INTERVIEW: THE DOLL WITHIN
Narcissist, gentleman, Stalinist, libertarian: talking to Julie Burchill is like opening a series of babushka dolls. But, says Will Self, the crass contradictions on which she thrives also serve as an elaborate self-defence
Sunday 25 April 1999
In fairness to Lynn, I'm not sure she was listing at all. The management at Faber have seen fit to embellish their premises with bizarre, pseudo- decorative bookshelves which traverse the walls at an angle of 25 degrees; so that one is compelled to view either the building, or its inhabitants, as perpetually tilting. Or maybe both are.
Anyway, Lynn's words stayed with me. Perhaps the truth is that I'm too ingenuous, credulous and altogether guileless to make a good interviewer. And there's also my chronic disinterest in gossip: I really don't want to know who did what with whom, whether I know the parties involved or not. Henceforth I may have to reconsider the whole thrust of these pieces and diversify into interviewing people who are unable to play upon my presumption of their innocence. Children and war criminals come to mind.
But in the meantime there's Julie Burchill to contend with; and with her the Barber formula might just work, because I couldn't stand Burchill for years before I met her. There's also the fact that I know great steaming mounds of gossip about her, whole Cheops-full of warped tittle- tattle. In truth, I could really go to town on Burchill and make Barber's best efforts to perform psycho-journalistic surgery on her subjects appear bunglingly amateur.
The drop I have on her is something Burchill is all too well aware of. For within minutes of my arrival at her Hove villa she had reminded me of the following: 1) that she knew a great deal about my sex life; 2) that she also knew a great deal about my drug-taking; 3) that she had publicly praised my writing; 4) that she was deeply professionally indebted to my wife. We then spent a couple of hours chewing the fat together. Then her boyfriend's mother turned up and the three of us went out for supper. Then I took my leave.
A couple of days later a fax arrived from Burchill reminding me: 1) that she was deeply professionally indebted to my wife; 2) that she continued to praise my writing; and 3) abjuring me not to regard her as a "heartless bitch" because during our discussion she'd said that she hadn't "shed a single tear" over the custodial loss of her younger son. I put this communication to one side and continued transcribing the tape of our conversation. Two days later a card came from Burchill which reminded me to bring my kids over for a swim in her pool when we were next in Brighton - oh, and also (lest we forget) that she was deeply professionally indebted to my wife.
Burchill is, as you may have gathered, a little bit paranoid. I called her up and got the machine: "Listen, Julie," I said, "Relax, will you? I like you. I'm not going to stitch you up. My kids like your pool. I know both of your ex-husbands. Have a good time in Las Vegas." Which was where she was headed. On her first trip to the America she affects to despise; and, having donned the characteristic fashion-blinkers of the successfully opinionated, she was heading unerringly for its most hateful city.
Like I said, I couldn't stand Burchill for years before I met her. Or rather, I couldn't stand the idea I had of her. Burchill's great talent as a journalist is to beautifully articulate the inarticulate sentiments and prejudices of her readers. This is why she arouses such enormous ambivalence; and why she's so good. It's also explains why her readers feel that they know her personally. Burchill is the exact opposite of an idiot savant; she's an extremely intelligent woman who's spent far too much of her working life dumbing herself down. To me she said: "If you're aware when you're very young that you have lots of talent you're very profligate with it. At some times in my life - and this must sound big-headed - I've been trying to tie one hand behind my back ... trying to cripple myself, to bring myself back to the starting line again. I don't know if that's true or if I've just been idle and am trying to justify that."
The latter statement is not, of course, the truth. But it's far closer to the truth than the stuff about handicapping; for, while she can continue to pull off time and time again the high-wire act of facetiousness which consists in edging along the tightrope of a single column, when it comes to the bigger canvas her much-publicised working methods - the glass of shampoo, the directionless reverie, the mysteriously filled page - become a manual of destruction, an entropy recipe. The books she's written that depend on readily sustained polemic - such as her recent Diana - have charm, feistiness, and a surprisingly hard, factual basis. Much of the rest is indulgent drivel - although who it's indulging isn't altogether clear.
I daresay that there are many thousands who thrilled to her bestselling "shopping and fucking" novel of the Eighties, Ambition; and despite their declining sales figures, there must have been those who enjoyed its two successors No Exit and Married Alive - but I'm not among them, and nor, I suspect, is the author herself. She made plenty of money out of them - but by her own admission she threw it all away, on drugs, on drinks, on indiscriminate donations to those propping up the bar of the Groucho Club and those propping up the wall outside.
"I had a number one bestseller when I was 29," Burchill bombinated on this occasion, and if there had been a tub between us she would have thumped it, "and I stand by that book - it's a fucking great book. You remember the scene with the electric toothbrush? I'm very proud of it. When we get drunk Charlotte [Raven] and her mother always make me read it out."
