Burchill is back - with a vengeance

The famously noisome columnist had gone quiet, writes John Morrish. Not any more
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The Independent Online
WHEN a woman with the motto "If it ain't broke, break it," sits down to write her autobiography, you don't expect anyone, even the chief subject herself, to emerge unscathed. When that woman is as notoriously vicious, clever and well-connected as Julie Burchill, you sense the inhabitants of her charmed inner circle, ex- husbands, ex-lovers and ex-colleagues running for cover.

Burchill's biography, the tale of her journey from working class factory fodder to "hip young gunslinger" at the New Musical Express in the Seventies to self-styled "Queen of the Groucho Club" and eventual exile to Brighton, hits the bookshops tomorrow, and began serialisation in a national newspaper yesterday. In certain circles it is already causing anxiety as her followers and adversaries wait for excoriation or praise. Or worse - much worse - to be ignored completely.

What has heightened the anticipation has been an unwonted period of silence on Burchill's part. To some observers, her moment has passed. She professes to be an old-fashioned Stalinist but she was at her peak in the era of Mrs Thatcher, another upwardly mobile ideologue with no respect for her elders and betters. Burchill worked hard in the Eighties and earned huge sums producing an unstoppable stream of invective for the Mail on Sunday, Sunday Times and Spectator, and a novel, Ambition, that briefly set a new benchmark in glitzy smut.

That novel explored the horizontal progress of Susan Street, a young journalist determined to get to the top. But somewhere along the line, Burchill fell out of favour, not least because the real Susan Streets of this world stopped being able to do much for her.

Susan Douglas, her sometime "b.f." and dedicatee of her novel, had been her sponsor at the Daily Mail and Sunday Times. But after nine months as editor of the Sunday Express she was dismissed. Commissioning editors suddenly found themselves able to resist Burchill's heady mix of the glib and the gratuitous. Since all she has ever done is opine - she resolutely avoids interviewing anyone or going anywhere - it's easy to see how the attraction might wear off.

Most recently, she's been seen in the pastoral setting of the Daily Telegraph's books pages, where she has written about her enthusiasm for the English seaside.

She has, of course, left London for Brighton, following the end of her second marriage - she left her eight-year-old son with his father, just as she had left her first son with his father - and an affair with Charlotte Raven, editor of the Modern Review, house magazine of the Burchill cult.

Recent months, however, have seen the start of what Burchill suggests will be her renaissance. Last September, she relaunched the Modern Review with a piece about what happy experiences her abortions had been. This year she will publish either three or four books, depending on whether she has a spare couple of days to write the fourth, apparently called The Long Goodbye: The Slow Death of Female Desire in the 20th Century.

There will also be a novel, Married Alive, and a Princess Diana book. No doubt this will pick up where she left off in September, when she informed readers of the Guardian that, by her death, Diana had "got even by making the House of Windsor look like the biggest bunch of bastards who ever wore a crown". Controversial stuff? Hardly.

Before that, however, comes the autobiography, I Knew I Was Right. Among those who might have reason to look worried are Mirror columnist and first husband, Tony Parsons (although, he, years ago, got his retaliation in first by remarking, "Hell hath no fury like a first wife run to fat"); and second spouse Cosmo Landesman, who won her away from Parsons and encouraged her transformation from East End recluse to West End landmark.

For the ever-present "Charlotte R", the author has only sickly praise. "Neither Miss Raven nor myself are homosexuals," Burchill once announced, gnomically. "We are simply in love."

Others who might fear the settling of scores are author Johnny Rogan, who successfully set the law on Burchill after she lifted chunks of his biography of The Smiths; Toby Young, editor of the previous incarnation of the Modern Review; Steven Berkoff, whom she described as notoriously ugly; and Camille Paglia, whom Burchill has wittily labelled "a crazy old dyke".

The fact is, though, that the book is not really concerned with her grown- up life. Instead you get her opinions - for a change - and a touching though rather vague account of her Bristol upbringing and her father, whom she portrays as a benevolent Stalinist. In the eyes of his devoted only daughter, he can do no wrong.

She enjoys writing about her childhood. The truth is that behind all the bluster, and the verbal acidity, and the shock tactics and the self- interested desertion of husbands and children, Julie is really very sentimental.