Julie Burchill: The queer lady

'I think of myself as a gay person who went wrong,' claims Julie Burchill. What can she mean? And does her new lesbian TV drama 'Sugar Rush' shed any light on the matter? Mark Simpson, a man who knows a thing or two about sexual deviancy, travels down to Brighton to find out...
Click to follow
The Independent Online

'Ca yu fee' 'em?" Possibly for the first time in her life, Julie Burchill is mumbling. But then, I have my right index finger inside Ms B's famously formidable mouth. She takes it firmly and guides it onto the gums that once ruled the Groucho Club. I'm not rubbing anything into them though, just copping a feel. The gums of England's Cleverest Woman and Worst Mother, as she has been dubbed by the British press, usually on different occasions, are alarmingly pregnant. Just above her somewhat dilapidated gnashers is a line of threatening bumps. "They're livid," she says, taking my finger out of her mouth. "My dentist said to me, 'Your gums are angry.' I've still got my baby teeth Mark. I'm a geological freak!'

Julie was only alerted to this curious fact when her teeth began falling out last year. "I thought a) it's drugs and b) I'm getting old. Then I went to the dentist and he took an X-ray. When he looks at it he starts laughing. I hadn't been to a dentist since I was a kid so I thought he was laughing at how rotten my teeth were, but he said: 'Do you want to see something really scary?' And I went 'Yeah.' He showed me the X-ray and it was of a monster with two rows of teeth! Turns out that there's only one other woman my age who still has her baby teeth. I should be in the Guinness Book of Records!"

I can't resist the obvious: "So, Julie, it's official: you're still teething at 45."

"Hahahahaha! In a horrible way Mark, it does seems like a dreadful metaphor dunnit! I still haven't grown up, have I?"

I've come to JulieWorld, aka Brighton, to talk to Julie about arrested development, queerness (which is much the same thing), and the TV adaptation of her rather delicious teenage lesbian novel Sugar Rush, which is currently filming in the seaside town and will be shown on Channel 4 this summer in the prime teen spot immediately after Big Brother. Big sister Julie is not a lesbian, though she has done some research. She had a rather public if brief affair back in 1995 with Charlotte Raven (sister of her current husband Daniel), an affair which helped inaugurate the current fashionability of lesbianoid dabblings among non-lesbian women.

At the time Julie marvellously announced to the world that neither of them was lesbian; they were just "two women who are very much in love". The TV version of her lesbian novel, adapted by Katie Baxendale, takes this a step further: neither of the lovely young actresses (Lenora Critchlow and Olivia Hallinan) who play the leads is a lesbian, nor do either of them have an opinion on the vice of Lesbos ("I never really thought about it much," they tell me, prettily, when I meet them on set). And apparently, in contrast to the book where the relationship is repeatedly and flagrantly consummated before you're even halfway, the girls never actually get it on (save for some snogging) for dramatic reasons of "unresolved sexual tension". Some particularly tedious gay fundamentalists might balk at this "hetero appropriation" of gay lurving, but, perhaps because it's girl-on-girl gay lurving rather than boy-on-boy, this homo thinks that it's all rather sweet.

Besides, when she's in the mood Julie can trash heterosexuality like no one else. On the train on the way down to meet her I read a column of hers in response to a review of Sugar Rush which described the book, and by implication lesbianism, as "grim and narrowly grotty". "Why don't lesbians laugh at straight women's general inability to have orgasms during sex?" she writes. "Why don't gay men point and jeer when the see a straight man lying, buying and just plain trying to get sex off a woman?" Well, perhaps because Julie will do it for them.

Lynn Barber recently complained that Sugar Rush was "anti-heterosexual propaganda". She was mistaken: Julie is not writing anti-heterosexual propaganda, she's just refusing to lie back and think of Homebase; refusing to not see the hilarious, literally ridiculous joke that is sexual difference - otherwise known as "normality". If she did she would have teethed years ago. That's why boisterous, naughty, essentially "straight" Ms B, with or without her alien jaw, is much queerer than most queers, many of whom these days seem to want nothing more than to appear on Mr & Mrs and win the Teasmade. Julie's "queerness" is partly sheer perversity, but mostly it's the oddness of someone who doesn't really fit in, someone who has to make a world of their own - out of their yearning.

