Ben Granger collides with Julie Burchill over several bottles of wine to seek out the dreadful truth on chavs, Stalin, Ariel Sharon and Morrissey
“Never meet your heroes; they always disappoint” runs the old saying. Invited from my humble Lancastrian abode down to the Brighton realm of the greatest shit-stirring iconic hack of our times, I wasn’t so much afraid of Julie Burchill not living up to her reputation as living up to it too much. Would she be gentle with me?
If Julie needs an introduction, it’s tough knowing where to start. Running away from her working-class Bristol childhood at the age of 17 to scribble speed-driven venom for the NME at the height of punk, marrying and deserting Tony Parsons prior to queening it over the Groucho journo set, skipping gaily from highly paid column to spiky column in a variety of newspapers across the land. Enraging the Left with her hard-line anti-liberalism and some-time Thatcher worship, the Right with her brazen pro-Soviet Communism and hatred of the bourgeoisie, and everyone with her particular and peculiar blend of narcissism, iconoclasm and rudeness. Leaving second husband Cosmo Landesman for an affair with Charlotte Raven, subsequently shacking up with Charlotte’s younger brother to whom she is now married. Etcetera etcetera.
There’s no time for a biog here, but suffice to say my longstanding admiration for the deliriously violent punch of her writing, often despite myself, was why I found myself here on the day. No I don’t agree with a tonnes of what she says, but for me she has obtained “Benefit of Clergy”, a phrase Orwell used about Dali (even though Julie hates Orwell too: worst offence in the world in my book). This basically means offensiveness is to some extent excused by how well it’s delivered, and what’s behind it. But mainly how it’s delivered. It’s what separates Jerry Sadowitz from Jim Davidson, and South Park from the Sunday Sport.
Julie’s profile is higher now than for many a year after finally breaking into the previously shunned medium of TV. A Channel 4 adaptation of her lesbian teen-scream novel Sugar Rush will be screened later this year, whilst her typically pro-prole, contrary and acidly delivered defence of the much maligned phenomenon of “Chavs” on the eponymous Sky One documentary last February slung a Molotov cocktail amongst the dinner party set once again.
The journey down South is made all the more surreal for me by being stuck on the last leg in the train from Euston to Brighton in the next carriage to our glorious leader Anthony Blair, a month before his phyrric Election victory, who graciously smirks over when I take a snap of him. I can’t stand the guy but little plebby me feels like Alice In Famousland. Weird, weird. I get to wander for too short a time round the rather beautiful town of Brighton (never before visited) with its poignantly derelict pier, until finally getting the cab round to her spacious detached home on the Hove border. Quick fag, deep breath, down the huge garden into the valley of whatsits.
Julie answers the door with an imperious handshake as she invites me to the lair. “You’re Ben? You must come in,” intones the famous high-pitched quickfire yet lilting Bristol burr. She’s half the size she was two years back and looks lovely in her black and white ensemble. I’d heard she was a nervy character around strangers, but whilst her initial demeanour is slightly distant, she is clearly at pains to put me at ease, even introducing me to her fellow guests with the unnervingly gallant “This is Ben Granger, the great writer from Spike Magazine.” (Fuckin ‘ell!)
The guests are Gary Mulholland, music journalist and author of This Is Uncool, Zoe Williams from The Guardian (both in capacity of friends rather than interviewers), her teenage son Jack, and her cleaner (and bestest friend the world) Nadia. The Burchill abode has a brash décor of pink walls and tiger skin couches which mirrors its owner exquisitely, as does the louche sprinkling of bottles, ash-trays and smoke. Oh yes, and the small Israeli flag atop the mantelpiece, given her oft-avowed Zionism. Whilst I get my MP3 recorder complete with my son’s kiddies mike together, I mention my fellow train traveller which gets the surprising response: “God, he’s sexy, innee? You’re a man, you wouldn’t understand.” I also mention how attractive I found Brighton’s bohemian Trafalgar Street. “God I never go there. Full of dossers.” I mention a couple of pubs I’ve stopped in (not mentioning I was there to steady my awe-struck nerves) “I don’t really go to pubs much to be honest with you. I don’t want to be the mad woman sitting in the corner!”
