Books: Bad girl of the Fifth

A fearless truth-teller... or the acceptable face of dissent for suburbia? Michael Bywater unmasks a rebel with applause; I Knew I Was Right by Julie Burchill Heinemann, pounds 15.99

Julie Burchill was... well, hold it right there, why not? "Julie Burchill was." That's the curious bit, the worst bit: Julie Burchill was. Soon we will have to explain to people who she was, which is perhaps the task this book is supposed to pre-empt. It's hard to see any other purpose behind it, except for the money. She says her purpose is not to reveal but to warn, which would be fine except that she doesn't really warn, either. Warning requires as much insight as revelation, perhaps even more; warning is self-revelation put in context. And while context was always her strong suit (most of her journalism was nothing but context), her insights were, and remain, negligible, on the level of a toddler having a tantrum. I want. I hate. You're my bestest friend. You're horrid.

Her devoted readership, largely composed of the purse-lipped suburban voyeurs of the Daily Mail classes, adored her. She was the nearest they could get to the fantasy dominatrix, the Bad Girl of the Fifth, tights laddered, make-up sm udged, fag-in-mouth foul-mouthing, doesn't care what she says, not her, ooh, tsk, coo. It wasn't that they agreed with her (although you bet the women agreed with her when she spun her acrid dog- breath man-hating line, and who can blame them, being married to those men Daily Mail readers are married to); but you had to admire her for saying it. And then there was the frisson: mouthy on the page, mouthy in bed, hmmm? Don't you think? Do anything, tell you what to do back, kohl-rimmed eyes fixing you with an ardent depersonalising gaze, erotic nastiness - filth! filth! - leaking from the little Theda Bara mouth... see? Don't you think?

Ach. No. Because you'd be up against the opinions, you see, and the little squeaky voice, and the absurd self-regard which she herself acknowledges as borderline sociopathy: something she seems proud of, which rather rules out her diagnosis.

Sociopaths don't care for others' opinions. Julie Burchill does. She's like those people - usually from the American midwest - who buttonhole you at a party and tell you they don't give a damn about other people's opinion, couldn't care less what they think of them, nosirree, I just go my own way and the rest of the world can go to hell, now whaddya think of that?, wuncha say that makes me a pretty admirable person to know?

Except she wouldn't buttonhole you at a party. She probably wouldn't be at the party in the first place, and if she were, you would have to buttonhole her. Pay court. Stand there like a golem, waiting to be animated by the magical Burchillian pneuma and welcomed into the circle of apostles.

She'd have made a great religious leader, and if the bottom drops out of the writing business, why, she could start up a sect - Hove, where she now lives, is ripe for the picking - and live comfortably for the rest of her life. She has the charisma to attract the weak and make them feel strong. She has the disregard for the emotional consequences of her actions. She has astounding self-confidence; always knew she would be a success. She has the occulted brutal ambisexuality. She has, above all, the essential quality: the ability to inspire not only devotion but fear.

Perhaps she should think about it, because, if this book is an indication, the writing isn't going to hold up much longer. She excoriates some poor bastard for being too old, too fat... but the sad irony is that she is too old, too fat herself. Not literally, perhaps (although the jacket photograph was taken over 20 years ago, with her ex-husband skilfully removed, good self-proclaimed Stalinist that she is), but certainly the writing is too old, too fat.

She says she still writes like an angel... but what a dangerous thing to say. Such a cliche. And not true. True once, but now the words don't hang together properly, the sentences lack tone, gravity drags the prose downwards, and the flashier special effects are slightly embarrassing, like an elderly nudist sucking the flab in on Brighton beach.

Her mother once said "You're an answer". She meant, "Julie Burchill" was the answer to a question on a radio quiz. She was proud. Julie was proud. Quite right. Who wouldn't be? But if anyone else had said that, Julie would have had them in a scissor-lock, gripped between her throbbing wordy thighs. "So? Excuse me? An answer? So is Charles Manson. So is syphilis. So is Mornington Crescent."

That was her heyday. She was an answer, never a question. She's claimed as our scourge, our Hunter Thompson, but she's really rather passive; waits for something to happen, someone to say or do something; waits again for everyone to comment on it; then says the opposite. The technique works brilliantly in the face of our plodding middlebrow press, and has led to some wonderful moments of harsh comedy. Nor does she give a damn about inconsistency, and a self-proclaimed bisexual who proceeds, with concise brilliance, to denounce cunnilingus is worthy of all our admiration.

But despite it all, she has never been a great satirist, or even approached it. Her coterie has been too loving; worse, even while her narrow white massage-parlour hands were hacking out piece after piece, she was an insider, sought-after, highly-paid, endlessly confirmed in her own opinion that what counted was her own opinion.

In the punk late-Seventies, she was there, on New Musical Express, doing her drugs, hanging out with the career joke-rebels ("I'm a bit of a loony, me"), being known, being feared. In the pissed, vertiginous Eighties she was there, too, blaring from the Mail, the house organ of the fuck-you generation, writing her sex'n'power-lust novel, Ambition, which managed to make screwing your way to the top into a feminist statement.

The book caused some trouble to a friend of mine at the time, on whom it was said in part to be based, and to whom it was dedicated: "To **, my BF." I remember sitting over dinner with the BF, discussing the curious fact that we both had starring roles in two best-selling novels, and where was our share of the money? The conversation, in some odd way, encapsulated that strange and savage time.

And then, in the Nineties, she started The Modern Review and was in on the fashionable semi-intellectualisation of popular culture until everything went wrong and the magazine folded in a wave of public and exuberant bitterness, culminating in the editor going to America and Julie running away to Hove with a darkly beautiful and, seemingly, utterly humourless woman.

It's been until recently the working life of a dedicated insider. Acceptance, celebrity and insidership are death to a satirical commentator, which is what she never was. So how did she get her reputation as one? All done with mirrors? Or was it, more distressingly, the fact that to the smooth, bottom-line executives who kept her in money, Julie Burchill was the acceptable face of dissent, not so much a maverick as a circus act who always stayed within the ring.

The real satirists are different. They look outwards, powered by a sense of injustice or disgust, not by ambition and self-regard. They want things to be different. The circus-performers, rich and, in their own way, powerful, have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

As a record of two decades of silliness and nastiness, I Knew I Was Right is worth the price, not least because the reportage, being incidental to the hymn of self-praise, is oddly revealing and ingenuous. As a pure biography... well, you'd do better to read up some of the old columns, for all Julie Burchill's claims that she has a handle on her own life lacking in other autobiographers.

But in the end it doesn't really matter. There's an old joke: Q: What's the difference between Nero and a satirist? A: Nero fiddled while Rome burned; a satirist... well, you get the point. Julie Burchill never really burned. In fact, she did rather nicely. And nice isn't quite enough.

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