Hence Julie's Sugar Rush is not so much about lesbianism as about recapturing the girlish intensity of teenagerdom - an intensity that adults (or "sadults" as they are dubbed in the book) like to call "confused" because intensity makes them uneasy. Because of course adults such as Lynn Barber, unlike kids such as Julie, don't really know what they want.

Julie is not uneasy with intensity. Perhaps because she still has her milk teeth, perhaps because she became famous at the frighteningly young age of 17 when she started scribbling for the NME, Julie has managed to sustain throughout her career the exhilarating intensity and dreamy energy - and oiled, muscular prose - of a provincial English blue-blooded working-class punk girl. It isn't perhaps something you should try at home, but it is awe-inspiring.

I meet Burchill on the set of Sugar Rush which is being filmed on a cold March day on the Brighton seafront. Returning from a heavy lunch surrounded by her entourage, she clocks me, wordlessly tottering on her heels towards me and hugging me hard for several seconds. We have never met. But then, as it will turn out, we are, in a physiognomic manner of speaking, related. Finally she lets go and says "I've brought you something". She delves around in the pocket of her long black coat and brings out a giant, cellophane-wrapped lollipop with "LOVE MACHINE" stamped in it.

Julie, me and the entourage, head towards the Brighton Arts Club, a decadent place in about as good a nick as Julie's pearlies, where she once rented a room after leaving her second husband and before she bought a house in Brighton (which she has now sold for "£1.5 million!" she says proudly, flaunting her anti-bourgeois vulgarity). "I'm quite a tidy person, Mark, but after a year, that room looked like Aerosmith had been through it, pursued by a Roman Legion!"

Champagne on ice is delivered to our table; the entourage is dismissed to the other end of the room. "What will you drink, Mark? A Spartan glass of water?"

"Yes, I will, actually."

"I knew it! His body is a temple! You look like a Spartan you know. Do you like Henry Rollins? You've got something in common with Henry - you've both got big necks! It must be really tough being a gay man with a big neck. Has it always been that big?"

Ashamed as I am to admit it, I'm having trouble following Julie - in every sense. Not only is she refusing to lie back and be interviewed, and instead is insisting on climbing on top and taking control, albeit in this faux submissive way, she talks so fast and in a high girly voice. Transcribing her on the slowest playback setting on my tape recorder, I sound like Will Self on downers. But she sounds almost exactly the same; though at half speed I can just about keep up with her thought processes.

"Do you think I've got a silly voice?" she squeaks at one point. "Because I'm excited about meeting you it's very high at the moment, but if I knew you it would be lower. If I knew you for about 16 months then it would go down like this [speaks lower and slower - which is even more unnerving] and sound quite sensible and grown up. "But," she says, returning to her internally produced helium supply, "if we started talking about, I dunno, communism, it would just rise and rise and rise!"

And then, well, this is Julie Burchill! How do you follow an act like that? Worse, she keeps going on about how much she's been looking forward to meeting me and what a "genius", and "ultramale", I am. Which of course, even if she doesn't mean to, is the surest way to emasculate a man. Julie has well and truly rumbled me.

"You don't think that gay men should be effeminate do you?" she announces, studying me.

"Well. I, er, I think people should fight against their nature rather than surrender to it."

Sensibly, magnanimously, Julie ignores my ridiculous words. "You've got a fantastic face. Do you believe in physiognomy? Reading people's past into their faces? What made you so brilliant, Mark?"

I wince. "Um, Julie, aren't these the kind of questions I'm supposed to be asking you?"

"Well," she says, flicking her shoulder length dark hair, "I don't think it behoves a man to be subservient to a lady. I'm sorry you got me when I'm drunk. But I'm good drunk.

"If you'd known me when I was married to my first two husbands... Ohmigod when I was drunk I was the most evil, dreadful person in the world. I would actually speak in tongues - not just the two languages I know, English and working class - but tongues! But now I just get sweeter and sweeter. Because my husband Daniel is so brilliant. I've grown up a lot in the last few years, Mark, and Daniel is responsible for that."

Daniel, whom she married last year, is 13 years younger than Julie. They don't live together and Daniel doesn't want kids. I suggest that it sounds like a gay marriage.

