Two's company, but three's an interview

As the flatmate of Julie Burchill's new girlfriend, Decca Aitkenhead was astonished to find herself at the epicentre of a media earthquake
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The Independent Online
THERE is something surreal about interviewing your flatmates. It is not something they teach you to do at journalism school. But there is also something surreal about living with Julie Burchill, and her appearance on our domestic scene has been quite as entertaining to myself as it has been to the assembled media.

The first intimation that something was afoot came in the form of lilies. Armfuls and armfuls of lilies. Daily. Then came the letters - an almighty thud of half a dozen every morning. Exactly whose attentions had my flatmate captured so extravagantly?

Matters had clearly got serious when the brass Lenin bust appeared on our mantlepiece. Then came eight crates of Coca-Cola - it was indeed the Real Thing. Someone's amorous intentions meant business, and their arrival was soon followed by a word-processor, a minor army of paparazzi in the porch, and a mysterious brunette. Julie Burchill had come to stay.

I did not find this surprising. My flatmate Charlotte Raven's attractions are, as Toby Young has graciously pointed out, many and complex. What did come as a surprise, however, was the surprise and excitement of the press. The appearance of Charlotte's picture in the papers afforded us no small measure of amusement.

The household had lately been congratulating itself on weathering the storm rather well. Charlotte took her descent from "crop-haired lovely" (Evening Standard) to "crew-cutted lesbian" (who else? Private Eye) in her stride. Julie accommodated herself to house music. A remarkable domestic calm descended.

But the announcement on Thursday by Toby Young that he was closing down the Modern Review has catapulted Charlotte and Julie back into the papers. and they decided the time for maintaining a discreet silence had passed.

"Toby has gone completely mad. He's finally wigged out. I think he's barking," said Julie, quite seriously. Toby and Julie set up the Modern Review, a magazine dedicated to "low culture for high brows", in 1991. The pair have been friends for 11 years, and the magazine established itself as a forum for post-modernist cultural commentary. Novelists such as Will Self and Nick Hornby contributed, and the Modern Review earned itself some notoriety for its iconoclastic angle on popular culture.

At its height, circulation reached 30,000, but recent editions struggled to sell 10,000 copies, and the magazine was in serious financial difficulties. In his final editorial, Toby Young acknowledged this but attributed the cause of its decline to the influence of Charlotte Raven.

Charlotte began working for Toby as an editorial assistant a year ago. It was through this that she met Julie in February, and their affair began. Toby maintains that she has spent the past months plotting a coup to overthrow him and seize the reins of his publication. She and Julie intended, wrote Toby, to transform the magazine into a "Blairite apologia" with a radical feminist agenda.

Relations between Toby and the couple deteriorated when they suspected him of passing snippets of gossip about them to the diary columns. Julie's now famous jibe, that he had become an "embarrassment" to her, convinced him that all was lost and he duly shut the magazine down.

"He knew the magazine was going to go down, and he has invented this personal vendetta to try and obfuscate the fact that it had failed because of his mistakes," says Charlotte.

"The Modern Review had become a forum for his masturbatory fantasies. There's a lot more to say about popular culture than Pamela Anderson's vital statistics."

Julie is blunter. "Towards the end, that magazine had become him standing on a soap box and beating his chest. He says we wanted to turn it into the Sapphic Review, but with him it had become the Cleavage Review."

"We are political," says Charlotte, "but the notion that we wanted to create some Blairite Spare Rib is laughable. We do believe the magazine has a soul and a future; it needed to redefine itself."

Charlotte denies scheming against Toby. But there is no denying the impact her relationship had on his editorship.

"I have been cast as the bimbo from hell, the typist with misplaced ambitions who would stop at nothing, least of all the ensnaring of the affections of the proprietress, in order to build up my empire. What can I say? It is a case of Toby's paranoia and obsession with us. It is Hitler in his bunker, flailing about."

Toby, they allege, became transfixed by their affair. He would continually enquire as to whether they were having sex. Charlotte says: "He kept saying: 'So, er, are you, (Beavis and Butthead laugh), you know, er, you know?' "

"He couldn't believe I could do it," says Julie. "But then Toby is very strange about homosexuality. When he was younger he had a few near things with friends. There was an incident in a hammock, but I won't go into that."

For a subject which has engaged such serious media attention, Charlotte and Julie are indecently amused. The week's revelations that Toby and Charlotte shared a brief amorous encounter did nothing to damp this.

"There could be no greater advertisement for my recent sapphic turn than the Neanderthal sexual fumblings I experienced at the hands of my erstwhile employer. We all make mistakes," she says.

"I didn't!" shrieks Julie, and they dissolve. Julie is at pains to dispel any suggestion that she was ever intimate with the former editor.

"When I met Toby," she remembers, "I thought he showed great promise. But someone I thought would be a jewel in my crown has turned out to be the albatross on my back and the millstone around my neck."

Julie believes it was Toby's fascination with celebrities which took the Modern Review downhill. Elizabeth Hurley graced the cover of one issue, but not before getting embroiled in a nasty legal dispute with the editor over his plans to use a topless shot instead.

Julie says: "When I met Elizabeth Hurley she asked me: 'Julie, why do you hang around with that prat?' I would like to say to Elizabeth Hurley that I am no longer friends with that little prat, and I have a great film idea for you."

It was with the cult of celebrity that Toby sought to salvage the magazine in the spring. He approached the Guardian with a plan to devote the publication to a critique of celebrity culture.

"This would have been some kind of anti-Hello! Instead of applauding celebrities, we would say we deplored them, but still get to publish pictures of them in their bikinis," said Charlotte.

"When he made me political editor, he said what he wanted was the 'politics of Baywatch' - lavishly illustrated. Unsurprisingly, the Guardian turned him down." Charlotte and Julie's politics are, like their attatchment, impassioned, deeply held and unpredictable. They have nothing to do with Baywatch.

The magazine is currently closed, but both hint that the tale is not yet over. "We are talking to some very powerful and interested parties. People who washed their hands of us because of Toby are now interested again," says Julie.

Toby Young and the Modern Review can justly claim to have brought Charlotte and Julie together. This is possibly a source of some regret to him, but the pair do not strike a remorseful pose. "When I first met Julie my first thought was, 'What's a nice girl like her doing with a troll like that?' Fortunately," she smiles, "I have been able to take her away from all that."

Their domestic arrangements have intrigued the media, but the stormy home life reported in some quarters is comically awry. Julie's remarkable capacity for housework has transformed the flat. Their complete lack of interest in cooking is mutual. Their shared attachment to fairy lights and Liam Gallagher is evident.

We seem to sleep less than we did before Julie arrived. She appears to have no need for it, and I am slowly being won over to this position. She is generally writing when I go to bed, and still writing when I get up.

Julie Burchill is a flatmate I can highly recommend. She is obstinate, obstreperous, dogmatic and uncompromising. Charlotte says: "She is everything I ever wanted."