So, her ex-lover, and her ex-lover's mother (who is also, as has been widely reported, the mother of her current lover), make her read out a masturbation scene from one of her schlocky novels because they're all so proud of it? This doesn't compute - surely embarrassment is the true feeling here; and Burchill is simply willing it into pride. It's the same as her oft-trumpeted "sociopathic" personality, the one piece of self- analysis she allowed herself in I Knew I was Right, her memoir of her Seventies girlhood. If Burchill's a sociopath, I'm Albert Schweitzer. What she really is is a complex and deeply vulnerable woman who, in order to protect herself from having compulsively lived a life in the round, has developed a concentric series of doll-like personae, each of which fits inside the other - though far from comfortably.
It wouldn't be fanciful to see this psycho-dynamic as also being literally embodied by Burchill. When I first met her some nine years ago she was statuesque; now she's a Henry Moore. But enshrined within this expensively purchased upholstery is still the skinny, sexy bombshell who took Tony Parsons and the rest of the nascent lad culture at the NME in the late Seventies on a tsunami ride they never forgot. ("I was so young and good looking, Will, he had to hide me away in Billericay.") Parsons even penned an execrable autobiographical novel about his marriage to her, which I had the misfortune to read when I was working in publishing in the late Eighties. Indeed, Burchill, like a lot of famously sexy girls, clearly finds her womanly embonpoint a reassurance: at last, with all this up front they have to appreciate me for my mind.
She also has a tremendous dignity and presence about her which could never be captured by camera or tape recorder. Then there's the ready wit. At a mutual friend's birthday party in 1991 she hailed me for the first time thus: "Oh, you're Will Self, aren't you - you love drugs, don't you? Well, I've got some really good ones and I'm going to give them to you." All of the resistance I'd felt to this bombastic harpy vanished. Such insouciance - and such generosity. A couple of years later it was my turn to reciprocate. Pitching up late one night at the cod-decadent apartment in Bloomsbury she then shared with Cosmo Landesman - all blood-red walls and black leather furniture - it was me who offered up the intoxicants. Burchill rounded on the gaggle of skinny-ankled acolytes from the Modern Review who at that time comprised her entourage: "You lot are bloody useless. You see that! It takes bloody Will Self to finally offer me some drugs. All you do is take them!"
Indeed, in retrospect it's difficult not to see Burchill's whole flirtation with running a cultural review as being an opportunity for her to humiliate the Oxbridge-educated and triumphantly epater the much-hated bourgeoisie. She could do it in print - and she could do it in person, by having a small posse of them on teasing tap. The Modern Review's slogan may have been "Low Culture for Highbrows", but really it was Burchill's attempt to drag all British culture down to her level in a global act of handicapping. The anger about her lack of a university education is still there. She rapped at me: "Twenty-two years filing every week without a break. I didn't have no gap year." And when I asked her if she thought she was solipsistic, she snapped back: "I don't know - I didn't go to university."
It would be a simplistic application of the "doth protest too much" maxim to reverse everything Burchill says to divine the truth about what she feels - but that's not to say it doesn't work. In her book on Diana she quotes the House of Windsor's family motto as being "Never complain, never explain", and when I put it to her that this wasn't something she'd observed in her own life, she was all denials: "I don't complain either - that's why I don't talk about my husbands. Believe me, if I started I couldn't finish." Yet later on she had a different explanation of her refusal to turn her automatic writing into autobiography: "I'm one of those things the world doesn't recognise much, Will. I'm a gentleman - and that's why I don't talk about my husbands."
If Burchill is a gentleman (and it's an odd choice of word for a communist manque), it would explain why she is so evidently dissatisfied with her own achievements. "I started out as a very imaginative child and all those years in newspaper offices have made me completely lose my imagination. Even people who've been nice about Married Alive have said, 'Haven't we been that way before?' And of course we have been this way before ... It's not a good thing to say about yourself if you're a writer." It was Cocteau who said that all true artists are hermaphroditic, and Burchill may well be a true artist - it's just that her male and her female personae are continually fucking one another over.
She gurgled with delight when she told me that I Knew I was Right was being made into a feature film - "Just imagine it, Will - all of us being played by actors!" - and was aggressively upbeat about the sitcom that she's writing with Charlotte Raven: "It's been commissioned by the BBC and we've just done the pilot - so it's all happening, really." But I somehow find it hard to believe that any more popular or financial success is likely to satisfy her for long. In a more reflective moment she confessed, "It's a bit like bad sex, writing, once you've been doing it for too long. You know you've got to do it, but God knows you wish you had enough money to get out of it."
