3 July 1959 |
Frenchay, Bristol, England, United Kingdom
|Period||1976 to present|
Julie Burchill (born 3 July 1959) is a British writer. Beginning as a journalist on the staff of the New Musical Express at the age of 17, she has subsequently contributed to newspapers such as The Sunday Times and The Guardian. Describing herself as a "militant feminist", she has several times been involved in legal action resulting from her work. Burchill is also an author and novelist: her 1989 novel Ambition became a best-seller, and her 2004 novel Sugar Rush was adapted for television.
Early life and education
Julie Burchill was born in Bristol, England, and educated at Brislington Comprehensive School. Her father was a Communist union activist who worked in a distillery. Her mother had a job in a cardboard box factory. In 2010, Burchill wrote of her parents: "I don't care much for families. I adored my mum and dad, but to be honest I don't miss them much now they're dead", although three years later she contradicted this when she said she couldn't return to Bristol, as every time she heard someone speaking with her parents' Bristol accent it would remind her how much she missed them. She did not attend university, leaving the A-levels she had started a few weeks earlier to begin writing for the New Musical Express (NME).
Writing and broadcasting career
At the NME
She started her career, aged 17, as a writer at the New Musical Express (NME) after responding, coincidentally with her future husband Tony Parsons, to an advert in that paper seeking "hip young gunslingers" to write about the then emerging punk movement. She gained the job by submitting a "eulogy" of Patti Smith's Horses. She later wrote that at the time she only liked black music, and "When I actually heard a punk record, I thought, ‘Oh my Lord! This is not music, this is just shouting'." Fortunately for her, as she later said, "Punk was over in two years. That was the only damn good thing about it."
In her few years at the NME she was assigned the punk beat and wrote a review of the Sex Pistols' Never Mind the Bollocks album on its release in 1977. In a review of Siouxsie and the Banshees first album, The Scream (1978), she was contemptuous of a line ("Too many Jews for my liking") which was initially part of the song "Love In A Void." It was, she wrote, "the most disgusting and unforgivable lyric-line ever written." As Siouxsie Sioux was by then into her 20s, "ignorant youth is no excuse, however lame. Therefore she must be either evil or retarded."
Around this time she was briefly a member of the Socialist Workers' Party after meeting the journalist Paul Foot. She left her position at the NME at the age of 20, saying that writing about music should be a young person's game. She then started freelancing to be able to write about other subjects, although she has never completely given up writing about pop music.
Her main employers after the New Musical Express were The Face and The Sunday Times where she wrote about politics, pop, fashion and society, and was their film critic from 1984 to 1986. She admitted in 2008 to making up film reviews and "'skived'" from screenings, while her ex-husband, Cosmo Landesman, has admitted attending screenings on her behalf.
One of her most controversial opinions from her early freelance career concerned the Falklands War in 1982. The left generally condemned it as an imperialist war, but Burchill, in common with Christopher Hitchens, argued that the military dictatorship of General Galtieri represented a greater evil. She confounded the left again, and won many admirers on the right, by writing articles favourable to Margaret Thatcher. Her sympathy for Thatcher helped in gaining a column for The Mail on Sunday, where in 1987 she went against the paper's usual political line by urging its readers to vote Labour. Though she claims to like the MoS, she said of journalists on the Daily Mail in 2008: "Everybody knows that hacks are the biggest bunch of adulterers, the most misbehaving profession in the world – and you have people writing for the Daily Mail writing as though they are vicars ... moralising on single mothers and whatnot." Her novel Ambition (1989) was a best-seller.
Into the 1990s
In the 1980s and early 1990s, before her move to Brighton, Burchill was depicted and saw herself as being the "Queen of the Groucho". Burchill has spoken repeatedly and frankly of her relationship with drugs, writing that she had "put enough toot up my admittedly sizeable snout to stun the entire Colombian armed forces". She declared that "As one who suffered from chronic shyness and a low boredom threshold ... 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." While Burchill has frequently drawn on her personal life for her writing, her personal life was has been a subject of public comment, especially during this period, when "everything about her – her marriages, her debauchery, her children – seemed to be news."
