Julie Burchill claims her ambitious streak has faded with age, but Chitra Ramaswamy discovers that the formidable former queen of the Groucho Club still has plenty of fire in her belly
ANYONE who heads to Brighton for an encounter with Julie Burchill has to prepare for the unexpected. Will Britain's great word-wielding, finger-pointing iconoclast, who has, in her own words, been fired from every newspaper that has employed her, be in cuddly kitten or sabre-toothed tiger mode? Will the ex-Queen of the Groucho Club arrive in tears (she loves a good cry) or tantrums (she is fond of them too)? Or will she be spitting the poison that leaks now and then from her pen? Most nerve-wracking of all, will she be sober?
Here is the surprise. Not a drop passes our lips during the hilarious afternoon I spend in her company. There are no tears and no talons. Instead, we enjoy a leisurely stroll along the seafront in Hove, where she has lived for 13 years, and she is as charming as the seaside scene before us. "If you'd brought me down here when I was 25 I wouldn't have stayed," she says in that helium-sucking soprano that's squeaky but not quite clean. "I'm not 25 any more. I feel like an old lady looking out to sea." The old lady follows this with a sea-salty cackle as she cops an eyeful of a man cycling past who looks half her age. "He's all right, isn't he?"
She suggests that I collect her from her flat which forms part of an imposing gothic building. Burchill lives there with her 22-year-old son while husband number three resides around the corner. I've lined my stomach in preparation, but the Burchill binge is not to be.
"I live the life of a provincial vegetable," she says. "I do housework, shopping, voluntary work twice a week and go out to lunch sometimes. Then twice a week I get off my head on drugs. It's a mixture of extreme depravity and extreme conventionality. Half the time it's so boring you can't quite believe it and the other half it's delirium. I've never been one for walking the line."
This is as much of an understatement as Burchill saying that the writer she would least like to see naked is Tony Parsons, her first husband. Whether it is staunchly defending unions and then swooning over Margaret Thatcher, or pronouncing herself a communist and then backing Bush's foreign policy, she has always come down heavily on both sides of the line, usually squashing a few people on landing.
Her latest book, co-authored with fellow journalist and friend Chas Newkey-Burden, is about modern hypocrisy. Fans of Burchill's inimitable style, which she describes to me as "the writing equivalent of screaming and throwing things" will recognise her targets. They are as scattershot as ever, from "Fat Girl Feminists" to "Cyclists", and from "Ugly Sexist Men" to "Straight Women Who Don't Like Men". And that's just section one. Some topics seem suspiciously familiar from her days writing columns about chav-haters and Greens at the Times. But, as ever, she's the first to point this out.
"I tried to recycle as little as I could because I realise it's a bad thing to do," she says, clearly enjoying having done a bad thing. "It's quite lazy really. I didn't have to work overly hard on it because Chas is such a good young worker. Always team up with someone younger than you because you can play on their emotions and they can put the hours in." More roars of laughter float out like squeaky balloons. No one enjoys Julie Burchill being outrageous more than Julie Burchill.
What would she say to those who might scoff at the thought of someone who has changed position so often and so publicly, writing a book exposing hypocrisy? For example, she announced last year that she was retiring from journalism yet her byline continues to pop up. "Ha, ha, ha – that's a good one!" she squeals, delighted at the situation. "Chas says that if you change your mind it's not the same as being a hypocrite. The thing is, journalism has given up on me more than I've given up on it."
It's true. She is writing less and says her "cheerful semi-retirement" can be explained by waning ambition. "From when I was a very young girl I defined myself by how much ambition I had and I guess this is the nearest thing to losing your sex drive. You can't manufacture ambition artificially. It's either there or it isn't. Ambition is almost there in young people for a biological reason, so they can get out of the town they're in and not marry their brother or sister, like they did in Norfolk before the trains came there. It's a psychological hunger and maybe you need to feel something is missing, and I don't any more."
This is because she's happy and, in particular, happily married to Daniel Raven, 13 years her junior and brother to her ex-girlfriend Charlotte. "When I was married to my two other husbands I sort of always knew in the back of my head that I would leave them one day, so I thought I'd better keep my working head on just in case I needed to make my own living – and theirs as it turned out." More laughter. "Well, only the second one. But with this husband I'd be very, very upset if I were to leave him. I have gout so I'd have to hobble away and it wouldn't look very attractive."
It's laziness that's done for her writing, she insists, though I'm not sure that someone who has spat out words non-stop for 30 years – since starting at the NME at 17 – and publishing 20-odd books along the way can be described as lazy. "It's true," she protests. "Part of the reason The Times gave me the heave-ho when they did was that I used to spend half an hour on my column. I was getting like 300,000 a year. I don't blame them for sacking me."
It is the fierce enjoyment she gets out of saying the unsayable that makes Burchill so good on the page and even more fun in person. But still, her honesty occasionally shocks.
"I'm written out," she says. "It's been 30 years of repetition and haranguing, and if you think of the pitch my writing is set at – shrieking and pointing – 30 years is enough. I don't have any formal education and I'm not a person who can argue so I just lose my rag."
What about her more serious journalism such as her asbestos campaign (her father died from asbestosis)? It's not the only time I find myself bolstering Burchill, though she is perennially cheerful, even when putting herself down. "There was a time when I was a tremendously good writer but I've got much worse in recent years," she shrugs. "I know people aren't supposed to say things like that. I've had a great time doing it – it's not like working down a salt mine or anything. But if you feel less passionate and also people who you work for keep buying you out of your contracts and sending you on your way, maybe it's a sign that things are winding down nicely. I don't feel cut off and rudderless without my platform." Besides, she says, when she was younger, she was always helped up the ladder by older people, so she likes the thought of moving over to give others a bash.
For the first time in her life Burchill has no idea what she's going to do next. She admits it feels strange but isn't fussed because she's still got "loads of money left". She does concede, though, that her contentment might not last and she could "go berserk next year". Just when I'm thinking her nonchalance might be a bit of a front, she says it herself. Burchill likes getting in there first. And she admits the theology degree she has been threatening to take in recent years isn't likely to happen because "I'm not the sort of person who can sit in a classroom and argue about angels dancing on a pinhead". She will be 50 next year, and although when she wrote Sugar Rush (her teenage lesbian romance that was adapted into an award-winning TV series) she spoke about being an eternal adolescent, she has – surprise, surprise – changed her mind.
"I'm not saying I want a hairnet but I don't want to be an adult kid forever," she says. "My voice makes it difficult because I still get people ringing up and asking me whether my mummy is in, but I prefer my life now. By the time I was 14 I felt like a three times divorced cocktail waitress from Las Vegas. I was tremendously jaded and I'm going through the reverse now. My younger self would think I'm a fat, lazy old cow but I would say, 'You're a damn fool and I don't care what you say.'" She's on a roll, squaring up to the teenager from Bristol who answered that NME ad looking for "hip young gunslingers".
"I could take her with one arm tied behind my back."
• Not In My Name: A Compendium Of Modern Hypocrisy by Julie Burchill and Chas Newkey-Burden is published on Thursday, 12.99, by Virgin Books