There are certain questions that keep cropping up when you mention you have just interviewed Julie Burchill, Britain’s most notorious journalist: (a) was she fat? (b) was she off her face on booze/drugs? (c) did she sound ridiculous? (d) was she terrifying? and (e) is she serious?
To save some of you having to read very much further, the answers are: (a) No. Burchill may be, in her own words, “a bit of a wonky beak”, but she looks pretty good for her 45 years. (b) No. At no point during our 10am encounter did she neck any alcohol or snort any cocaine. (c) Yes. But her girly voice, which has been compared, variously, to that of a “rustic child” and Minnie Mouse, is not half as striking as the speed at which she talks. (d) Yes. Although not in the way you may expect: it is her intelligence rather than the ferocity of her opinions that intimidates. As for (e), it is the first question I put to Burchill as I arrive to meet her at Hotel du Vin, her favourite hangout in Brighton.
Her prose in the NME, The Face, The Sunday Times, the Mail on Sunday, the Daily Express, The Guardian and, now, The Times, has been brilliant, I say, but it is hard to believe she means everything she says (boo to the Catholics, Muslims, Victoria Beckham; hooray for the war on Iraq, David Beckham, Israel, and so on). “But I am being serious,” she squeaks in response, sinking into a large brown sofa in the bar. “But I have to admit I do laugh a lot when I write. I think I know what you mean, though.
A lot of other columns make more sense. But Mr Murdoch’s not paying me to sit around to say, ‘well, on the other hand’. I’m like a fireman: I have a specific job to do and then get out.” She continues, saying that there is a distance between “everyday Julie” and “mad Julie, the writer”. “Mad Julie, the writer, is so extreme. But I lead the life of a provincial housewife 95 per cent of the time.” Somehow, I find this hard to believe. “Well, 80 per cent then” A pause and then a peel of laughter. “Haahhaha! See, even in establishing my moderation, I had to be extreme, didn’t I? Hahahhahhah!”
Apropos of not very much, Burchill suddenly inquires whether the Financial Times is owned by “Mr Murdoch”. I tell her it isn’t but her editor at The Times, Robert Thomson, worked at the FT for many years. “Really? Yeah, I know,” she responds, not for the first time sounding like Vicky Pollard, the fast-talking teenage chav from the television series Little Britain (her own comparison). “He’s lovely. He sends me postcards to say I’m writing well, which no one ever bothered to do at The Guardian. Wankers! Hahahhahah!”
The cackling echoes around the bar, briefly drowning out the seagull squawks coming through the windows. So she doesn’t exactly miss her former employer? “No, I don’t. It was like leaving a cult. They put all sorts of weird pressure on you. ‘Don’t forget what we’ve done for you!’ ” Well, they did do some things for her. “They could have paid me properly for a start!” A pout. “When I asked for a raise they shouldn’t have offered me a new sofa!” Another pout, this time with a half smile. “That was very insulting.” Have they approached her since? “No. They can’t afford me any more because Mr Murdoch knows what I’m worth.” How much is that? “Pounds 150,000.” It is very honest of her to say so. “Why lie? But I’m getting loads more from him for making documentaries for Sky, and of course Elisabeth Murdoch’s production company is responsible for Sugar Rush, so I’m completely owned by the Murdoch family. You can call me a Murdoch concubine if you like! I really enjoy it! Hahahhhaha!”
Sugar Rush is a new late- night, 10-part drama series for Channel 4 based on Burchill’s novel of the same title, which she says she wrote, drunk, across eight afternoons last year. Set in Brighton and adapted for TV by Katie Baxendale, it dramatises the misadventures of 15-year-old Kim and deals with themes including alcohol, drugs and lesbian sex.
“I’m delighted Channel 4 have seen fit to broadcast my perverted little work,” she declares, sounding rather like mad Julie, the writer. “If I don’t make page three of the Daily Mail it will ruin my summer and I will be sad.” She pulls a sad face, which quickly turns into a grin. “I hope that people will be jumping up and down wetting themselves.” I have only seen the trailer but it looks slick, I say. “I have only seen the first episode and I’ve got to say when I got it, I watched it six times. Finally, my husband took it away from me. I’m normally hypercritical but I was knocked off my feet.” And it is going to be on after Big Brother? “Yeah. Hopefully we’ll get the dirty old man crowd coming back from the pub. Though I probably shouldn’t say that.”
