Julie Burchill: Where a wild thing went
She has made a second startling foray into teenage fiction – but the enfant terrible now sings hymns and scrubs floors, too.
Friday 05 October 2007
When Lynn Barber interviewed Julie Burchill about her first young adult novel, Sugar Rush, she concluded: "I hope she doesn't write too many more... I dread to think what she might do to the girlhood of Britain." Well, she has written another. Sweet (Young Picador, £9.99), the sequel, is a revisionist take on the book that became an award-winning Channel 4 series, and is inspired by the performance of Lenora Crichlow, who played Sugar. "Sugar Rush is not a considered piece of work," says Burchill. But Crichlow's "magnetic and beautiful" performance made her rethink lapsed Catholic Maria Sweet, aka Sugar, the object of her friend Kim's lesbian desire. "In the original book she was just this person to torment the heroine, but when I saw Lenora play her, it made her a person I cared so much about. And I am more pleased with this book than... with the first."
As for Barber's comment, Burchill remarks: "Pot kettle black! Lynn and her husband met making up sex letters for Forum magazine. I read one once: couldn't sit down for a week!" She does her infectious giggle, which goes with the girly way she flicks her hair and with her famously high-pitched voice, like someone with a mouthful of helium. She relates how a cold-calling salesman recently asked to speak to her mother. "You can't," she squeaked, "a: because she's been dead for ten years and b: because I'm 48".
In Sugar Rush, Sugar and Kim, both 15, drink a lot of vodka, take drugs and have "PROPER sex" with each other; Sugar, usually drunk, also has sex with a lot of men, including, willingly, several men at once. In Sweet, Sugar, now 17, has come out of prison after stabbing with a broken bottle a man who wanted to join in when she wasn't willing. Taken up by a pair of gay male fashion-designers, who produce a parody collection about chavs that makes a mockery of her and her family, she takes her revenge by trashing their house.
"I approve of Sugar totally," says Burchill. "I think she was hurt; they pretended to be her friends and then they hurt her. She wouldn't sit down and write a letter to The Times, would she? She'd react aggressively." Sugar's exploits include a knee-trembler in a museum, but Burchill denies the book warrants its "explicit content" sticker. "Even the shag against the skeleton case is not done in detail. They just put that on there to get teenagers to buy it." What about the language, the drugs? "I don't call that explicit. I call it life."
So what would she say to anyone who said this was inappropriate material for young people? "Kids are going to get hold of dirty books anyway, and this is less dirty than what a real dirty book is... I think it's better that they read stuff like me or Melvin Burgess [author of Doing It], who are at least trying to talk gently to their unformed minds, than go and get some nasty old porn from somewhere."
Burchill's own teenage years in Bristol were not wild. In the book about Brighton she wrote with her husband Daniel Raven, she describes it as spent in a dark room reading existentialist novels in French. Her parents were entirely respectable, with a well-scrubbed front doorstep. The books, she says, are a fantasy of what she wanted her teenage to be. "When I left home at 17 I was a total virgin. I had never even kissed anybody. If I took half an aspirin I felt I was living it up. Though it did get quite wild when I came to London."
Teenagers now, she thinks, are no worse than they used to be. "If we'd had mobile phones we might well have been happy-slapping people. It's just the technology that makes it seem more frightening." But there aren't the opportunities there were for bright working-class kids to get jobs in the media, or acting. "About once every ten years one of us used to be able to get in under the wire." Now, she believes, nepotistic networks of internships and work experience have made this impossible. Girls who have had all options closed but getting their tits out for the lads are sneered at by the people who "kept the cosy jobs for their own thick little darlings... There are worse things to sell than your nipples."
She has no hope of any political policy changing things so people stop protecting their own, though she thinks that Gordon Brown is "a safe pair of hands", admitting that, in the days when she had such fantasies, he used to be her heartthrob. "I even dreamt I was making advances to him on a desert island, while he swatted me away, going 'Away wi' ye, hen.'"