Generous host to a fault, Julie even sends Zoe and Nadia to the offie when I mention I’d like red wine which isn’t on offer. When I finally fidgetilly set up she directs myself and Gary to the house gym- now disused and decorated by a large Cuban flag representing the other great love of her ideological life, Communism- to conduct the interview. Sitting cross legged on the floor we embark.
So , how was writing for teenagers different from writing her novels for adults?
“Well, I’ll be honest with you, the first novel I wrote for adults was very successful but the other two went right down the toilet. So it wasn’t like a choice to write for young people, I just thought no-one’s sitting around waiting to hear from me in the adult world so let’s inflict it on some other poor …”
Yes, but were you consciously writing in a different way?
“Oh yeah, yeah! You don’t have to try so hard do you?..There’s a certain reason why people who twenty years ago would have been writing literary novels, like Gary, like myself, aren’t doing it now. I think I’d fall at the first hurdle. But my immediacy, my lack of.education which stop me from doing what Ian McEwan or [mutters scornfully] Martin Amis do is part of what we love about ourselves, and what suited a book like this..it was very pleasurable and it felt very normal to do.”
Given your typically hard-line on paedophilia, did you ever feel there was a tension in writing a lesbian novel about 15 year old girls? I’d heard there was more sex scenes in it initially before they were cut out?
“Naaah there was never any real sex in it because I thought that would be unbearably pervy and a total contradiction of everything I stood for. Don’t go there. Though for the TV show apparently she’s older, like 21 so they can make it a bit more.hardcore. Is that a horrible thing to say? No if it was kids it would be horrible wouldn’t it? I’ve had no input whatsoever in the programme so far but next week I’m going on-set. And I’m looking forward to it.”
The drama is still to come but the documentary has already been screened. “Chavs” was a classic Burchill column brought to life; one-sided, contrary, mixing pop culture and high sociological comment with humour and venom. Its subject was the eponymous; the baseball capped, Burberry clad, gold jewellery bedecked folk devils that walk down every high street in Britain. The butt of every middle-class sneery joke. As per often Julie has bloody mindedly found a devilish cause to defend; a hate-figure for snooty Telegraph toffs, Mail paranoiac patio-sniffers and Guardian liberal snoots alike.
Asked about why this issue was so close to her heart, the full ferocity of her anger really takes off. The turbo Bristol voice takes off, hard in vowels, soft in tone, ruthless in content.
“Now, I’m a very idle person and I’m very relaxed, and my ideal dream is just to lie on the sofa all day eating chocolates. But when I do get agitated and when I do get a bee in my bonnet I DO go all the fucking way. When I was told about things like Chavscum [the website dedicated to promoting hatred of all things “chav”]which I hadn’t known about, and the abuse they were putting out, I’m afraid I saw red. It seemed to me that the kind of people who are doing things like “Chavscum” ten years ago would have been racists, and would have been that loathsome and that disgusting. Now they can’t be racists because of the CRE and certain laws that have been passed – quite rightly. But the white working class are now the only people you can fucking hate with impunity, and I felt I just had to raise my fucking voice.”
It should be stressed there is no editorial trickery involved in Julie’s broadsides here. This is simply how she talks. Very, very fast too. The only other person I can think whose words race along as fast as they think is Patrick Moore.
“It’s so tempting to be lured in by the defence of humour and irony. One of the worst things you can say to somebody is they’ve got no sense of humour. If you look at the personal columns, you’ll often see people admitting that they’re ugly or not bright or fat – no-one will ever admit to having no sense of humour. It’s the final insult, the final thing no-one will admit to. But I didn’t want to get the fucking joke. If there was a joke I didn’t want to get it, just like I didn’t want to get it when my parents were watching “Love Thy Neighbour” and thought it was funny to call someone “nig-nog.” Instinctively, I just thought it was disgusting. To me laughter and great humour comes from taking on people above you on the social scale.”
The documentary featured an extremely ill-tempered spat with TV “personality” Vanessa Feltz, who opined that her very worthwhile existence should not be sullied by having to pay her taxes in supporting welfare payments to such dread creatures. Really though Julie, you were great friends after the cameras stopped weren’t you?
