an identity that imbues her writing with its directness, her politically- incorrect attitudes, her prejudices and arrogance. It’s also what makes her so attractive to her guilt-ridden pampered bourgeois readership.
‘When I say I'm working class people say “Oh no you’re not, with your salary” and all that, but it really is a state of mind. I think of myself as somebody who’s won the pools and I’m just busy running through it as fast as I can. I don’t save it or invest it any of those things. I always compare myself to Viv Nicholson — spend, spend, spend. I feel no shame. Everything I’ve got I’ve come by honestly, or as honestly as you can in this profession. I couldn’t save if I tried to.’
Julie loves to tell you how much she earns (f l 20, 000 a year for her newspaper column — ‘two hours work a week’ — plus £125, 000 advance for N0 Exit). ‘It comes naturally to me, being very common and vulgar. I always talk about money and things like that in public. I’m always saying ‘string em up’, but I’m not a heartless person, I’m incredibly liberal in lots of ways. Most of my money gets given away. When I come out of the Groucho Club all the dossers shout “She’s out lads”. I’m the angel of Dean Street. I can’t go up that street without giving out £500 some nights. I really am a soft touch, and I enjoy it. Share your wealth my Dad used to say, he’s a communist, and I think of myself as doing my bit.’
A healthy chunk of her cash is invested in her beloved Modern Review, which she describes as ‘an intellectual Smash Hits.’ Its brief is essentially tojustify popular culture as being as being as least as valid as established highbrow diversions, which it does by way of lengthy
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theoretical articles on the likes of Baywatch or Roy Chubby Brown. Julie’s own pieces are by some distance the wittiest. -
‘It’s my pride and joy and nobody’s seen it,’ she says. ‘It’s getting all this incredible press in America. They’ve seen more over there than they have in England.’ The Modern Review, for all that it reflects the London obsession of Julie and her fellow provincial escapees (the self- styled Capital-ists), looks set to be in the forefront of an imminent cultural struggle, as the progressives and populists, eager to debunk the dry elitist cadre that still permeates the arts media face a backlash from the traditionalists who have been encouraged by the moral outrage voiced by American writer Michael Medved. Things are about to get exciting for Julie and her gang of like-minded boys.
‘We’ve got a horrible reputation, the Modern Review set for being cliquey and disgusting,’ she says. ‘We’re hacks but we’re not like Guardian hacks. We behave in a way which is quite studenty and quite hedonistic. I’m not going to spell out what I mean, but it’s the sort of thing you don’t want to do in public or you get a horrible reputation. That sounds really mysterious doesn’t it? It’s like the Hellﬁre Club you know.’
The boys gather chez Burchill because Julie doesn’t like being stared at in public. Her home serves as a refuge and a little island of unashamed indulgence in a city that is embracing the boring conformity of the 905. ‘People here are very boring,’ she complains, ‘and they are like ordinary middle-class couples who get engaged when they’re 28. They‘ve all been to Oxford and Cambridge and they have dinner parties when they talk about where they’ve been for their holidays and what barbecue sets they own. They might as well not be in the media. They might as well not be in London. They don’t act at all wild, none of them take drugs, none of them drink to excess, they’re so bloody polite. How long can you live like that. That’s what we left the provinces to get away from. We’re the only people in London who still have friends. It’s still the 805 for us. It’s like the Millwall chant — Everybody hates us we don’t care. It’s lot of fun. I don’t want to be friends with people like Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan anyway, we just want to irritate them.’
For plenty of media folk Julie Burchill is like the scarily different girl in the class, the one from the wrong side of the tracks, the sort your mother warned you against. You’d quite like to be part of her gang but you’re not sure if you’re wild enough. The outsiders content themselves with moaning how overweight, overpaid and overrated she is. But Julie’s been getting away with it long enough now to be able to afford a touch of humility. ‘I just think why are they bothering to think about me. I really don’t understand all the attention I’ve got. I think why bother? In the end I’m a one-trick pony, why give me all this attention. there’s so many bigger things in the world?’
And she’s even got a heart of gold under all that brittle bitchiness. When Robert Maxwell went overboard the Modern Review boys cheered the demise of the fat Czech who was suing the magazine. ‘All my boys were cheering and going hurrah,’ she says, ‘and I burst into tears and said “poor Betty.”’ Ahhh.
No Exit is published by Sinclair Stevenson, price £12. 99.
The List 12 —-25 March 1993 7