Interview: Deborah Ross talks to Julie Burchill - Don't worry, she might grow out of it
Whatever, she doesn't smell wicked and wanton any more. Just gorgeous and rich. "You smell gorgeous and rich," I tell her. She peeps, "Thank you," then says she's come here via The Vanity Box, a perfume shop which is "just up the lanes, in the square. You should go and get yourself something nice, Deborah. Tell them you're a friend of Julie's. I spend a bloody fortune there." She has been mad about perfume, she says, ever since she used to try it on in Woolworths as a young girl growing up in Bristol. She always hated Bristol, and Weston-super-Mare down the road. Last year, she went back to Weston-super-Mare and, "wearing diamonds as big as love bites", she anointed herself with Joy ("the costliest scent in the world, Deborah") while riding the rackety land train along the seafront. "To go home in style is the greatest revenge of all," she says.
She is spectacularly hopeless with money. She's earned fortunes - pounds 125,000 a year for such-and-such a newspaper column, pounds 130,000 advance for such- and-such a book - and blown fortunes. "I never look at price labels. Someone once told me it was common. That and sending mixed coloured flowers. I have always lived very high. I was really overdrawn once and needed a watch. I bought a pounds 1,500 Rolex. It didn't occur to me to get an Omega. I am to the Royal Bank of Scotland what The Duchess of York is to Coutts." She lives in a pounds 250,000 house in Brighton with a swimming pool and "pool furniture, Deborah" and a pool boy called Adam who comes fortnightly and says: "Can I have a look at your boiler, Mrs Landesman?" She is often broke, she says, "but I'm never poor". She is into instant gratification in a big way. So what that she's never properly grown up? Good for her! On the other hand, if she doesn't mature soon I think she's pretty much had it.
Julie Burchill was brilliant once, truly rippled surfaces. At 17, she was the most famous rock critic in the land. Then, from the NME, she went on to work for The Face (where she was styled as Mad, Bad and Dangerous to read) followed by the Mail on Sunday, the Sunday Times, the Sunday Express, where, most would agree, she came over less mad, bad and dangerous and more caged beast that had been cynically put on show to spice things up a bit.
After two novels - the successful sex 'n' more sex blockbuster, Ambition, followed by the more experimental No Exit, which bombed spectacularly - she has now written her autobiography, I Knew I Was Right (Heinemann, pounds 15.99). This is not her best work by a long chalk. It's tiresomely lazy and bloated and self-regarding. We hear a lot about Julie's "great, glittering brain" and "enormous talent". It's full of arrogance without insight. She claims to still write "like an angel on angel dust", which is patently untrue. She takes us back to her childhood by saying: "Scattered clues to my condition seem to glint like lethal, gleaming, gum-cutting coins in the pungent, comforting Christmas pud of my infanthood as I look back in languor." If ever a pud was over-egged, it's this one. Editors have let her get away with it for too long, perhaps. It's a shame and a bit embarrassing. But if someone thinks they're the best, how do you go about telling them they can do better?
On one level she is hugely likeable. She is funny. "Tell me, the women who sleep with Robin Cook, what do they do for fun?" She is recklessly generous. When I confess I've never bought a grown-up perfume, am still a hopeless, foul-stinking, Impulse sort of person, she up-ends her shopping basket and insists I have all the perfume samples given to her by The Vanity Box. "Take them! Take them!" She has opinions about everything. Tellytubbies are good. "If you don't like the Tellytubbies, you don't like life." Bridget Jones is not so good. "I hear they're making a film of the diaries. Ohhh, I'm on the edge of my seat ... will she or won't she have that cake?" Most attractively, she draws you into her own, invented world. Whose career could be saved by Tarantino? Debbie Reynolds'? Yes, we decide. Keith Chegwin's? Possibly not. Christopher Biggins'? I think no, she thinks yes. "He was actually very good as the randy vicar in Poldark," she declares. I say I had my first big crush on Captain Poldark. She looks at me with terrifying disdain, then says: "Well, for those who like that kind of thing, that's the kind of thing they like."