“I just wanted to punch her fucking face in! Listen, I’ve got a friend who thinks al Quaeda have “got a point”, I can sit with him and listen to that shit, I can listen to taxi drivers being racist. But when I sit with a middle-class person going on, I don’t care if it is a kind of prejudice, I just wanna kill the fuckers and I think you’ve got no right to say a fucking word, you just don’t know fucking anything about anything. To me, it’s not about race, there’s the middle class and the working class; us against them. Well, there’s three groups really but that’s the upper class who don’t count cos they’re fucking retarded…but put a middle-class person in front of me, I don’t care if they’re left-wing or right-wing, talk to them for five minutes, and the filthy fucking snob in them will come out.”
Even when angry she is increasingly at ease, and warm in her demeanour. She doesn’t laugh much but does grin mischievously from time to time. Possibly libellous comments about La Feltz follow. But what would you say to people who claim that chavs are only a part of the working-class, and that criticising the former is not criticising the latter?
“People say that to me trying to be nice, I always say ‘Don’t do me any fucking favours!’ When someone tries to differentiate between the deserving and the undeserving working-class the black heart of me cleaves towards the undeserving ones. My father was a member of the deserving working-class, he ended up coughing his fucking lungs out for three years and dying of tumors because of it. The working-class in the old days kept their heads down, were so fucking decent and wonderful, and it got them jack shit. Chavs are there for a reason, because the decent way, the good way, didn’t fucking work. The idea that after the break up of the manufacturing industries and the disrespect poured on the heads of the trade unions and everything the working-class stood for that their would still, masochistically, be this class of noble men and women trudging on and on and on waving banners and singing wonderful songs – WHY?! We’d fucking had enough. We are what they made us! And they don’t like us being like that because they know we’re tougher than they are and they know we’ll win.”
Julie has gone into an impressively ferocious, literally breast-beating oratory by this point, suddenly breaking off to grinningly state “What am I shouting at you two for, you didn’t fucking do it…!” She digresses once more, expressing here near eugenic belief in prole supremacy.
“Did you know there’s this thing called ‘the indestructible nine percent’ in society? They’ve all got green or hazel eyes, they can drink the most amazing amount, and they’ve got this weird blood group called rhesus negative. I’ve got all these three things and they are ALL found amongst the labouring classes…listen would I make this shit up?! How fucking mad do I want to look?”
But in defending “chavs” culturally, is this not a tacit acknowledgment that the political fight for the proletariat is lost?
“Naaaah, the fight cannot be lost, the fight changes.”
So to quote dear Lenin: “What is to be done” politically?
“I’m hoping to find out. What Marx analysed was basically right, but it’s so rich and strange the way things mutate. Who ten years ago would have predicted the decline of McDonalds? Who twenty years ago would have seen the downfall of all I believe in, with the Soviet Union? But because of the strength and the numbers of the working-class, both in this country and globally, we will decide what happens in the end and it really won’t be that bad.”
One of the main criticisms levelled at Julie is because her extremes of position are so contrary to “accepted” mainstream norms (pro-union yet pro-hanging, massively xenophobic about the Germans and French whilst showing a fierce anti-racism where black people are concerned, pro-Soviet yet pro-Israeli) that she is insincere and feigning them to shock. But while she unquestionably fires forth her beliefs in as provocative a manner as possible, hearing her talk about them there is no doubt whatsoever in her sincerity. She quite clearly really believes them. No doubt that makes it a lot worse for many! Her passion when talking about “the workers” and socialism in particular is unquestionable. I suggest that the success of Hugo Chavez in Venezuela is a real international working-class triumph that is being unsung. Julie initially suggests he is corrupt from what she’s heard. I strongly disagree.