In 1991, Burchill, Landesman and Toby Young established a short-lived magazine Modern Review through which she met Charlotte Raven, with whom she had a much publicised affair. "[I] was only a lesbian for about six weeks in 1995" she claimed in an interview with Lynn Barber in 2004, or "my very enjoyable six months of lesbianism" in a 2000 article. Launched under the slogan "Low culture for high brows", the magazine lasted until 1995, when Burchill and her colleagues fell out. It was briefly revived by Burchill, with Raven editing, in 1997. The 'Fax war' in 1993 between Burchill and author Camille Paglia, published in the Modern Review, gained much attention.
A user of cocaine at the time and since, sharing in the activity in the company of Will Self among others, she was totally positive about her use in The Guardian in 2000 when defending actress Danniella Westbrook for Westbrook's loss of her septum because of cocaine use. By then Will Self's wife, Deborah Orr, writing in The Independent, was scathing of Burchill for the article: "She does not identify herself as a cocaine addict, so she has no pity for Ms Westbrook." A letter in The Independent in June 2000 from the head waitress at the Groucho Club at the time, Deborah Bosley, caused a minor stir. Responding to an article by Yvonne Roberts, Bosley, at the time the partner of Richard Ingrams, a long standing critic of Burchill, alleged that Burchill was merely "a fat bird in a blue mac sitting in the corner" when ensconced at the Groucho. In revenge for Deborah Orr's article, Burchill invented a supposedly long-standing crush on Will Self with the intention of upsetting Orr.
The following year's, Burchill on Beckham (2001), a short book about Burchill's opinions concerning David Beckham's life, career, and relationship with Victoria Beckham, attracted "some of the worst notices since Jeffrey Archer's heyday. 'Burchill is to football writing what Jimmy Hill is to feminist polemics'," wrote one reviewer. According to Robert Winder in the New Statesman: "The book fits in with Burchill's theme of praising the working class; Burchill presents Beckham as "an anti-laddish symbol of old working-class values – he reminds her of those proud men of her childhood, 'paragons of generosity, industry and chastity'."
For five years until 2003 Burchill wrote a weekly column in The Guardian. Appointed in 1998 by Orr, while editor of the Guardian Weekend supplement, Burchill's career was in trouble; she had been sacked by the revived Punch magazine. Burchill frequently thanks Orr for rescuing her. One of the pieces she wrote for The Guardian was in reaction to the murder of BBC TV presenter Jill Dando in 1999. She compared the shock of Dando's murder to finding a "tarantula in a punnet full of strawberries". In 2002 she narrowly 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." Burchill had expressed anti-Irish sentiment several times throughout her career, announcing in the London journal Time Out that "I hate the Irish, I think they're appalling".
She supported the Iraq war, writing in The Guardian in 2003 that she was “in favour of a smaller war now rather than a far worse war later” and criticised those opposed to the war as “pro-Saddam apologists”. She justified her stance by stating that “this war is about freedom, justice – and oil” and that because Britain and the United States sold weapons to Iraq that, “it is our responsibility to redress our greed and ignorance by doing the lion's share in getting rid of him”.
Burchill left The Guardian acrimoniously, saying in an interview that they had offered her a sofa in lieu of a pay rise. She claims to have left the newspaper in protest at what she saw as its "vile anti-Semitism".
Burchill was an early critic of the fashion for denigrating lower social classes as "chavs". In 2005, she presented the Sky One documentary In Defence of Chavs. "Picking on people worse off than you are isn't humour. It's pathetic, it's cowardly and it's bullying" she commented in an interview for The Daily Telegraph at the time. "It's all to do with self-loathing ... The middle classes can't bear to see people having more fun, so they attack Chavs for things like their cheap jewellery. It's jealousy, because they secretly know Chavs are better than them. They're even better looking."
Following her departure from The Guardian, in early 2005 she moved to The Times, who were more willing to meet her demands, doubling her previous salary. Shortly after starting her weekly column, she referred to George Galloway, but appeared to confuse him with former MP Ron Brown, reporting the misdeeds of Brown as those of Galloway, "he incited Arabs to fight British troops in Iraq." She apologised in her column and The Times paid damages thought to have been £50,000.