Clearly money is a problem. Burchill has one of those sensibilities that recoils from actually thinking about lucre the way that oil repels water. And yet when it comes to consumption she's a positive bivalve - sucking great streams of the stuff through herself, while filtering out only nugatory nutriment. Her current estate is a preposterously comfy inter-war villa in Hove, which would be a suitable venue for the Telegraph letter-writing colonel who is another of her alter-egos were it not for the livid paint job, the zebra- and tiger-striped divans and the Leylandia hedge which obscures the swimming pool out back.
Burchill is meant to have a complex about her high-pitched, girlish voice and her Wurzelesque, Bristolian accent, but while we were chatting it dropped at least an octave and regional began to slide towards received. Indeed, I began to suspect that the attenuated speaking voice, like the orotund figure, was just another of Julie's psychic feints: a way of hiding herself away inside another ill- fitting doll.
She started on the Absolut and grapefruit juice at about 5pm, while I remained on American Beaujolais. She abjured me to come back "when I was off the wagon". But I've never gained the impression that sumptuary indulgence was anything but an element for Burchill, something which she swam through along with air, fame, beds, money. She confessed to me that she couldn't find her way anywhere in London, despite having lived there for 16 years; for such committedly disorientated, resolutely bipolar women, intoxication is always a little local difficulty.
If in three hours we managed to unscrew a few of the Burchill babushkas, there were only more to be found inside. The shrinking violet contained by the egregious self-publicist; the preening narcissist struggling to escape the thickening of middle age; the lesbian trapped inside the gay man; the fascistic semophile; the Stalinist libertarian - on they came, the Burchillian black dogs of crass contradiction. For in her life as much as her work it's Julie's best aim to put her worst foot forward; after all, why screw with a winning formula?
She admitted to me that when she bailed out - for a vast tranche of payola - from her short-lived contract with the Express, her career was on the skids on the giant slalom. "I thought the world had turned upside down on its axis. It just seemed like madness. There was Tara-fucking-Palmer- Tompkinson and she was a columnist, and there was I taking the rubbish out. It was very amusing considering where I'd been a few years ago ... If I hadn't been so heavily tranquillised I'd've been a lot more hurt." And the failure inside the success burst into peals of raucous, throaty laughter.
When Mrs Raven turned up the three of us went to a Chinese restaurant in central Brighton. The manager came up to thank Julie for "making my place famous" through a mention in a piece she'd written. This was received with a certain unshowy dignity. Being with the two of them was another conundrum: the unprincipled harlot being best mates with the mother of her sibling lovers? But then this is also the woman whose ex-husband, having just concluded a gruelling divorce battle with her, then penned a radiant portrait of her for public consumption.
And so I chugged away from Brighton thinking warmed-up things about Burchill, and felt warmer still when the fax and the card came; after all she was confirming my desire - so cannily identified by Lynn Barber - to find the good in everyone. Of course she felt gutted about no longer having her child living with her - who wouldn't? Who doesn't? And who'd wish it to be portrayed any other way by the media? Certainly not her. But Burchill has big problems with the division between the private and the public in her life - just like the rest of the street she's spent her career grubbing around, and just like those who read what we produce. It was my wife, Deborah Orr, who, when editing the Guardian's Weekend magazine, gave Julie a way back in to serious opinion-forming, in the shape of a column of sufficient heft for the deployment of substantive ideas.
"Of course, it's all down to Deborah, the cosmic renaissance. I was festering in a heap until she like ... She was the only one who'd give me a chance." So Burchill quite rightly, acknowledged the debt. She also acknowledged it by writing some superb copy, including a piece on her father which was plangently emotional. This piece was clearly written by a woman with an evolved ethical perspective, and even insight into the vagaries of the fourth estate itself. Could she be the selfsame character who has made a large chunk of her career out of cheap ad hominem cracks and puerile cynicism?
Why not? Life is easily that complex - and so are people. While I was in Australia for three weeks, Burchill was using the column for which she feels so indebted to immolate the sensibilities of what she's termed - with typical hand-biting fervour - "the liberal misogynist media". In a piece entitled "Why the Serbs are not the New Nazis and the Kosovans not the New Jews" she put on show a ghastly little gallimaufry of failed gags and sickening suppositions. It's Burchill falling heavily on the high wire of her own facetiousness so that it slices straight up into her underbelly - and ours.
For, after all, it's we who pay her to do this - and we take our choice. If Burchill represents merely a deeply held conviction in the value of conviction, with no sign of an actual conviction itself, it can only be because Britain collectively displays these characteristics with such terrific aplomb. If the highly unprincipled Burchill is our lightning- rod, with her unerring sense of bad taste, then we should be scared - very scared. After all, as I've reported, she is. 1
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