"Maybe. I'm married to him but he's like my best friend. I don't feel any of that hatred and resentment towards him that I felt towards my first two husbands. I just feel really, really happy - all the time!"

Where did the resentment come from in the past, I ask.

"They were prats! A marriage can survive hatred, a marriage can survive loathing, but a marriage cannot survive contempt, Mark, as you well know. Hang on! You probably don't, because you'd never do anything like that would you?"

"No. I'm not really the marrying kind."

"I knew that about you! If I was a man I'd be just like you! I wouldn't get involved in the messiness of human relationships. Do you email Morrissey?" (I wrote a book about Morrissey, someone Julie admires and someone famous for avoiding being compromised by relationships, or even Other People).

"Er, no. I wasn't aware he even had email."

Julie leans forwards and proudly whispers his address. "Do you email George Michael?" She whispers another email address. Both pop stars have felt the, ahem, affectionate nip of Julie's milk teeth. "I love it when people come up to you with their hearts in their hands, Mark, saying 'Julie, you were right'."

In her friend Tim Fountain's play about her life, Julie Burchill is Away, "Julie" announces "As my friend Mark Simpson says, 'in JulieWorld no one can hear you scream'." Since we had never met, I wondered at the time if this was meant to be ironic. But clearly Julie decided some time ago that I was "family". And why not? After all, this is someone who back in Bristol made books and records her friends. "Adult" life for her has been merely about making the world fit her fantasies: JulieWorld. And here I am sitting at her feet. For creative people, success is much the same thing as psychosis. Neurosis is for the mediocre. Speaking of which, I ask her what she thinks of her book being made into a "major TV series".

"I think it's fantastic. It's always great to see your work have an effect on the wider world rather than just the microworld of journalism. I'd written it in six afternoons when I was drunk. I'm not putting it down in saying that; I mean, because something comes easily doesn't mean that it's no good."

"You have to suffer for your art."

"Yeah, it has to be forced out like a troublesome stool. But to be honest, right, it sold about 6,000 copies and I thought I'd gone down the toilet myself! I thought I'd let down my publisher. When I was told that Channel 4 had bought it I couldn't believe it! And when I found out the producer was Johnny Capps, the same guy who made As If [a hit drama series about teenagers in London] - well, I almost fainted. I loved that show! Did you watch it?"

"No," I say. "I tend not to watch soaps and drama series: I'm afraid of the commitment."

"That's the perfect Mark Simpson thing to say. The perfect butch thing to say!" Julie exclaims, effortlessly puncturing my best riposte so far. "You know, many's the time in my career I was supposed to lie down and die but I kept coming back - perhaps not always in a good way. I dunno. Maybe it was because I was meant to work in a biscuit factory in Bristol where most of my schoolmates ended up. Whenever I come back it always excites me: 'Fuck! It's me again!' I know I can get on people's nerves - I can get on my own nerves - though maybe not as much as I should do sometimes! Maybe it's my working-class background. There's not many of us are there, Mark? You're one of us aren't you?"

"Julie, I'm sorry to be the one to tell you this, but I went to boarding school..."

"Was you difficult? Hahahaha! What did your parents do?"

"They're working-class Geordies who made good."

"You see! I knew it! It's the royal bloodline, Mark! My husband is the son of a multi-millionaire, but his grandma was in service - so it's the blood royal again, you see. Anyway, you're definitely related coz you've got a big alien forehead like me!" She pulls up her long black fringe revealing her own pallid dome. "We've both got cute little faces and big alien brows! Big brows like yours and mine." She slaps hers. "That's where the action is! But," she adds, "you use your brain properly. I don't use mine, because I'm married."

"So why the interest in lesbianism, seeing as you're a married lady and all?"

"To me it's a beautiful dream. My actual lesbian period lasted less than a year. It wasn't the sex bit I had a problem with, it was the crying. It was the emotions I couldn't stand."

"Where did the emotions come from?"

"Women living together in the same house! You end up having periods together. I think it's foul. I'm not being nasty, right. I'm not being gynophobic - is that the word? - but I think it's disgusting."

I grasp at straws. "But, doesn't it, er, mean you have more in common?"

