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Julie Burchill

Sunday Herald (October 2001)

The photographer says his ten minutes with Julie Burchill was the most stressful photo session he’d done for fifteen years. He’d snapped Anne Robinson – “another strong woman” – right before Julie and the TV dominatrix was “lovely” in comparison. It wasn’t that Burchill was rude, far from it. She was just difficult: hated posing for the camera, worried constantly about her chin, would only do three set-ups. By the time she settles down to chat, she needs a stiff drink.

This is what you expect from “the oldest juvenile lead in the business”, of course. She’s been outspoken and contrary ever since she discovered that writing was her “mother tongue”, even if she hasn’t always believed totally in what she was saying. She hated punk with a passion and lied throughout her teenage tenure at NME (“I used to go and see The Clash and then go back to my room and play the Iseley Brothers really loud for hours to get it out of my head”). In a recent interview with Lynn Barber, she talked about feeling trapped by a Slim Shady-style Julie Burchill character, even though it wasn’t true. “I made up an Achilles heel because I knew that was what she wanted”.

And now, fortified by whatever pills she’s just taken to battle her mild flu washed down with vodka and tonic, she’s ready to rubbish “Burchill On Beckham”, her new short book. “A lot of what I’ve said in the book I believe less than I did when I said it, because I change my mind quickly,” she says, curled up on a leather sofa in the Sussex Arts Club, in her adopted hometown of Brighton. She only wrote the book “because someone asked me to” and says “I don’t see why writers can’t think of themselves as plumbers. Something comes along and you fix it. Shove your opinions up something to stop it dripping.” But after the interview, the truth comes out. “I actually think the book’s really good.”

Sometimes when Burchill delivers her curt one-liners, saying the exact opposite of what’s expected because she can’t bear to be predictable (“I’d never think about Madonna these days because you’re so meant to have an opinion on her”), she sounds like a teenage girl practising her best Dorothy Parker. Which is fitting, because initially David Beckham took her back to her childhood.

“He reminded me of the sort of man I knew when I was a little girl. Working class men who were very tough and manly but very good with their children. In recent years, that sort of thing’s gone out of the window and I thought it was interesting to see it come back again.” It turns out Beckham made her think of someone specific. “He reminds me of my Dad. He’s a gentle giant and he’s not overly cerebral, but he’s got a basic intelligence and always does the right thing. And he’s not scared of things, so he doesn’t have to act cocky and show off.”

In this context, then, it doesn’t really matter that Burchill hasn’t “seen a football match from start to finish since I was in my twenties. And I haven’t seen a live football match since I was eleven”, because the book is more about the state of masculinity than football.

“Footballers strike me as being the lowest of the low. Worse than rugby players, worse than cricketers, worse than boxers even. I don’t understand why they’re so psychotic and so interested in beating up women. I said in the book that boxing’s a sport where men beat up men and football’s a sport where men beat up women. Every time you opened the paper eighteen months ago, it was Stan Cullimore, Gascoigne, that prat who’s married to Leslie Ash. What a selection.”

At one point she says the relationship between the supporters and the players, specifically Beckham, is almost homoerotic.

“Because of the things they shout. It’s all about sodomy. I think they seem over obsessed with it. Is that the worse thing they can think of? Or is it what they’re thinking when they think of Beckham? I think a lot of people fancy him. And the sort of men that go to football can’t admit things like that to themselves. A phrase like ‘the beautiful game’ is so homoerotic. All that thing about not having sex before the big game. It’s very peculiar.”

She also says that any man who’s obsessed with football is terrible in bed. Does she have any personal experience of this?

“My first husband.”

Ah, Tony Parsons, we were expecting you.

“I think a lot of the sentiment and energy that’s invested in football would be much better invested in feelings about work or trade unions or personal relationships. You’re putting your emotion in the wrong place. If you’re screaming yourself hoarse with a bunch of men on a Saturday afternoon and then drinking yourself stupid, what’s left over?”

That suggests you only have sex on a Saturday.

“I’m working class. I probably do.”

She cares less about Beckham now because “he’s everywhere these days, it’s overkill.” She also liked him more when he was unpopular whereas now he’s everyone’s golden boy and she can’t fall in line with the consensus. Mostly, though, she just got annoyed with Posh.

“I find her antics tiring. It’s strange to see somebody who’s so much about talent linked to someone who’s just about ambition. They’re the two opposing sides of the modern fame glitch, aren’t they? But if he hadn’t been married to her, I’d had enough. It was something I looked at, examined and felt I had enough of.”

Burchill doesn’t like “to dwell”, just doesn’t have that type of personality (“How can I be attached to something I’m finished with? I don’t understand”). A very successful example of doing exactly that, of course, is “Man And Boy” by Tony Parsons. Has she read it?

“I thought it was very bad. It was like Mills And Boon with legovers. Appalling. It was cliché piled upon cliché. I just don’t know what he’s doing because he used to be a really good novelist. But obviously people like it, so I guess that’s why he’s doing it. It was a male equivalent of a Mills and Boon book. Just cliches about love.”

