JULIE BURCHILL has an almost preternatural ability to wind people up. Energetically opining on anything – sodomy, burkhas, starlets, chavs, cyclists, Israel, Sandi Toksvig – the soi-disant Miss Rentagob has invoked hatred and disapproval with admirable consistency over her 35-year career in journalism. She is the fluffer of the newspaper-reading public. And about as socially acceptable as pornography in Sunday school. A few strokes of her space pen (which she buys by the 20 she tells me) and she whips onlookers into a curiously furious frenzy of indignance. One gothic rain-soaked English summer’s day, I meet the infamous writer in a coastal restaurant perched above the windswept English Channel and ask her what she thinks about the depths of repugnance she seems to plumb.
“I don’t get annoyed, because I have got a massively high sense of self-esteem,” she replies – on the impact of such vitriol, shoving not one, but two gin and tonics into my hands in typically generous and decadent fashion. “I didn’t care what my parents, children or husbands thought, so why care about the opinion of someone called Storky85?”
Julie says it is “an absolute disregard” for others’ views that has allowed her to up and leave her families (two husbands and a son both times). “I guess for people around me, that has been a horrible thing, but it’s made my life easy,” she says – in honeyed tones. “I love my friends, but I don’t care what they think of me – it is a freakish thing, I’ve got a slight thing missing, but,” she reassures, “I am not a mad psychopath – I’m not violent, I just don’t care what people think of me and I don’t have any feelings of guilt.”
A quick survey of comments following one of her recent pieces on The Independent website accuse Burchill of being a rich, pampered journalist” who “dares to call herself a professional” writing “lowbrow and boorish claptrap” while one post cryptically declares “This is an ex-woman.” Whatever, indeed, that means.
Others – enthusiastic and dedicated – have even gone to the effort of setting up their very own I Hate Julie Burchill page on Facebook. A fan club which warms the cockles of the heart. At any rate, other than expunging excess bad temper, the anti-Burchill brigade fail to engage with the fact that she does not care. This is her trademark.
It has to be said, Julie seems faintly pleased about her self-diagnosed personality disorder – “obviously unpleasant to be married to”- and completely unfazed by the mention of criticism. “People say it is not journalism, a tiny, tiny part of me agrees,” she says, regarding me with glinty green and unflinching eyes. “I always thought I was a bit of a performing monkey- if you become bigger than your subject, then you become a performing monkey. And if you go to a chimps’ tea party, they are looking at the chimps, not the tea party,” she says – matter of factly.
Never mind monkey – Julie has the attention-span of a goldfish, flitting from conversation to conversation with the short-lived interest of a child. Perhaps this is something she picked up during her reign at the Groucho Club where she reportedly spent large swathes of her adulthood holding court and indulging in excesses. She wrote of this time: “I was surrounded by people with no soul, no politics and no purpose in life beyond ascertaining where the next line of coke was coming from. And I was slowly but surely becoming one of them.”
What strikes me now is how razor sharp she is. Is this the thing that irks her critics, who, perversely, are always shouting loudly about her lack of intelligence? However much cocaine Julie professes to have rammed into her brain, (as she once said “enough…to stun the entire Colombian armed forces”), it has not managed to kill off the clever cells yet. And it is this predatory tool that she uses to neatly scrape off her critics and doubtless what has enabled her to scythe husbands, children and friends out of her life at convenient points with seemingly no compunction.
Of course, these days, the infamous columnist is no more the ‘hip young gunslinger’ who arrived in 17-year-old form at the door of the NME than she is her later appointment as ‘the acid queen of Fleet Street’. But she has a string of books behind her, has written for most national papers and her teen novel, Sugar Rush, was televised before winning an International Emmy. At the height of her career, she was earning around £250,000, she says. It is hard to argue with any of that. Now retired from the London thing – Julie is (third time lucky) happily hitched (to the brother of her former lesbian lover) and living in self-imposed exile in Brighton where she has been chucked out of the Jewish faith and writes columns in The Independent and The Sun.
Breaking her hack hymen in the boy’s club of the 1976 NME – where she and future first husband Tony Parsons took on the punks – she didn’t even like the music she was hired to write about. “I was a complete phoney,” she says. “When I went and got the job I was a provincial virgin of 17 – I hated punk music so much I used to get home and dance around the living room to soul records.”
After that formative time, and a subsequent period spent working at music magazine, The Face, Julie managed to make the transition from the music press into Fleet Street – not something that had really happened before. “In the early 1980s, because of The Face, the powers that be at Fleet Street decided to go to the alternative press to pluck their journalists, says Julie. “I was the beneficiary of that – it was extraordinary. People said ‘Why hasn’t she done three years in Scunthorpe?’”
“I remember when I was growing up in Bristol, I said to my mum I wanted to be a journalist and my mum goes to me ‘Why can’t you work at the Bristol Evening Post?’. So, it was not only unusual for someone from my background to get into any sort of music journalism, but to be sought out by the Sunday Times – it was a good time.” Julie is candid about the fact she has never pushed herself and apparently has little sense of discipline or self-regulation. “I had the chance to be a proper journalist some time ago when I started out at the Sunday Times,” she says. “I don’t regret it – I’ve had such an enjoyable life, I guess I just wanted to have fun.”
She tells me she is “certainly a feminist” and says throughout her career, she has always been helped by women. “Ten years after I was taken on by Joyce Hopkirk [who launched British Cosmopolitan] and I was in my early 30s and the highest paid woman in Fleet Street, she said to me ‘Where did it all go wrong? I wanted to see you trek across the desert with a machine gun on in Afghanistan’ and it came out that even though she gave me a job on the Look section, she thought I was going to do what she had always wanted to do and trek across the desert with a gun on my back.” Julie laughs, reminiscing. There are some things we need to be thankful do not exist. A fully armed Julie Burchill staggering around the desert is one of them.
Julie believes being anything but moneyed, middle class and over-educated is an uneasy combination in the journalism industry – “Hard to get in unless you have a degree from Oxford and are called Tabitha or Jemima” she volunteers with a snigger.
A five year column at The Guardian newspaper ended in acrimony in 2003 – Julie says she was outraged to be offered a sofa in place of a pay rise and maintains fellow writer Barbara Ellen had a similar experience. “Instead of offering me a rise at The Guardian, they offered me a new sofa. Barbara Ellen is also one of the few people who was working class in origin and didn’t go to university. Then I found out they had offered Barbara a kitchen, so while Polly Toynbee and her ilk get paid in actual money – we weren’t worthy of money. We were worthy of a fucking sofa. I didn’t feel rage to myself, but when I found they had done what they had done to Barbara Ellen, I was so fucking cross. There is no other way I can interpret this, we were the only people working at the newspaper who hadn’t been to university and weren’t middle class women.”
The Times then took her on and paid her “double the money” – an agreement that must have suited Julie’s general work ethic. “I always wanted to do the minimum amount of work for the maximum amount of money,” she says, beaming. “I became notorious in London when I was in my twenties - for when people rang up to commission a story, I would just say very blankly, in my child’s voice, ‘What’s the least possible words I could do for the most possible money?’ There’d be nervous laughter, then I would be completely silent.
“I was the first person to talk like that – looking back on my career now, I have passed my best days, but I don’t regret anything. I’ve worked for every paper and left every paper.”