The designer rebel who slept in our spare room: Julie Burchill brought white bread, old-fashioned values and angst when she moved in with her in-laws. Jay Landesman remembers
Monday 29 March 1993
ONE DAY about 10 years ago my son, Cosmo, planted a time bomb in our life - its name was Julie Burchill - and I couldn't have been more pleased. I had always lived close to the edge, so looked forward to having someone in the family to carry on my lifetime habit of upsetting the Judaeo- Christian applecart.
Next to her husband, I was her biggest fan. I had been reading her notices of public executions in her columns in Time Out and the Sunday Times, wallowing in her witty, outrageous but incisive views on the manners and morals of her time. It reminded me of my youthful days as a destroyer of the taboos in America when I was publisher and editor of Neurotica, a magazine that was the voice of the cultural changes taking place at the beginning of the Fifties.
Their move into our north London house was temporary; the only space available was an old workroom that had been turned into a storage area for broken things. Although it overlooked the garden, the view was hidden by a tangle of ivy. Bars across the window gave it a jail-like atmosphere, perfect for the new prisoners of love.
With two professional critics on the premises, Fran and I felt like the homosexual couple in La Cage aux Folles who try to clean up their act when the son brings his girlfriend home for a visit. Cosmo had already warned us that Julie knew all about us. She hated hippies, ex-hippies, food freaks, open marriages and, worst of all, old people. The only thing she liked about us was that we were Jewish.
It didn't take long to discover that this raving revolutionary was an old- fashioned girl - a designer rebel who yearned for bourgeois respectability. I had to make sure.
'Do you get down on your knees when you scrub a floor?' I asked.
'Yes, it's the only way to do the job properly.'
'Do you know the secrets of polishing?'
'Yes, I do it every day.'
I deliberately sounded like a KGB interrogator to play up to her Stalinist leanings. For a wedding present I had given her 13 volumes of the works of Joseph Stalin. With four writers under one roof, the house was alive with the sound of clashing lifestyles.
Julie's vocabulary (at the time) consisted of two words - 'rubbish' and 'horrid' - both intimidating conversation-stoppers. She made it plain from the start she intended to make Cosmo over into a working-class hero. When he went out to the pub with a friend, leaving her home, she simply said: 'I'll be waiting up for you, dear - with a rolling pin.' I asked her what would happen if she went out and left Cosmo at home. 'Girls shouldn't go out. That's what boys do.' With our unconventional lifestyle, I realised we were harbouring a spy who would one day bring us up on charges of wanton libertinism.
The first sour note was her introducing white bread into the house. Cosmo, who hadn't seen white bread since puberty, thought it was exotic. Our first dinner with them was almost a success. We got a rave review from Cosmo on the artichokes but not from Julie, who had never seen one before and who said it looked nasty.
Julie's biggest success was with Marlene, our cat. 'We're great friends,' she bragged. I complained about Marlene's lack of appetite; Julie offered a solution: 'Get her a companion. Not a young cat who will only want to play with her, or a tom who will bring up territorial problems, but one her own sex, age, and spayed.' As if I didn't have enough problems with them on the premises, I now had to find a lesbian relationship for Marlene.
Worried about their lack of social stimuli - they never went out - I gave a party for them, much against their wishes. Julie relented when I said there would be some teenagers she could relate to. She had let us know early in the relationship how she felt about being in the same room with anyone over 30. I didn't dare tell her Fenella Fielding and Sylvia Syms were coming, too.
The wild-haired, leather-clad anorexic poet John Cooper Clarke went into shock when Julie walked in with Cosmo. 'I hate him,' he growled. He was green with envy that Cosmo had snared the one girl he admired above all others. 'Don't introduce me to her, I can't talk to her,' he told Fran. Julie was too shy to meet anyone, retreating next to the record player to hide behind the mouldy collection of 45s.
Julie's vocabulary had widened to include some new words inspired by the party - 'nightmare', 'shameless', 'grotesque' and 'ugly'. The next day, on the way to my office in the basement, I had to pass their love nest. Despite accusations that I had no respect for privacy, I always ignored the exotic noises coming from their cell.
On this occasion their door was open. Cosmo was in bed reading the Sunday papers, smoking a fag, having a cup of coffee, his breakfast tray by his side. 'Get yourself a working-class girl, mate, they know how to treat a man,' he said. They seemed deliriously happy, even though Cosmo hadn't touched a typewriter since she had come into his life. When I asked how his work was going, Julie jumped to his defence. 'He's too beautiful and too talented to work,' she said, gazing at him with a look she usually reserved for images of Stalin.
To keep up the illusion that we had something in common, I suggested we go on a double date - dinner at the Ritz to see our friend, the cabaret artist Steve Ross. For Julie, it was an evening of high embarrassment. The table setting had such a variety of silverware it left her no alternative but to eat with her fingers. During the cabaret her small fists were clenched so tight her knuckles turned white.
I refused to recognise the fact that we didn't have something to attract their company socially. Worried, I told Julie of Fran's depression. Julie responded sympathetically with a short history of the politics of angst. 'Where there is stability there is happiness; where there is happiness there are no problems; where there are no problems people develop angst.
'It is a sensual pleasure that only happy people can afford. People with problems don't commit suicide. There are no suicides in El Salvador where people are fighting for their lives every minute of the day.' Reassuring as this sounded, I recalled that angst had developed around the height of the Habsburg empire, when people developed the fine art of the waltz and suicide simultaneously.
Fran and I were surprised and nervous when we heard that Julie was pregnant. As her pregnancy advanced into its last month, Fran's daily visit to the spastic shop in search of baby paraphernalia became the high point of her day. At times it became a contest between us to find out who could be the most creative in collecting the artefacts we imagined a baby would require.
When I saw the baby carriage Julie's mother had bought her, I almost went into a depression. It was about the size of the Queen Mary. It didn't matter to Julie that she couldn't get it and herself into the lift of their new flat at the same time, she knew it was the best and biggest money could buy. 'It's traditional for working-class parents to see their children have the best,' she claimed.
We visited Julie in the maternity ward of the Middlesex Hospital during her confinement early in 1986. I took her a foul collection of teenage magazines and some organic fruit juices. I saw that the 'Julie Burchill' nameplate on the clipboard at the foot of her bed had been replaced with 'Mrs Julie Landesman'. A small step for mankind, but a giant one for Landesmania.
We were eating dinner when the call came from Cosmo announcing: 'It's a boy.' 'Thank God it's a baby,' someone at the table said. Fran and I rushed out of the house with a bottle of Dom Perignon for the kid and nothing for Julie.
When we arrived at the hospital there was the little boy, sleeping peacefully next to Julie, being watched over by a proud Cosmo. A more unlikely picture could not be imagined. For a baby born only a few hours previously, he looked mature enough to recognise his over-excited grandparents.
Julie invited Fran to pick Jack up, but she was too scared. The baby's scream, clear and loud, convinced Fran he was healthy and had lung-power to spare. Julie was pleased about that, too. She smiled peacefully as she held a crying baby aloft for us to admire. We only stayed five minutes, but we knew that we were going to see a lot of baby Jack for the rest of our lives.
'Hello, Gramps,' Fran said as we climbed into the car to return to our empty house.
Copyright Jay Landesman.
The second volume of Jay Landesman's memoirs, 'Jaywalking', is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson at pounds 15.99.
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