Unruly Julie: Julie Burchill
Sunday, August 25, 2002
by Jonathan O'Brien
Age: 43 Job: Firebrand journalist specialising in OTT polemics. Writes a weekly column for the Guardian. In the news because: She recently escaped prosecution for incitement to racial hatred, following a Guardian column where she described Ireland as being synonymous with child molestation, Nazi-sympathising, and the oppression of women.
What she said: `I'm an entertainer, and I don't give a toss what anyone thinks of me'.
What they said about her: `The article was grossly insulting. So much so that I `feel it strayed intocriminality.' -- John Twomey, who made the original complaint about Burchill's column to the police.
Julie Burchill has built an entire career out of sailing close to the wind, but even she must have allowed herself a mighty sigh of relief last week when it was announced that she would not, after all, face charges of inciting racial hatred against Irish people.
The controversial, polemicist had come under risk of prosecution after one of her Guardian columns likened Ireland to a Nazi-supporting theocracy full of priestly child-abusers. The original complaint about the piece had been made by John Twomey, a social worker at the London Irish Centre. However, the Crown Prosecution Service advised there was "insufficient evidence" to charge her, and the Metropolitan police closed the case.
Burchill's first shot across Irish bows came as early as the fifth sentence, when she dropped in a (deliberately?) ham-fisted reference to "Eire". Then came the hard stuff: a passage associating the Republic with "almost compulsory child molestation by the national church, total discrimination against women who wish to be priests, aiding and abetting Herr Hitler in his hour of need, and outlawing abortion and divorce".
Having confessed to a penchant for occasionally flying the Israeli and Indian flags, "in support of those countries' brave, secular stands against monotheistic tyranny", she declared she would "never fly an Irish, German, Iraqi or US flag, because what I don't like about those countries far outweighs what I do".
There was more. Referring to the proliferation of St George flags around England during the World Cup, she suggested replacing them "with something more enlightening: the Hitler-licking, altarboy-molesting, abortion-banning Irish tricolour, perhaps?"
It was a piece of writing that even the Guardian's readers editor termed "a characteristic burst of hyperbolic invective". Not that we should be surprised: Burchill is a journalistic bomb-thrower par excellence, a hitwoman of the printed word who often comes on like a female Eamon Dunphy after a very long weekend.
Several of Burchill's ex-colleagues have speculated about her mental balance, due to the fluctuations of her moods between euphoria and misery. "She's only truly happy when she's destroying something," says one friend, "usually her relationships, her sanity or her career."
And what a career it has been. It kicked off in 1975, when the 16-year-old Julie ran away from her Bristol home to London. There, she got a job with NME after answering an ad looking for "hip young gunslingers". Her zingy, acidic prose style soon gained her notoriety as one of the sharpest cultural commentators around.
At 18, she moved in with fellow music hack Tony Parsons. The couple had a son, Robert, in 1981. Three years later Burchill walked out, reportedly having no further contact with Robert until he was in his teens.
Since they split, the enmity between Burchill and Parsons has produced a steady stream of vitriol in both directions. When the readers of a literary website nominated Burchill as the novelist they'd most like to see naked, she sent back an e-mail selecting Parsons as the writer she'd least want to see in the nip. He gets mentioned in her Guardian column every second week or so, usually in luridly unflattering terms.
Parsons is equally vituperative. "It's like having a stalker. I don't understand her fascination with someone whom she split up with 15 years ago. Why is she so interested? Has nothing happened to her since 1984? I think it's her way of having some kind of relationship with me. Hell hath no fury like a first wife run to fat."
Once she'd left Parsons, Burchill began a relationship with the style writer Cosmo Landesman, with whom she had another son, Jack. That ended in 1992. Then she moved in with yet another writer, Charlotte Raven. These days, she lives with Raven's brother Daniel in a pink and gold house in Brighton.
Naturally, the turbulent state of her private life made her fair game for the press. "IS JULIE BURCHILL THE WORST MOTHER IN BRITAIN?" screamed a Daily Mail headline in July 1999, over a two-page spread savaging her for leaving her two sons to be raised by their fathers.
Her career appeared to have foundered in the mid-1990s, until the Guardian lured her on board to write a piece for its Weekend section each Saturday. She's reportedly the paper's best-paid columnist, on even better money than heavyweights such as Polly Toynbee and Peter Preston.
Even then, Burchill couldn't resist biting the hand that fed her. In a column about actress Danniella Westbrook's cocaine hell, she casually mentioned that she had snorted coke with author Will Self and his wife Deborah Orr, and emerged more or less unscathed. "For every Westbrook," she wrote, "there are 1,000 recreational cocaine users living perfectly full and useful lives."
Orr, who'd given Burchill the job at the Guardian in the first place, was furious. She retaliated by accusing Burchill of failing to come clean about her own drug use, and of not understanding the nature of addiction."For people in the depths of despair," Burchill retorted, "[Orr and Self] both gave an awfully good impression of people having a right laugh."
As you've probably guessed, Burchill is utterly unrepentant about the days when, in her own unforgettable phrase, she "put enough toot up my admittedly sizeable snout to stun the entire Colombian armed forces".
"As one who suffered from chronic shyness and a low boredom threshold," she wrote, "I simply can't imagine that I could have ever had any kind of social life without [cocaine], let alone have reigned as Queen of the Groucho Club for a good part of the '80s and '90s."
Burchill has written several books, of which the best known is Diana, her 1998 lament for the People's Princess. Her debut novel, Ambition, was a deathlessly awful bonkbuster detailing the adventures of Susan Street, a hot young hackette who sleeps her way to the top.
Dire as it is, ambition is not the all-time nadir of Burchill's career. That doubtful accolade has to go to last year's Burchill On Beckham, a self-explanatory 120-page love letter to the England captain.
It was shockingly silly stuff, full of top-of-the-head ruminating about the Beckhams' sex lives ("a pair of arrogant, sun-kissed young lions about to go at it with a vengeance") and idiotic theorising about the major events in the midfielder's career.
In one memorable passage, she speculated that the Argentine players who jeered Beckham when he was red-carded at France 98 were actually suppressing their desire to, well, shag him.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that the book should attract some of the worst notices since Jeffrey Archer's heyday. "Burchill is to football writing what Jimmy Hill is to feminist polemics," carped one reviewer, not unfairly.
Not that Burchill let it bother her. Undeterred by the book's poor sales, she's taken up her Guardian cudgels again with a vengeance. As recently as last Saturday, she was sticking the knife into targets as varied as Eminem, Barbie and half the BritArt pack.
"I once talked to Tracey Emin about our abortions; I'd had loads more than her, but she couldn't get her head around the fact that they had no more significance to me than having one's tonsils out, while her couple had caused her all sorts of arty trauma and led to the creation of several artefacts. Bless!"