In 2006 The Times dropped her Saturday column, and arranged a more flexible arrangement with Burchill writing for the daily paper. Later it emerged during a Guardian interview, published on 4 August 2008, that eventually she "was given the jolly old heave ho" by The Times, and paid off for the last year of her three-year contract, still receiving the £300,000 she would have earned if she had been obliged to provide copy. She later described her columns for her abbreviated Times contract, which ended abruptly in 2007, thus: "I was totally taking the piss. I didn't spend much time on them and they were such arrant crap."
In February 2006, she announced plans for a year's sabbatical from journalism, planning, among other things, to study theology. She had previously, in 1999, 'found God', and become a Lutheran. In June 2007, she announced that she would not be returning to journalism, but instead concentrate on writing books and TV scripts and finally undertake a theology degree, but she returned to writing for The Guardian newspaper.
Burchill's co-written book with Chas Newkey-Burden Not in My Name: a compendium of modern hypocrisy appeared in August 2008, and is dedicated "to Arik and Bibi" (Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu). According to Gerald Jacobs, writing for The Jewish Chronicle in 2008, "this book does not merely stand up for Israel, it jumps up and down, cheers and waves its arms." The newspaper described her as "Israel's staunchest supporter in the UK media." When asked if Israel has any flaws, she responded: "Yes. They are much too tolerant of their freaking neighbours, much too reasonable."
She declared in 2005, after Ariel Sharon's withdrawal of Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip, that "Israel is the only country I would fucking die for. He's the enemy of the Jews. Chucking his own people off the Gaza; to me that's disgusting." Besides writing occasional pieces for The Guardian, she wrote four articles for the centre-right politics and culture magazine Standpoint between July and October 2008.
At the end of June 2010 it was announced Burchill would be writing exclusively for The Independent, contributing a weekly full-page column for the paper. The connection lasted less than 18 months. Burchill wrote her last column for the newspaper at the end of October 2011. Admitting he had tried to recruit Burchill for The Sun in the 1980s, Roy Greenslade commented: "my admittedly occasional reading of her columns in recent years has left [me] feeling that she realises her old schtick is no longer working. She has run out of steam – and sympathetic newspaper editors."
Commenting on the Egyptian Revolution of 2011, Burchill wrote in the The Independent: "It would be wonderful to think that what replaces Mubarak will be better. But here's the thing about Middle Eastern regimes: they're all vile. The ones that are 'friendly' are vile and the ones that hate us are vile. Revolutions in the region have a habit of going horribly wrong, and this may well have something to do with the fact that Islam and democracy appear to find it difficult to co-exist for long".
On 13 January 2013, Burchill wrote an article for The Observer defending Suzanne Moore after a reference by Moore to transsexuals had been greeted with a great deal of criticism. In Burchill's view it showed the "chutzpah" of transsexuals to have their "cock cut off and then plead special privileges as women". There were a number of objections to her writing from members of the transgender community and non-transgender community alike and the editor of The Observer, John Mulholland, responded on the comments page to what he described as "many emails protesting about this piece" and stated that he would be looking into the issue. Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone, formerly a junior Minister for Women and Equalities, called for the dismissal of Burchill and Mulholland in response to the piece. The article was withdrawn from the website the following day, and replaced with a message from Mulholland, but reappeared on the Telegraph website. On 18 January The Observer's Readers Editor Stephen Pritchard defended the decision to remove the article from the newspaper's website, quoting the editor who took that decision as saying "This clearly fell outside what we might consider reasonable. The piece should not have been published in that form. I don't want the Observer to be conducting debates on those terms or with that language. It was offensive, needlessly. We made a misjudgment and we apologise for that."
Religion and philo-semitism
In 1999, Burchill 'found God', and became a Lutheran and later a "self-confessed Christian Zionist". In June 2007, she announced that she would undertake a theology degree, although she subsequently decided to do voluntary work instead as a way to learn more about Christianity. She has volunteered in a local RNIB home.
In June 2009 The Jewish Chronicle reported that she had become a Friend of Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue and was considering again a conversion to Judaism. Reported as having attended Shabbat services for a month, and studying Hebrew, Burchill now described herself as an "ex-christian", pointing out that she had been pondering on her conversion since the age of 25. Burchill said that "At a time of rising and increasingly vicious anti-semitism from both left and right, becoming Jewish especially appeals to me. ... Added to the fact that I admire Israel so much, it does seem to make sense – assuming of course that the Jews will have me." She wrote in November 2012: "The things I love about the Jews are: their religion, their language and their ancient country."