"Like what? Crying and behaving like a lunatic? Give me a break. I have to say this, right, everything I like about people is to do with toughness. I can't stand weakness. I've got some very good lesbian friends, but they have this dumb very middle-class idea of 'oooh, let's all be soft together'. Yeah, you go and be soft in the corner and I'll shoot the lot of you. And that sounds bad Mark, but I do mean it. Hahahahaha.

"My friends always say, 'it's your father that did it to you'. My dad, who couldn't spell 'homosexual', would take me to see the Bolshoi Ballet at the Bristol Hippodrome three times a year, but because he was so repelled by homosexuality he would read his racing paper for three hours and not look at the stage. I've never come across a woman who would make that kind of sacrifice for their daughter. My mother certainly wouldn't.

"Look, I just like men, Mark. When most women say that, it's a creepy, ugly, 'oooh, give me some money' thing. But when I say I just like men it's a dreadful confession. I would love to be a total fucking lesbian, but to me, all the qualities I love in humankind, including myself, are masculine ones. You know what I mean."

Obviously, as a maniacally masculine homosexualist with a thick neck I do. However, I'm not entirely convinced by Julie's bravado. In Sugar Rush, Kim, the lesbian character, ponders how some girls are put off sleeping with boys because of the fear "they'll freeze you out and put you down the morning after; just throw all that softness you showed them back in your face as though it was a dirty old sponge or something". But her girlfriend Maria "acts like this all the time these days. And that's when it struck me how much easier it would be to be with a boy; because girls know how to hurt girls - really hurt them." Perhaps Julie was doing some of the crying during her lesbian period. Perhaps lesbianism was too painful. Perhaps it made Julie feel too soft.

"I thought that it was about dancing and laughing and having fun but it wasn't," she says. It sounds as if Julie wanted to be more of a gay man than a lesbian. "Yeah, I would have made a brilliant gay man!"

Possibly. And then again, possibly not. Julie has always had "issues" with one aspect of the gay male world, which is as unavoidable as an eager erection in a back room. "You don't know my friend Tim Fountain do you? I bet you think he's a total prick going out and having sex with all those men in his play Sex Addict. Do you know I got thrown out of his show? I love Tim, right. But I heckled him - I was dreadful. A beast came out of me and I called him a slag and stuff. I was ejected from the auditorium - very gently. Bet you're not promiscuous."

"Er. Um."

Julie senses that I might not be exactly chaste. "Even if you were, it wouldn't matter because it's you! Like me, you can get away with stuff. I should have been a slag when I left Bristol and came up to London. But - I'm not being funny - people keep marrying you and shit. On the other hand, when I speak to my close female friends who have been, how shall we say, 'sexually generous', they seem to regret it. Basically Mark," says Julie, "I think of myself as a gay person who just went wrong."

"Or maybe went right."

"Hahahahaha! Anyway, you're the one gay man that I would want to be."

"Why on earth would you want to be me?"

"Because you're that mixture of masculinity and intellectuality that is almost impossible to bring off!"

"That's funny, because I would have said the same about you."

"You know, if they took my brain out, Invasion of the Body Snatchers-style, yours is the brain that I'd want them to put in."

It is an extravagantly flattering thing to hear, but it is also slightly scary. Despite my great admiration and affection for her, the idea of finding myself trapped inside Julie Burchill is perhaps too "queer", even for a "lesbosexual" homo like me. Or maybe I'm just afraid she'll be disappointed with my thoughts: she might not like me anymore when she finds out how many times an hour I think of men's buttocks.

The conversation returns inevitably to her wobbly milk teeth. "I just know you're going to make a big deal out of my teeth," she says, prophetically, hopefully. "Would you like to pull them out for me, Mark?"

"It sounds as if Daniel is doing that for you. You know, your growing up might be good for you, but it would be a terrible waste, Julie."

"Of my immaturity? How does that Spinal Tap song go? 'You're sweet but you're just four feet/And you still got your baby teeth/ You're too young and I'm too well hung/But tonight I'm gonna rock you!'"

Somehow, I can't help thinking that I'm the one that's too young and Julie's the one who's too well hung.

'Sugar Rush' begins on Channel 4 in June