Monday, 11 August 2014

Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult

Uh-oh. Julie's in the news again. Julie Burchill, that is, the one-time
hip young gun-slinger on a punky 1970s NME turned self-styled 1980s
cocaine-caked queen of the Groucho club, whose barbed and bitchy
opinions on anything and everything still has the knack of offending
readers on both right and left. Then there are the public spats with
assorted ex husbands and fellow female columnists, the flirtations with
lesbianism, the sex-soaked novels, the pro Israeli provocations and the
seemingly endless power to annoy.

Burchill's latest brush with the media hand that still sometimes feeds
her comes with a plethora of high-profile speculation that she may or
may not have been offered £300,000 to take part in the annual circus of
Celebrity Big Brother. Such speculation arrived just as Burchill was
announced as the new agony aunt for one time lad's mag bible, Loaded
magazine. Given the seeming decline in both parties fortunes, this
seems a curiously apt if inherently odd alliance.

All of these juicy tit-bits have been rather fortuitously doing the
rounds just as Tim Fountain prepares to bring his new play about the
woman who is possibly Britain's best-known big-mouth to Edinburgh.
Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult is Fountain's sequel to Julie Burchill Is
Away, which starred Jackie Clune as the play's eponymous drama queen a
decade ago.

Then, your intrepid reporter spent a lively couple of days hanging out
with Ms Burchill, sitting next to her as she hid behind her fringe
watching Fountain's play, hearing her own words ricocheting back at
her. Burchill also talked her noisy way through another play by
Fountain, Sex Addict, and the pair fall out in a past its sell-by date
private members club later that night. All of which makes one wonder
why Fountain would want to revisit Burchill's life and work.

“She's the only one of my subjects I haven't managed to kill,” says
Fountain, who has previously penned plays about Quentin Crisp, Rock
Hudson and Sebastian Horsley, “I'm still fascinated by Julie, and I
think her story's moved on a lot since the last play. Julie says
herself that her career's in managed decline, so it's a lot more Sunset
Boulevard than the last one, which was really just an excuse to hear
the best bits of Julie. This one is much more a proper play, and
there's a lot more drink and drugs onstage. The gloves are off.”

Burchill herself declares herself  “very pleasantly surprised and quite
pleased” by Fountain's continued attention, “especially as my career
has hardly been on sparkling form in recent years. Because of this I’m
fully prepared to be portrayed as more of a figure of fun in this one
than the first, but I can’t say I’m bothered about that, as I love a
laugh, and myself will do fine as a source of the amusement.”

Burchill has taken no part in Absolute Cult's development, which is
being overseen by veteran new writing director, founder of Hull Truck
and former artistic director of the Bush, Mike Bradwell, and features
Lizzie Roper in the title role. Burchill's only note to Fountain, in
fact, was for him to take out all uses of the word 'God'.

“ I just read it yesterday,” says Burchill, “and asked Tim to take out
the use of the G-word as an exclamation. I don’t go to temple, but I do
believe thoroughly in the Lord of the Jews, and I would never say His
name lightly.”

As naïve as this may sound, it's just one more example of Burchill
doing her growing up  in public. Burchill's willingness to take
responsibility for her own actions has become part of a story that
borders on willing self-parody.

“ My rise and my decline have been solely the results of my own
behaviour,” she says, “as has the rest of my life. To me, one of the
real pleasures of life is owning your own actions and never blaming
anyone else.”

Given that she's also currently writing for The Spectator, signing up
for Loaded sounds like a typically contrary move. According to
Burchill, however, they're the only publications who will have her.

“I think this sums up my personality very well,” she says with the air
of a terminal teenager out to shock. “I am half intellectual and half
chav. I’m going to be their agony aunt, or rather, S.O.B Sister. I’ve
always wanted to do this, and indeed the Guardian asked me years back,
then changed their minds, obviously fearing I’d say something rude. AS

As self-deprecatory as she sounds, Burchill's writing still shocks
people. Why does she think this is?

“A lot of people don’t like the truth, because they’re liars,” she
says, “and a lot of people don’t like how funny I am, because they’re

Wouldn't she like to write a play herself?

“Never been asked!”, she says. “I would LOVE to.”

As for the alleged Celebrity Big Brother offer, “Only for a million!”
she says. “I love my husband, privacy, sex and reading, in that order,
and for me to go without them for three weeks I can’t be bought by a
poxy £300,000, but we’ll see.”

Given her rise as a council estate kid  from Bristol to media icon,
what would Burchill say to today's generation of young women with
ambitions set on a journalistic career?

“I’d say ‘I’m sorry, sweetheart, you’re too late.’”, is her brutally
honest answer. “Pygmies rule journalism now. It’s filthy with nepotism,
and this is seen especially in the area of female broadsheet
columnists. The spectacle of some smug, mediocre columnista, like India
Knight, who would definitely not have their job if their mummy or daddy
hadn't been in the newspaper racket, advising working-class kids to
study hard at school, get a 'proper' job and not place their faith in
TV talent shows is one of the more repulsive minor crimes of our time.”

Beyond Absolute Cult's portrayal of her world, Burchill's book,
Unchosen: Memoirs of a Philo-Semite comes out in the autumn. She is
also writing what she describes as “a very funny, very dirty novel set
in Israel, which I am looking for a publisher for.”

Ask Burchill what ultimately drives her as a writer, and she's as
honest and as provocative as ever.

“A love of money,” she says, “and a loathing of lies.”

Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult, Gilded Balloon, July 30-Aug

The Herald, August 8th 2014


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