Books: Bonfire of blood

I KNEW I WAS RIGHT by Julie Burchill, Heinemann pounds 15.99
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FOR A female journalist, to write anything remotely sharp or critical is to invite the instant riposte: "Who d'you think you are then: Julie Burchill?" As if. Whether you like her, loathe her, or want to be her, she's always been inimitably herself. Burchill recalls that her mother reluctantly came round to the idea that her baby monster had made something of her life when a character on a TV soap announced her ambition to become "the next Julie Burchill". But for the first time, it actually looks as though the post is at last vacant.

"You bought this book to read about me, not my Auntie Dolly ... So it's me you're getting. I sociopath," she sneers on page six. So why is it, then, that we then have to wade through 100 mind-numbing pages about her childhood with the long-suffering Bill and Bette Burchill, before she even gets on the train to London and the start of her glittering career as hip young gunslinger on the NME? She clearly thinks the world of them to go on at such length, but curiously, they rarely spring to life. Burchill is incapable of describing her own parents as anything more than cartoon characters.

Just one incident shows how much excellent material Burchill threw away in the writing of this book. As a teenager in secret revolt against her own developing body, Burchill kept her used sanitary towels in the wardrobe, too mortified to tell her parents that her periods had begun. "I just can't give in ... if my mother knew I was menstruating she would have won." Each pad was sealed in a plastic bag with sellotape, but two years later they were threatening to walk out on their own. The young Julie decided the only way to deal with the "veritable menstruation mountain" was to run away to London. She relates that her parents had to cut them out of the wardrobe (she kept the key) "and burn them in the garden at dead of night ... Imagine how strange and lonely they must have felt at their nocturnal post. Imagine."

And imagine is all the reader can do, because Burchill has no intention of ever returning to the subject again. This is such a fascinating story, its roots stretching out of the soil of her subconscious and becoming entangled with so many other aspects of her story that it's a shame she makes no more of it. Lack of curiosity in one's own life is a strange attribute in an autobiographer. She's as interested in coherence, context and structure as a channel-surfer.

Reading this tangled, lazy, stream-of-consciousness ramble, you wonder exactly how slack a book has to be these days before an editor demands a rethink. But for a few throwaway remarks, you wouldn't even know that Burchill has children. While her first husband, Tony Parsons, comes in for an appalling pasting, it's only by distasteful remarks about being Jewish "by injection", that we hear about her second, Cosmo Landesman. By this time, she's much more interested in describing vigorous scenes of lesbian love with fellow hackette Charlotte Raven: "me in a black lace slip on the sofa, 'Slide Away' on the stereo and Charlotte in nothing but a black bra on top of me, giving it some serious wrist action". Uh, please.

There are some great set-pieces and inspired moments in this book, but most of them could have come from her columns. She will suddenly break off from the business in hand and riff on anything that's just popped into her mind: feminism, the working-classes, Princess Diana; once, hilariously, she fantasises about the conversation Neneh Cherry is going to have with her daughter Tyson when she grows up: "You're named after a man whose job it was to dish out brain damage to his fellow black men in public for a great deal of money and for the savage, para-sexual amusement of rich white people, darling. And whose idea of fun was to beat up and rape black women." "Oh. Thanks, mum."

Brief flickers of wit just go to show what a wasted opportunity the whole exercise has been. Most worryingly, her touch, never light at its best, now seems to be failing her. There is no anecdote so neat that it can't be embellished or underlined with a "heh-heh-heh" or a "Bless!" Lacunae which could be mysterious and suggestive are left gaping out of sheer laziness. The punk era, surely her raison-d'etre, is skipped through. She fed an interviewee speed and told a palpably discomfited, 19-year- old Johnny Rotten that he was "too old" (she was 17 at the time). There is talk of drugs, and attitude, and bad behaviour, but unfortunately she has no sense of historical irony, doesn't see how childishly it all reads now. How dangerous can you be when you're working out of an office at IPC - even if you have renamed it the "Kinderbunker" and decorated it with barbed wire?

Anyone who believes that self-praise is no recommendation will find this a thin read. The sad thing is that she doesn't need to bang on and on about her achievements and talent. They're remarkable enough. A blow-by- blow account of how a savvy working-class teenager with no contacts and without a degree, ended up with the whole of Fleet Street swooning at her feet - and it is, it still is - would really be worth having. She reveals, towards the end, the parlous state of her finances, and, presumably, the reason for penning this book. She's lost it - period.