Thursday, April 5, 2007

Julie Burchill: The Pick'n'Mix Dorothy Parker, At Home In Brighton, Drinking Vodka Martini


Julie Burchill does not look like a woman in need of protection. She is as blowsy and pneumatic as the heroine of a Donald McGill postcard. But today, she is chaperoned by Mary, her PR. This is not to police the conversation, but to make sure that the interview does not go too well.
Here is what Julie recalls of her last meeting with a journalist. “One minute I was sipping a Diet Coke and telling her about my faith, next minute it was cocaine crosses and vomiting in the street. And I just thought: ‘Where did the time go?’ You know what it was? It was too late for breakfast and too early for lunch.”
It is 11am, in the Hotel Du Vin, a dark space just off the Brighton seafront. It is too late for breakfast and too early for lunch, so Mary is sent to order a vodka martini while Julie drags herself up the stairs to the bar balcony, apologising for the fact that she has recently developed gout: “The rich man’s disease - comes from good living!”
She is in fine fettle, cheerfully admitting that Made In Brighton, the book she is supposed to be publicising, doesn’t do what it says on the tin. The jacket promises ‘a cold, hard look at the changing face of Britain ’, but Burchill had other ideas. She and her husband and co-author, Daniel Raven (brother of previous lover Charlotte) imagined a glorified diary, only to discover that the publisher was expecting something to rival Jeremy Paxman’s The English. They shared the writing, with most of the work going into Dan’s chapters. Burchill’s contributions are remoulds of her old newspaper columns, but still, they offer a reminder of what a great phrase-maker she is, dispensing contrariness like a Pick’n’Mix Dorothy Parker.
In person, she is a jukebox of funny stories and unreasonable opinions, whether it is her boast that she invented the phrase “People’s Princess” for Diana, or her joke that Peter Mandelson is the living proof that politics is showbusiness for ugly people.
“When I see Dale Winton on TV, I do say you’ve got Peter Mandelson’s life, give it back.”
She no longer has an outlet for this stuff. Her column in the Times was dropped, with reassurances that she would still write for the paper, but she says she was sacked. “I was bumped off, but I was so full of myself that it took me six months to notice.”
On the page, Burchill’s words seem angry (“crossness, I’d call it”). In person, she is funnier, and while her soft West Country accent prompts comparisons with Minnie Mouse, she is more like a blend of those other self-curated characters, Russell Brand and Tracey Emin. She has Brand’s peculiarly Victorian diction, and Emin’s emotional honesty.
Of course, in terms of emotional wreckage and chemical abuse, she was living the life before either of them. There is scarcely a taboo she hasn’t broken, but in walking out of two marriages (to writers Tony Parsons and Cosmo Landesman), leaving her first son Bobby with Parsons, and losing custody of Jack to Landesman because (she thinks) she had temporarily become a lesbian, she rewrote the rulebook of public propriety.
But that was then. The news from Planet Burchill is that her retirement from the front-line of journalism has been followed by self-discovery. Just as her body has begun to fail, she has discovered God. Having been “saved” by the Chaplain of Sussex University, Gavin Ashenden, she is planning to study theology. “I’m a protestant who wants to find out more.”
She has also taken to voluntary work, spending Tuesdays and Thursdays at a centre for the mentally handicapped. She looks at Mary, as if for permission: “I’ve got to tell this story. It’s so sad and beautiful and reflects the paradox of what I’m living through.”
The story is that she enjoyed the company of the other ladies at the centre so much that she invited them out for the night, starting the evening at her club, the Hanbury.
It was games night. “We played Jenga, Twister, all those games. It was going beautifully. Then we went for cocktails, and all the girls were going: ‘Oh, Julie, we read all these things about you, but you’re such a nice person.’ I got ’em back to mine and I offered them a line of coke. They ran. I’ve never seen people move so fast. I looked round my empty room and I thought, ‘Damn, I did it wrong again’. I really wanted to be accepted by the volunteer community, and I fucked it up because of my own stupid hedonism.
“I was just trying to give five nice ladies a good time. At the end of the day I can’t see it as being bad. But it is a struggle, as Johnny Cash would say, between the devil and that other thing.”
All this talk of drugs is surprising, and I wonder whether Burchill is playing up to her image. “Everything’s relative,” she says. “I’m not like I used to be. Can’t be. Not with my foot. I live the life of a nun.”
Which nun, I wonder?
She laughs uncontrollably. “Sorry. My nose is running. No, I can’t be like I used to be. It’s only a bit of my life. You should see me limping round the centre. That’s when I have saintly feelings. A terrible thing’s happened, Alastair. I’ve got a satisfaction from working there that I’ve never got from journalism.”