She was happy, she said, writing a working-class narrator, of a kind she never encountered in books as a teenager. "Where was I, getting off reading Jill's Gymkhana when my Dad worked in a factory?" In the book, Sugar says "I don't want to live an ordinary, boring life." " Of course that's me. It doesn't take a rocket scientist... And I've never really grown up. For good or ill."
Burchill, to recap, left her first husband Tony Parsons and her son Bobby, then her second husband Cosmo Landesman and her son Jack. She had a brief lesbian interlude with Charlotte Raven, and is now married to Charlotte's brother Daniel, who is 13 years younger than her. Jack, now 22, has a room in her flat, though "we row about a lot of things". Bobby she hasn't seen for years and, when he last came round, she "hid behind the sofa. I won't lie about it." There are two bad mothers in the teenage books: Stella, Kim's absentee mother, completely childish and selfish, with whom Burchill "identifies totally", and Sugar herself, who at 17 has left her child with the father. There is some justification of Sugar's choice in Sweet, but Burchill says that was put in by her editor.
She admits she has been a bad mother. But "everything nice that has happened to me in my life has been when I ran away" – as Kim and Sugar do in Sweet. She lacks completely, she says, the emotions of guilt and regret. And if she could be a fairy godmother to her god-daughters and give them one gift, it would be not to care, as she doesn't, what anyone thinks of them.
For all the obvious selfishness, this refusal to try to be a good girl, to try to please – so rare in a woman – can make the feminist in you want to punch the air, if only because a lot of men behave as badly with less censure. (Tom Hanks, one of Hollywood's good guys, has, Burchill points out, left three children.) Burchill's lack of domesticity is also refreshing. The hob of her cooker is so unused she houses favourite objects on it, and there is nothing in her fridge but a pot of fruit and a ready meal. Not that she minds if other women like to cook. "I say live and let live. Nigella's a lovely broad and and totally feminist. She just likes to do funny things with moussaka."
What morality there is in her life now, she says, comes from her Christianity. She had an epiphany in a church about a year ago, looking at artwork by people with Down's Syndrome. Now she finds herself thinking about meeting her prostitute and drug-dealer friends while in church singing, "Dear Lord, and Father of Mankind...". And she has worked for a year with handicapped people ("we call them 'service users', which makes it sound like a brothel"). She has mostly been a cleaner, but the morning we speak she has been "promoted" to writer – with the job of writing down life stories. The news makes her eyes well up. "I've written 20 books, but I am more excited about this than anything."
She has also given away £300,000 of the £1.5m from selling her Brighton house, before she bought her elegant flat, a block from the sea. "It gives me a high like a drug rush to write cheques," though her accountant says she has to stop. Her first was for £1,500, to a man she read about in the local paper who couldn't afford to get his dog out of a pound in Iran. Her favourite quote is from Andrew Carnegie: "A man who dies rich, dies shamed."
Then she launches into a bout of startling generalisations that remind you why she always had the gift of making enemies with her opinions – though she claims she never set out to shock: "When you are as offensive as I am, you don't need to wind people up". "I hate Catholics, Muslims, snobs, and I'm not too keen on racists," she tells me, citing popes who died having sex with other men's wives and Muslim taxi-drivers who get away with not letting guide dogs in their cabs. Phew, for a moment there I was afraid that Julie Burchill had gone soft.
Nicolette Jones's 'The Plimsoll Sensation' is published by Abacus
Biography: Julie Burchill
Born in Bristol in 1959, Julie Burchill joined the NME to write about punk at 17. She was founding editor of Modern Review, and has been a cont roversial journalist for 31 years. Her books include the novels Ambition (1989), and No Exit (1993) and a memoir, I Knew I Was Right (1998). Tim Fountain wrote a one-woman play about her, Julie Burchill is Away. Her teenage novel Sugar Rush (2003) was the basis of a Channel 4 televisation, which won an international Emmy. The sequel, Sweet (Young Picador), is out this week. She lives in Brighton and wrote Made in Brighton with her third husband, Daniel Raven. She made a documentary about the Chav phenomenon for Sky and is co-writing screenplays and a book, with Chas Newkey-Burden, on modern hypocrisy.
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