This note of caution seems a strange thing for Burchill to add. One of the few journalists to have written an autobiography, several bestselling novels, received a mention on Brookside and had a play about their life performed in London’s West End, she has built a career on saying things she probably should not. And she seems to have spent her adult life doing things she probably shouldn’t have done.
By her own admission, she spent much of the 1980s and 1990s “pouring booze” down her throat and taking enough cocaine to “to stun the entire Colombian armed forces”. She has had two sons (by different husbands), has been labelled the worst mum in world for reportedly abandoning both (she doesn’t get on with Robert, her son with the writer Tony Parsons, but her 19- year old son with critic Cosmo Landesman is living with her before he heads of to university later this year), has come out as a lesbian (for three months in 1995) and has recently married Daniel Raven, a computer tester 13 years her junior and the younger brother of her former lesbian lover, Charlotte. But today her conversation is focused on how low key her life is – something apparently partly inspired by religion.
“I had a religious experience when I was 24,” she declares solemnly. “I don’t want to talk about it though – I’ll sound mad.” Go on, do tell. “Well,” she says, a little sheepishly. “It just, er, felt like a big jug of ointment had been broken over my head.” Was she on drugs at the time? “No, I was dusting my flat. It was bloody fantastic – best day of my life. My husband says there’s no point in organised religion, why not just be godly? But I want to go to church and I want an organised religion. Mainly because I want to organise against the Catholics! And the only way to do that is to be a Protestant.”
She looks me straight in the eye. “You think I’m mad don’t you?” Well, her faith is a little curious given her previous atheism. “Yes. But my parents used to send me to Sunday school and I was well getting into the Bible. I love the Book of Ruth. I love the Old Testament. The New Testament is rubbish – it’s so, ugh, milk and water, compared to the Old Testament.”
Doesn’t that make her Jewish? “I think of myself as a Christian who would like to be a Jew but, of course, they don’t take conversion easy. But, yes, the Jews are my favourites. But I’m Protestant. I can’t stand the Catholic Church or the Muslims. They were the people who dragged me to the CRE (Commission for Racial Equality) when I was at The Guardian and they are the people who can’t take it.” She jerks around in the manner of Vicky Pollard. “Did you see that? I just did the Jerry Springer thing, the sassy shoulder roll! You can tell I’m annoyed.”
She returns to her subject. “I think I’ll probably end up with the Methodists, who I do like a great deal and they’ve got the best hymns.” It’s difficult to tell whether this is mad Julie, the writer, or everyday Julie talking. She goes on to reveal that, as part of her effort to be a better Protestant, she gives away a quarter of everything she earns (“whenever somebody sends something through the door, I send them Pounds 200 or Pounds 300 back”), though this won’t extend to the Pounds 1.5m proceeds she has just received from selling her house (“That would be mad!”). Before long she is on her favourite subject: class. More specifically, how medialand is run by a white middleclass elite and how she is one of “only about two working-class people in every generation” to penetrate it. She goes on to describe her appeal as “50 per cent freak appeal and 50 per cent pure fucking talent”.
I find myself disagreeing, saying her appeal is probably 100 per cent talent and her obsession with her class is a bit sixth-form. “You could be right – it’s really tragic, and it is incredibly freaking sixth-formish but I get such a kick out of it, such a sense of inverted superiority, that I don’t think I can let it go now.” Why can’t she just accept she’s middle class now? I have: I was working class but now I’m not. See, it’s easy. “But you went to university, right? I didn’t. Just moving up a few tax brackets doesn’t make you middle class. It’s an attitude, it’s the way you do your house up, how you handle money. I’m just like a pools winner, a poor person who got lucky.”
But it is not the chance of more success and money that puts a glint in Burchill’s eye – it is the prospect of pulling out altogether. She says she moved to Brighton 10 years ago with the intention of retiring but one thing led to another and she found herself back in newspapers. The plan now is to give it all up within five years. “I will carry on till I’m 50 but then I’d like to retire properly. I will probably go to Torquay and get a Bedlington Terrier.”
Would she survive without writing? “Maybe, if I stopped doing it commercially, one day I’d write a really good novel.” And does she want to? “No, I don’t, to be honest. I’ve got no hunger left. But I like it that way. I had a lot of hunger when I was younger and it wasn’t nice. It was the loneliest feeling. “I’ll pack it in when I’m 50. Everybody will be sick of me by then. Mr Murdoch will be sick of me. I’m making some more documentaries for Sky One this year, so people will be sick of me. And then I’ll go to Torquay. That’s the plan. But there can be tremendous change at the last moment.”