She says the women forgave her cocaine gaffe – a Christian reaction. “Turn the other cheek. Or the other nostril.”
Perhaps it shouldn’t be such a surprise to find the former doyenne of the Groucho Club embracing God and voluntary work. Her rants have always been peppered by humanitarian concern, even if it was sometimes clouded by her iconoclastic tendencies. Her father brought her up a communist, and she supported Stalin long after it was fashionable, or even plausibly arch. She was surprised, then, when he chided her for this on his deathbed. “I said to him, ‘Don’t worry dad, I’ll keep the word alive about Stalin.’ And he said, ‘What terrible rubbish have you been spreading about that evil man?’ He told me off on his own deathbed. That was really sad, but I realised then that if he felt that strongly we’d been wrong all that time. Best gloss over it is what I say!”
She has also found that she is turning into her mother, “with my gout and my provincial instincts. I used to laugh at my mother. But she was fantastic. It was like somebody had made Mariah Carey be a cleaner. She was temperamental, but she was a great broad.”
Burchill’s politics now are a kind of populist British nationalism, inspired by her friend, the writer Michael Collins, who wrote The Likes of Us, about the marginalisation of the white working class. “I voted for Mr Blair last time because of the war. Anything else, no. Blair and his wife, they’re a pair of tossers.”
So who does she like? “I like Gordon Brown. I like Scots men.” But her interest in Brown is not political, it turns out. Nor is it chaste. “I used to have these terrible dreams about him. My husband used to say: you had a nightmare last night. I’d go, ‘what really?’ He’d say, ‘Yes, you sounded like you were being killed.’ Yeah, I was!”
Perhaps, I suggest, she has transferred her affections from Stalin to the Chancellor.
If it’s not his politics, what is the attraction?
“Everything about him. You name it. His glass eye. He’s got it all going on. Hanging on that box – Jesus! Everything about him. But as I say, I don’t think that way anymore. I generally don’t think those kind of thoughts since becoming a Christian.”
She struggles to have a view about David Cameron. “You’d really have to sit and fume in a hot bath drinking gin to get an opinion on him. Basically I don’t want a toff in charge of the country.”
Her communism may have lapsed, but her veins still run red with class consciousness, as becomes clear when the talk turns to Jamie Oliver. He was an old pin-up of hers, but is now a figure of scorn. “He implies that if working class children were not fed Turkey Twizzlers, instantly all the jobs and riches of society would be laid at their feet, whereas it’s about who your parents are, where you went to school, and all that shit. He’s just a lying pig. His children, no matter how dumb they are, will always do well, and bright working class kids will always do badly. That’s the truth of it.
“The class bias in this country is responsible for more deaths than any amount of drinking or drugs. Not being allowed to realise their potential kills people.”
Burchill has joked that she moved from London to the South Coast to retire. In fact, she went there in pursuit of Dan, who she married in 2004. They live in separate houses, but communicate by walkie-talkie. “It’s like Doctor Who! With my gouty foot sometimes I can’t leave the house, so it’s lovely to have a young person looking after you.”
And though she boasts of her laziness, she isn’t entirely idle. Sweet, the sequel to the Emmy-winning lesbian teen story Sugar Rush, is due in October. A musical about Diana is on hold, though she has written the songs. She is doing another book, about hypocrisy. And she is writing a script for the BBC, about the Greenham Common peace women, who she used to support, but now finds “scummy”.
With a powerful sense of her own myth, Burchill has compared herself to Brighton ’s ruined West Pier. But for all her talk of retirement and physical frailty, she is still only 47. I ask whether she sometimes wonders whether she could have achieved more. Her answer is blunt. “Couldn’t be arsed. To be a great writer I think you’ve got to have some sort of agony inside you, and the only agony I’ve got is from me poor feet. And gout’s not going to make me write a good novel.
“Maybe I’ve been too smug to do anything great, but I wouldn’t swap my life and my low level of achievement, if that’s what it is, for a life lived in misery and self-contemplation. I’d end up lonely with a great novel. I’d rather be a game old bird on a spree.”
Another vodka martini is ordered, and Burchill takes off her shoe to rest her swollen foot. She shows me the slogans on her make-up mirrors. One says, says “I am evil” the other “I’m bored, please send drugs”.
“I think I was a godless young person in every way one could be godless,” she says, laughing. It’s a perfect Burchill statement, hovering somewhere between sincerity and self-mockery. I suggest that she still is godless, mostly.
“I don’t think I am, actually,” she says, before launching into a final litany of contradiction. “I’ve become a saint. People know what I’m like. I never pretended to be Mary Poppins.”

Made in Brighton, Virgin Books, £14.99