Yes, she is rather scary. Not because while she was growing up a working- class Stalinist in Bristol I was getting ready for ballet with Miss Brass over the Golders Green Odeon. Or while she was doing speed and turning down sex with Marc Bolan, I was anxiously waiting for the next installment of Poldark. No, she scares me because there is something not quite right about her, as if she is horribly damaged in some way. She says in her book: "If I am in a position in which I must choose to pursue my own pleasure and thereby break one or more innocent hearts and lives of those close to me, or to forgo that pleasure and keep the hearts and lives of loved ones intact, there simply is no choice. In such a scenario I feel literally no one matters but me." If this is true, just how much of a monster is she?
Certainly, she's lived her life as if it were true. She effectively abandoned Bobby, her first son, when he was five, and didn't see him for years. She left her first husband for her second, then her second for Charlotte Raven, the 27-year-old, dark Marxist beauty who is currently editor of Julie's recently relaunched magazine, The Modern Review. While still having an affair with Charlotte, she started sleeping with Charlotte's younger brother, Daniel, 25. "Oh, terribly treacherous, but there you go." Charlotte found out and was not happy, obviously. She and Charlotte had a big bust- up, but are now friends again. "She's terribly dignified and broad-minded." She is still sleeping with Daniel, who lives nearby and "works with old people". She's had three abortions since they first got together. Three? "I thought I was too old to get pregnant." And you thought that three times? "Yeah. must have." Julie, that's just so stupid. Ever heard of contraception? "It's a good day out," she says.
Does she ever feel guilt? She says not. "I can't even imagine what it feels like. I'm beginning to think it doesn't even exist, that it's just a social convention, like putting your hand to your mouth when you cough." Does she ever get hurt? "I don't like it when people say I'm finished. No one likes to hear that. But I don't get stabs of pain. I never get wounded. It's completely outside my experience. Do you?" Yes, I say. "Poor you," she says, with even greater disdain, before adding: "There is a lot to be said for having only a narrow range of emotions." She would like, I think, for me to describe her as the media world's answer to Rose West. Rose West? Possibly. But only in the sense she's buried whatever gift she once had under the patio. Dig it up, Julie, dig it up!
"I don't give a toss about anything," she says. "I'm a psychopath," she boasts. But, that said, she recently fought for the custody of her second son, Jack, now 11, and lost. She was extremely cut up, by all accounts. All she will say is: "It cost me pounds 30,000, I never had a nanny," but there are tears in her eyes.
Her father, whom she has always worshipped, worked in a distillery and was a communist and prominent trade unionist. Her mother made cardboard boxes in a factory. Julie was an only child, probably because she was so weird her parents didn't dare have another one, she says. She was "a prodigy", could read at three, was on to Nabokov and Graham Greene by 12. By that time, she was also "the best shoplifter in my year". The first book she ever lifted was Germaine Greer's The Female Eunuch, which she thought brilliant. She doesn't rate Greer now, though. "She's full of loathing and envy for young women. Same with Fay Weldon. They're so moansy, always carping about the Spice Girls. Why can't they pass on the baton gracefully?" "Why can't you?" I ask. "Bridget Jones is very popular, you know." "Please. I met Helen Fielding at a party once. She said: 'Julie, my biological clock is really ticking.' So I said to her: 'Well bloody stop it then, you silly cow.' God, so trivial." What's important, then? "Like Freud said, love and work."
As a child, she seemed to have disciples rather then friends. While they liked playing Twister and Space Hoppers, I used to make them dress up with me, put on high heels, smoke cigarette sweets and drink red Corona, pretending it was pink champagne." Some might say she still has disciples rather than friends - the younger the better, it seems. Love and work, but better still when they love your work.