Does she crave that kind of success?

“No, not me. You’d have to do something like that and I, swear on my mother’s grave, could not write a book like that. It’s too dishonest and horrible. I’d feel embarrassed every day. Don’t forget when I was 29, my first novel sold a million copies. So once you’ve done it once you can’t do it again. I tried to write novels after that but because I’d done it once and it was successful I couldn’t be arsed to do it again. I’ve always been like that. If I do it once and I do it well, when I do it after that the thing’s always really bad. Because I can’t be bothered. I’ve proved it and I want to do something else.”

Might it be the case, then, that her book on Diana is her example of analysing a cultural icon successfully and that this book is therefore second best?

“Probably. I don’t know. That’s a good point, though. No one’s said that yet.”

Is a 15,000 word book good value for a tenner?

“I don’t know, is it? Probably not. Hahahaha. Nah, probably not.”

She’s warmed up now and apologises for being “rude and sulky”. It seems she was “just exhausted from the pictures.” Time, then, to broach a stickier subject than even Tony Parsons.

Where were you on September 11th?

“I was in the Canary Islands. I’m afraid I thought ‘well, I told them so’. I’ve always been going on about the Muslim threat and I just knew it was going to happen one day. When I was in my twenties, I was the only British journalist to support the Soviets in Afghanistan. I used to bang on about it every week in the Mail On Sunday. I made so many enemies.”

The week before the attack, Burchill used her column to attack Islam and its treatment of women. “Ooh, I had some trouble for that. I was going to be dragged up in front of the PCC by the Muslims but then they all went quiet.” She was accused of racism. “Yeah, I’m not surprised. Because they’ll try anything. But how can you say that Muslims are a race. They’re not. You’ve got English Muslims, God bless them, all over the shop. And you got masses of people in Muslim countries who are Christians who are being forcibly converted to Islam. As in the Sudan. The Christians are actually being crucified out there by Muslims. They’re the same race. It’s just shit. It’s typical underhand dirty behaviour.”

It’s still a blanket prejudice though.

“Yeah, I don’t like Catholics either. I think Catholicism is a wicked evil religion. They’re as white as I am. If you can choose what political party you like, if you can say you hate fascism, why can’t you say you hate Islam? It doesn’t make sense.”

Having an argument with Julie Burchill is like heckling a stand-up comedian. They’ve got preprepared putdowns, jokes and a microphone. You don’t stand a chance. But you give it a go anyway.

The reaction of British Muslims has been that the attack wasn’t carried out by true followers of Islam, because the Koran preaches tolerance.

“Why wasn’t it a plane full of Buddhists? What about the Christian fundamentalists in America? They wouldn’t have got into a plane and driven it into a Muslim monument like that with a bunch of Muslims on board.”

Because they feel they’re on the winning side already.

“It’s not that. It’s a whole different way of looking at the world. It’s so fearful, the idea that everything’s as good as everything else. Richard Dawkins the great scientist says if the white south Africans had any brains they would’ve said that apartheid was part of their religion and no one in the west would have dared touch them. Just in the same way that until very recently the Islamic countries have been allowed to do what they like to half their fucking population.”

But the situation in Afghanistan is an extreme example of Islam.

“They don’t have the vote in any of those countries. Why shouldn’t they be able to vote? It’s because they can’t separate their church from their state which Christianity and Judaism have managed to. It’s a basic problem. There’s one place in Middle East where Muslims have got the vote and that’s in Israel.”

Democracy doesn’t solve everything, however. Does she think Tony Blair has been a good leader? It’s been suggested recently that David Beckham should be made Prime Minister.

“The way things are going right now I think that’s a really good idea. He’s certainly no shallower than Tony Blair. He’d look nice in pictures and he’s got a nice wife.”

For some, Blair has emerged as the “President Of The World”, being a true leader while Bush flounders.

“A leader of what? Does he know what we’re fighting? Why does he carry the Koran about with him, when it says in the Koran that the word of a woman in court is worth half that of a man. Therefore to convict a rape case you’d have to have another woman to witness it. Imagine if it was a book that said the word of a black man was half that of a white man. Would he be carrying that fucking book about? I don’t think so. He just doesn’t think. About anything. He’s a cretin.”

Burchill is 42 now, she’s “been in the racket for twenty five years” (cue image of Paul Whitehouse in a flat cap, wheezing “It’s the hardest game in the world, being a columnist”), and she can’t see herself last for much longer. She’s got eight years left, she says. At most.

“I don’t see myself writing when I’m fifty. I’d like to have a little pub in Spain. I’ve got a great name for it, The Zeitgeist Arms. And I’d get all my old friends like Chrissie Hynde and Joe Strummer doing karaoke songs of their original hits. It’d be on the Costa Del Crime, because there’s loads of English people out there. I’d love it.”

Julie Burchill as the new Peggy Mitchell? It’s a funny old world and no mistake.

Ian Watson
Music, film, comedy and travel journalist based in London

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