“I don’t know enough about Venezuela; I dare say you’re right. But remember when whatsisname, Ortega? The Sandinista leader was accused of molesting his daughter, well ten years ago we’d have all cleaved together and said she was lying, but, thank God for feminism, how do we know that. I was brought up in a Communist household, when I moved to London I met Paul Foot and was briefly in the SWP, and the one thing my dad the working-class Stalinist and Paul Foot the middle-class Trotskyist had in common is they couldn’t fucking look at themselves, see the bad in their side. That’s what attracted me to people on the right for a while, like Alan Clark. What a fucking cool man!”
She proceeds to launch into an entertaining and fairly accurate impression of Clark fantasising about Russian women in his infamously lecherous manner. Julie has latched onto the theme of the Left denying its own crimes now and, as ever, there’s no getting her off it.
“My dad taught me that you hide your own sin and you don’t take yourselves apart; I’ve realised recently that we’ve got to criticise ourselves before we can start on anyone else. In that way lies strength. I love Mr Castro and the Cuban revolution, and it’s achieved so much; they can cure blindness there whereas they can’t in America, but you go there and see twelve year old prostitutes; it obviously wasn’t meant to be like this. And the things he did to gay people, though I dare say he had a good reason…But to turn away helps no-one. I really think the Left has to take itself apart before anyone else, because we can, because we’re stronger and more intelligent than the Right.”
There we are then, to reverse Groucho’s old maxim, whether many on the Left want her or not -pro Bush and Blair on the war as she is- that’s the club she places herself in at heart. I can’t help but have a tentative go here; what about her wonderful 2002 Guardian columns where she ripped “Princess Toni” to pieces on a weekly basis due to his betrayal of the Labour movement?
“That’s simple, Blair is a great war-leader, like Churchill; useless in times of peace. Who would vote for the poor sod after that?”
So you’re not taking away your criticisms of his domestic policies, privatisation, sucking up to the bosses?
“I’ve never voted for Mr Blair and I don’t imagine I will.[This interview was conducted shortly before the 2005 General Election] The last time I voted was for the Socialist Alliance locally, and UKIP nationally, or was it the other way round? I don’t even remember. I’ve got nothing to hide.”
She repeats the highly entertaining story of how, on her father’s death bed she vowed to defend the name of his old hero Joe Stalin, only to be told by Bill “You ain’t been saying mad stuff about him have you girl? He was a terrible man!”
So who are her all time heroes really?
“It sounds really mealy-mouthed, but the people who no-one knows the name of; they’re the heroes.”
So your other heroes have disappointed you?
“I don’t feel disappointed because I’ve grown up, very late in life, and I realise people fall short of things for a reason as we’re all human. Like all the bad things Mr Castro has done to gay people. The heroes are the people we never ever hear of and that is the essence of their heroicness. There’s a certain reason why people of real quality don’t rise to positions of power. People like my dad; who have nothing to prove. I’ve no element of self-loathing but I do realise that part of my success is just me showing off, and wanting to queen it over other people, to be frank with you. When you get people like Emma Thompson, Dawn French, Lenny Henry, the Red Nose lot – unless you tied the fuckers down and wired them up to a lie detector -and then you’d get it – you’d never get them to admit that there was any element in their desire to be famous other than them wanting to help people in Niger. To me it’s the glory of being a human being that we are a mixture of complete corruption and the most shimmering, mercury-like goodness. Of course there are some just purely evil people – like Dido- and just purely good people – like Jordan. But then there’s the glory and the black hearted corruption.it just knocks you out sometimes if you think about it too much. That’s why I prefer not to think about it too much and watch Tricia instead. A great deal of my life is spent running away from…my brain.”
In my review of Sugar Rush I presumptuously wrote of the characters “No-one talks like that, not even Julie in real life.” I was in fact completely wrong. Friendlier (to me at least), and with lots more swearing, but she talks pretty much as she writes. I won’t let the Iraq war go though, I’m catching the argument bug off her.
“Ben! Ben! What would you rather live under?! Listen I was brought up as a Soviet Empirist. My dad taught me to believe -literally- that American brains were one third less the size of ours. It’s been a very hard journey to lead me to support Mr Bush on this. But I do feel that a struggle of the dimensions my father saw, light against darkness, has emerged in the Middle East. The Arab people deserve everything we have. If that makes me a fucking racist then yeah. I won’t make any exceptions for these filthy rich people, the Saudi dynasty, or the Syrian Ba’athists who call themselves socialists.”
