Here she goes again. This time she has a sidekick, a journalist called Chas Newkey-Burden. Their contributions in this "compendium of modern hypocrisy" are printed in different typefaces. She scores a sort of Times New Roman knockoff. He's stuck with a rather cheesy, low-rent humanist sans serif, almost like Trebuchet, except that the lower-case "i" lacks that kinky little squared-off serif. Gosh, I wonder what it means when you begin a book review by criticising the typography?
Let's try to stick to the book. What a curious old stick Miss Burchill is. Same old prejudices, same old banging on, same old self-perpetuating invulnerability. It's not satire, because it's all about her. She's untroubled by Dryden's nailing of the art of satire. There may be "a vast difference betwixt the slovenly Butchering of a Man, and the fineness of a stroke that separates the Head from the Body, and leaves it standing in its place," but give her the butchering every time. She wants us to see the blood spurt and hear the head thump to the floor. When she was hot new stuff ("So refreshing my dear," they'd quack), she sometimes managed it, but now it's not the victim's blood but her own effortful sweat which spatters the walls. The only sound is of her laboured breathing.
Nor does she care how hard it is "to make a Man appear a Fool, a Blockhead, or a Knave, without using any of those opprobrious terms!" Is she bovvered? She ain't bovvered. Opprobrious terms? You got it. You don't even have to read the book to find them; just fire up The Julie Burchill Random Recycler and you're home and dry: "White... middle-class... old... snivelling wretch Tony Parsons... bunch of finger-wagging no-marks... the portion-controlled sausage factory that is further education ... a drag queen made bitter by a real woman's breasts".
As the computer demonstrates, the stuff writes itself. It's easier than satire, and in any case what she really wants is for us to admire the sabre-waving, like the Arab swordsman in the Indiana Jones movie, frantically flourishing his scimitar until Harrison Ford, in a masterstroke of improvisation (he had diarrhoea and urgently needed to truncate the filming), simply drew his revolver and shot him.
Times change, and targets change with them, but Burchill is still holed up, firing at the slightest noise, like those Japanese soldiers, stuck in the jungle because nobody had told them the conflict had moved on.
In the end, it's like watching a pub bully trying to provoke a fight with what he believes to be middle-class ponces what's looking at them funny innit. They don't want victory; they want to ease their inner gripe with violence and prove themselves well 'ard.
In the same way, Burchill is a professional noise, a comic turn of the old Les Dawson sort but without the linguistic invention, the observation and the jokes. She hates the middle class, of course, and the old, and the ugly, and white people, and anyone with that very English ill-thought-out instinct to niceness. It's odd.
She's no sylph, no beauty, getting old as we all do, is white, has become middle class, and knows it, but it's as though none of this is connected to what she writes. It is, of course, the middle class who read her, not trembling in their careful shoes, but with a little thrill. She's like the drunken girl who might say a rude word at a drinks party so that everyone else can feel cool by proxy, thrillingly non-conformist and out on the edge. It's the Daily Mail readers who get really turned on. She's their avatar. They're the punters. Gagging for it.
Yet really, she's harmless. Shouting is just shouting. Fear Swift's dreadful suave precision of engagement with the world, so that you're never quite sure when you've been taken in. But no need to fear Miss Burchill. Little flat by the seaside; Christianity; she even has gout, the patrician malady. Like an old white man in a club, she grumbles sclerotically. Plucky little Israel. Arse middle classes. Book-learning, pack of nonsense. The chavs are good, it's middle-class white men who are bad. Homophobes. Ugly sexist old white middle class homophobes. Ugly sexist old white middle-class homosexuals. (Something for everyone, see?)
George Bush is really nice. People who protested against the invasion of Iraq aren't nice because Saddam was horrid. Tony was brave and noble and good and quite right not to listen to them. What? What? What? Harrumph. Pshaw.
Like a club bore. "A good definition of a raging bore," she advises us – a raging bore, d'you see, not an ordinary one – "is someone who tells people they don't know their problems." Or, indeed, their opinions. The thing is, she knows she's right. She doesn't want free speech. She wants compulsory listening. It makes her impregnable, as a turn. But you can't be a satirist if you know you're right. The great satirists know perfectly well that they're wrong.
And Mr Newkey-Burden? Most of the time, he shares his targets and matériel with Mother Burchill. Sometimes, though, he forgets his inferior typeface and smaller credit-line, and starts doing journalism and other non-Burchill things like looking about him, checking the facts, constructing an argument and thinking. He should do it more often. It works.
As for hypocrisy: the authors seem to think it means "nasty horrid people we hate" when, really, it means pretending (literally, acting) or, in its commonest Biblical usage, being godless. The authors seem only to use it in the latter sense. Burchill, a Christian and a charitable volunteer, is, despite her hatred of education, going off (she says) to read theology: the study of building vast minatory structures on flimsy foundations in defiance of the facts. She should do well.
Michael Bywater's 'Big Babies' is published by GrantaReuse content