She was, she says, a very fearful child. What frightened her? "Everything," she replies. "The sun coming up ... everything." She couldn't leave the house without going through a furniture-touching ritual - "first the sofa, then the armchair, then the door handle". It made her feel safe, somehow. She was frightened of her periods, when they began at 13. She wouldn't let anyone know that she'd started. Then, for two years, she took her soiled sanitary towels and locked them in the wardrobe in her bedroom. She kept the key around her neck. When the wardrobe could take no more, she ran away to London. Her parents, alerted by the stench no doubt, broke the wardrobe open and had, she thinks, a midnight bonfire. She imagines they were "mortified" but doesn't know for sure because they've never discussed it. Why did she do it? "I was just weird."
Determined to be a writer from the off, at 17 she got a job on the NME by responding to an advertisement for "hip young gunslingers". There, she met Tony Parsons, now a Mirror columnist, to whom she lost her virginity.
"A nasty, brutish, short shag, as though someone had trodden heavily on my toe," she writes with glee. Still, just after her 18th birthday, she married him. She can't now imagine why. "Maybe it was because I was programmed to marry. Perhaps that was my one streak of conventionality. She ended up pregnant in a flat in Billericay. "Billericay! I tell you, there wasn't even a cafe on the high street because it was thought that if you wanted a cup of tea, you should bloody well go home and make one." She rarely went out because, she claims, Tony wouldn't let her. "I was so clever and fantastically pretty he was scared of me running off with someone else."
She stayed in and did drugs. Speed mostly, everything bar heroin. She doesn't any more, she says. When you're older, you can't take it. She's not an alcoholic, no. "I never drink on my own. Only with friends. Then, the sky's the limit. If you're going to have fun, you might as well have fun." Anyway, Tony's fear was prophetic, because the first time they went out to a party together, when Julie was 24, she met the writer Cosmo Landesman and ran off with him. She has always had a thing about Jews, she says. "They're just so bright and talented and good down there." Yet, Julie, you idolise Stalin, who wasn't exactly keen on them. "True. But I still say he was the man for the job at the time." Marriage to Cosmo wasn't as great as she thought it was going to be. The trouble with living with Jews, she says, "is they don't half nag".
Anyway, she told Tony she was going to visit her parents, then never came back. She left Bobby, then five. "I felt weepy at the station, but then I thought, this is a bit pathetic, like Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter. So you put on more lipstick and walk into the sunset. Like all callous people, I can cry very easily, I can cry at Frosty the Snowman, but I don't cry through self-pity."
She didn't see Bobby again until recently, when he suddenly turned up asking if he could live with her. She was thrilled. It hurt Tony enormously, she says. No, Bobby's never asked her why she left him. "And, if he did, I wouldn't answer. I don't take crap from children. You don't do them any favours if you do."
The thing about Julie, I think, is that you have to accept she just is, and that their may be no clues whatsoever glinting from the Christmas pud of her infanthood. Some people are just born askew, and she may be one of them. She seems incapable of maintaining friendships. She has spent large chunks of time without her children. She surrounds herself with people who worship her, but never challenge. She thinks as long as you own up to mistreating others, it makes it okay. She would like, I think, to be taken seriously as a kind of contemporary Dorothy Parker, but isn't. There seems to be an an emptiness at the heart of her life, just as there is at the heart of her writing. It may be time for her to mature into something else. If she can. Unless she starts owning up to what she feels, I doubt she'll ever mature either as a person, or as a writer. It's just all going to be hollow. Somewhere along the line, I think, she swapped true talent for a controversialist tic. Perhaps she just got too old and fat and rich and posh-smelling to cut it any more. I hope not, but it's a possibility.
Anyway, she has to go because she has another interview to do, plus she's working on a book about Diana and has to deliver shortly, so needs to get home to write. "You must come to one of my pool parties. Third Sunday of the month throughout the summer," she says, before pointing me in the direction of The Vanity Box. Emboldened, I do go in. I end up with Organza by Givenchy, the first grown-up perfume I've ever owned, and which, at pounds 28.50, is rather more expensive than Impulse but a step in the right direction, I am assured. So, in short, I come away from Julie feeling happy and smelling divine. Which is more than can be said for most, perhaps.
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