But surely the idea that Bush is exporting democracy to the Middle East is rather undermined when he lets the CIA organise a coup against democratic Venezuela?
“One thing at a time Ben! When a Hugo Chavez can emerge in the Arab world… I know about Allende. I’m not idealistic about America. It’s a dirty massive beast. Of course they’ll attack democracy in their own back yard. But – heavy the head that wears the crown – when they stay out of wars we call them filthy cowards – as my grandma used to say – if they get involved, they’re imperialists.”
It’s nice arguing with Julie but I know I’ll never win, and she graciously changes the subject herself to the fact that her dad wanted to emigrate to Russia and her mum to South Africa, the former for idealism, the latter because “They got bungalows!” At heart Julie is a patriot, and emigration is not the done thing.
“That phrase “whinging poms” it comes from when English people were encouraged to emigrate to Australia for twenty pounds, and they came back, and they literally cried for three weeks in relief, because they missed the rain, and the dreariness. That’s the fucking greatness, and the perversity of the English people for me. Every perverse, dreary weird thing about our people.”
Changing the subject myself, I remark that Julie often writes about Hollywood, and spends as much time praising the greats of the past as she does slagging off the stars of today. What’s the difference?
“In thirty years time, will a drag queen dress up as Sandra Bullock? Don’t think so! Sorry; that’s facile…my mother had no politics but.what made her in a way a feminist was watching Bette Davis films; seeing her in Jezebel saying “Ah wiiill wear mah red dress”: the idea of women behaving as they pleased, stroppily and strongly. It was the only thing to watch back then and weirdly watching them on a rainy day is a real part of my Englishness. God I sound gay, I sound like Morrissey! But anyway you don’t get strong women on screen any more, a “tough character” in films today is either tough cos she’s hiding her neediness, or she’s a psychopath.. I don’t think I’m a “strong woman”, I hate that patronising phrase, I think I’m a “tough broad”, that’s what I used to see on screen which I never do anymore. They’re either needy weedy vulnerable wickle things waiting to be hugged – or total fucking looners.”
As was often the case of her columns I find myself agreeing with something I hadn’t particularly dwelled on. It’s true that Hollywood seems to stand still while society moves on in a lot of respects.
“There’s a great book by Molly Haskell called From Reverence To Rape and she shows how, just as women were starting to assert themselves in the real world in the 60s, that was exactly the time Hollywood started to make films like Easy Rider, One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest, where women are literally either bitches, whores or rapees. Joan Collins played a missionary nun twice in the Fifties! Not any more. Do you think I’m like Nurse Ratchett?”
I get short shrift however when I suggest that Basic Instinct is the height of misogyny. “Oh no, that film just makes you want to go gay! Every girl likes that film for a reason, it’s the first time they showed a lesbian as really attractive.” But also an ice-pick wielding psychopath? “Yeah well, take the rough with the smooth. As I said earlier ‘no-one’s perfect'” My suggestion that Fatal Attraction is a misogynistic farrago is dismissed too “No, I don’t think Fatal Attraction means anything. The message is don’t fuck a woman who sits in a loft playing Madam Butterfly, and don’t fuck Michael Douglas!” Well, you can’t argue with that.
We’re all very drunk now (well I am anyway), so I just bat random subjects up and let Julie take them. First up is Ariel Sharon (readers of a sensitive disposition may wish to skip the next paragraph).
“To me he’s the God that failed. He could have been such a great man and he’s just a fucking pacifist now. No – don’t leave it! Israel is the only country I would fucking die for. He’s the enemy of the Jews. Chucking his own people off the Gaza; to me that’s disgusting. I’ve given you want you want; is that the “money shot”? He’s a good man but he’s got to learn to stand by his own people. ‘Cos no-one else will; Christ knows.” Julie certainly gets into her stride when I bring up the sordid subject of the Spectator sexual shenanigans which have so dominated the headlines of tabloids and broadsheets alike in recent months. (For the uninitiated, the proprieter, editor and half the staff of the fusty old Tory journal have been caught going at it hammer and tongues lately; the former with our former Home Secretary).
“Well it all made me glad I live the life of a provincial lady. Rod [Liddle]’s a great young man, he once told me he applied for my old job at the NME, but he was always known as a lothario. I know one woman, a great friend of mine who thought he was so sexy she waited for three hours in a Bournemouth Travelodge on just like a promise – but she didn’t get none. Thank God I’m not a woman so I don’t fall for him. Simon Hoggart? What a dirty old man! Its always the quiet ones isn’t it? When it comes to Kimberley Quinn…I’ll say this and it doesn’t show me in a very good light..I never thought I’d use the word “slag” about anyone. Me and my friends, we know prostitutes, we don’t slag them off, but when it comes to her…we use it and God it feels good! Poor Mr Blunkett; fancy doing that to a blind man? Where was the dog? Must have been tied to summat. That’s what I can’t stand; it’s the animals that suffer in the end. But no, my friends have put it around, fucking like sailors and shit, but they’d never used that word before. But with Kimberley… It’s the creepy fertility relay race thing that did it I think. She just wanted to get knocked up. Desperate woman. She just wanted some sperm race. Like an egg and spoon race. Or a sack race. Or an egg and sack race – HA HA HA!! Put that in Ben right??”
Didn’t you once write for The Spectator though?
“I did some book reviews when my friend Dominic Lawson was editing. But then I’ll do anything for a Jew.”
Julie’s whirl of conversation swings one way to the next. Very friendly and complimentary, highly libellous asides splatter the whole interview. Julie is no stranger to the libel courts, but some of her comments will not appear on Spike as none of us of course would like to see this fine site shut down. One borderline accusation about a satirist I adore leads to her virulent hatred of Catholics. When I mention that I’m a Catholic her generous gallantry storms through once more “No, you’re not! Fuck off! Do you practice birth control?!” No of course I’m a very very lapsed one Julie. “See I knew you were, listen, lapsed Catholics are the aristocracy of the earth. I never met a lapsed I didn’t like. But them that cleave to their faith.I’ll shoot the fuckers.”
I ask about the time when one of my idols Morrissey walked through her door unannounced back in 1994 to a frosty reception…
“God I’d forgotten about that! That was like a very very bad marriage in three quarters of an hour:- imagine the play Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf in the space of three quarters of an hour. It’s not your dream; you’re in love with someone for five years and they turn up and we start arguing about whether you should put milk in Earl Grey tea or not. I knew I had to get him out before he visited the bathroom; “Why do you squeeze the toothpaste from the bottom?” Fuck off!”
Julie wrote an acerbic piece about their encounter at the time. For “acerbic” read “hatchet job”. Incredibly, given Morrissey’s famed propensity for dropping people who’ve offended him at the drop of a daff, they’ve restarted a friendly e-mail correspondence over the past few years. Clearly he couldn’t resist someone who’s even better at bitching about people than he is.
“I adore the man. He seems to be very civilised now; he seems more happy. Isn’t it funny it took America to make him more relaxed? I said to him, “You’ve grown into your looks, you look like someone’s sexy uncle that you’d get off with at a wedding.” And he said in his brilliantly witty way “Why do you think I go to so many weddings – known to me are not?” What a wonderfully Morrissey thing to say. Would you sleep with Morrissey if he asked and you were gay? If he was straight and I was single I still think I wouldn’t do it. I’d just be thinking “Oh fuck its Morrissey!” the whole time.”
Well, I must confess since early teenhood I’d always thought he’s the one man who just might “turn my head” as it were..
“You would?! But you’d have to slap him round a bit afterwards!! That’s what Madonna said about Billy Ray Cyrus. She said “I’d do him, but I’d have to slap him round a bit and make him cry afterwards because of Achey Breaky Heart” and I’d have to do that to Morrissey because – what’s the crap thing he’s done?- ‘Bengali In Platforms’? Course he’s a genius, but you wouldn’t wanna live with him would you?”
While her talk is littered with her trademark bile Julie assures me that she is far less keen to cause fuss in everyday life than she once was.
“I’m much better than I was. Even by the time I was 17 at the NME I was well castrated by then. You should have seen me at 13, at the height of my venom! I stopped kissing my mother when I went to bed and when my dad asked why I said “What, is she a lesbian?” That’s what I was like!”
And in fact she does seem more at ease with herself than I’ve heard she was, and very content with her life.
“Brighton, for all its airs and graces, is a very provincial town, and I like it that way. I don’t want to be like a young bunny putting it around, I’m 45 years old, it was never my way anyway, I got married when I was 18 and 24, even though I always admired girls that did. It was never the life for me, to be honest with you.”
She seems content too with her role in the grand scheme of things. “You know that thing you wrote about me [the Sugar Rush review] was so unique, it treated me like a human being which was such a change. I love being round young writers, I like to think of writers as a community, as a race. I’m forty-five years old , I’m not going to write “the great novel”…a dead mother that’s what I’m going to be now, and that’s alright with me.”
Already seriously sozzled before the interview ended (me,anyway) we break off to join her fellow guests – and proceed to drink a lot more. The “mists of Bacchus” descend on my memory somewhat here though I do dimly remember us drivelling on about many other subjects. Indulging in huge, shared, over-emphatic praise of Nye Bevan figured highly. (“Idiots always get him mixed up with Ernest Bevin, the anti-Semitic git.”) At one point Julie has a huge slanging match with Zoe and Gary about the merits of white immigration (Julie is against, she thinks the UK owes black and Asian people a huge debt which doesn’t apply to east Europeans). I recall also being a coward and slinking away during this, talking to Nadia instead. Nadia has clearly seen it a thousand times before, and its clear why Julie loves her so much. She’s fantastic, and clearly the calming, sensible one of the pair. “Don’t worry, she’ll calm down in a few minutes”, I think she said. And she did.
At one point I harangue Julie for wasting her life attacking idiotic celebrities when she could be highlighting great social injustices as she did for a very brief period in her Guardian columns of 2002, campaigning on issues like the still-toothless corporate manslaughter law which allows negligent employers to get away with murder (literally, if not legally.)
She explained she found writing such things too much of an emotional strain, and that it was too late to change now anyway. She was a nasty, witty old hack, pure and simple. And she liked it that way.
And of course; that’s what makes her what she is. The world already has John Pilger. Its precisely the fact she has “run away from her brain” as she herself puts it which makes her so entertaining. A sledgehammer cracking a nut; the spectres of Dorothy Parker and Marx ganging up on straw-celebs like Catherine Zeta Jones and Michael Douglas is sometimes just what you need. Can we really imagine a nice campaigning little Julie Burchill? Brrrr. I must have been even more pissed than I imagined.
The day after our meet, amidst the industrial hangover, I reflect on the massive hatred Julie inspires. Two years back she managed to take the number 85 spot in the Channel 4’s “most hated Britons” poll. Not high enough in her view I’m sure. But why was she there? Because of her narcissism, arrogance and self-obsession? I’d hazard a guess she’s not the only columnist to suffer such flaws. She is however one of the very few to openly acknowledge it, sign-post it, flaunt it, and make a very good joke out of it.
Because of extreme opinions, repeating her obsessions? Let’s think of these wonderful creatures we call “columnists”. Richard Littlejohn, Gary Bushell…straight-off bigots peddling the same old poison week after week, and always kicking the weak, never the strong, with far higher readerships too – not on the list. The late-now-but-not-then Lynda Lee-Potter, bitching hideously about celebs throughout her whole career, bigger readership again. Her name’s not down, she’s not coming in. A hundred odd male journalists with just as “messy” private lives as Julie; they don’t get the spawn of Beelzebub treatment either. Could the fact that she can write each one of them into the dirt at least partially explain this bonfire of loathing? I rather think it could. Julie says people who write hatefully about chavs reveal more about themselves than they do of their targets. Perhaps there’s an element of self-identification with that. And perhaps she’s right.
Of course I’m hopelessly, and rather pathetically compromised (there, I’ve said it first) by spending sloshed out time in her charming and generous presence. But I wasn’t disappointed. And long may she rain bile over us.