Burchill though has clashed with Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah of the Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue, and the Rabbi's lesbian partner, Jess Woods. Among the reasons for the clash was Rabbi Sarah's defence of Muslims and her advocacy of the Palestinian cause. In Burchill's words, the rabbi "respects PIG ISLAM." Rabbi Sarah told The Independent in September 2014: "The problem is [Burchill] doesn’t have any in-depth knowledge. I can imagine her endlessly watching the film Exodus with Paul Newman. She’s got a kind of Hollywood view of Jews. You know, ‘Jews are so clever, we’ve survived…'."
In Autumn 2014, Burchill's book Unchosen: The Memoirs of a Philo-Semite was published. Tel Aviv-based writer Akin Ajayi in Haaretz thought "the reactionary solipsism of Unbound is far removed from the affectionate warmness that a love of the Jewish people can be." Burchill's ex-husband, Cosmo Landesman, considered it to be an "exhilarating and exasperating mix of the utterly brilliant and the totally bonkers." He observes that "there are plenty of Jews Julie doesn’t love" including the "millions of Jews around the world who have ever criticised Israel. Her love is blind, deaf and dumb to such an obvious contradiction." Guardian Columnist Hadley Freeman wrote: "Hilariously, she sets herself up as the Jewishness Police, railing against Jews who are not Jewish enough".
She announced in November 2012 that her next book, Unchosen, was to be crowd-source funded, via Unbound, and published after enough pledges had been received. Her agent had failed to interest six conventional publishers in the project.
Other books and television programmes
Burchill has written novels and made television documentaries. Her novel Ambition (1989) was a best-seller and her lesbian-themed novel for teenagers Sugar Rush (2004) was adapted into a television programme produced by Shine Limited for Channel 4. Lenora Crichlow's portrayal of the central character Maria Sweet inspired the 2007 sequel novel Sweet. She has made television documentaries about the death of her father from asbestosis in 2002 (BBC Four) and Heat magazine broadcast on Sky One in 2006.
Burchill's views and writing have received significant media attention and she is known for her contentious prose – in her own words, "the writing equivalent of screaming and throwing things" – and strong opinions: for her novel Sugar Rush her publicist described her "Britain's most famous and controversial journalist". One of her most consistent themes is her championing of the working-class (which she still identifies with, despite now being a successful journalist) against the middle-class in most cases, and has been particularly vocal in defending chavs. According to Will Self, "Burchill's great talent as a journalist is to beautifully articulate the inarticulate sentiments and prejudices of her readers". For Michael Bywater, Burchill's "insights were, and remain, negligible, on the level of a toddler having a tantrum". As John Arlidge put it in The Observer, "If Burchill is famous for anything it is for being Julie Burchill, the brilliant, unpredictable, outrageously outspoken writer who has an iconoclastic, usually offensive, view on everything.
In 2002 her life was the subject of a one-woman West End play, Julie Burchill is Away, by Tim Fountain, with Burchill played by her friend Jackie Clune. A sequel by Fountain, Julie Burchill: Absolute Cult, followed in 2014.with Lizzie Roper in the central role.
In 2003, Burchill was ranked number 85 in Channel 4's poll of 100 Worst Britons. The poll was inspired by the BBC series 100 Greatest Britons, though it was less serious in nature. The aim was to discover the "100 worst Britons we love to hate". The poll specified that the nominees had to be British, alive and not currently in prison or pending trial.
Burchill has made frequent attacks on various celebrity figures, which have attracted criticism for their cruelty. On the 25th anniversary of John Lennon's murder by shooting in 2005 she told the Guardian "I don't remember where I was but I was really pleased he was dead, as he was a wife-beater, gay-basher, anti-Semite and all-round bully-boy." In an essay "Born Again Cows" published in Damaged Gods (1987), she wrote: "When the sex war is won prostitutes should be shot as collaborators for their terrible betrayal of all women." Her defenders though have noted the self-deprecating aspects of her persona. Asked by Will Self in a 1999 interview if she was solipsistic, she responded with the comment: "I don't know – I didn't go to university".
Burchill was briefly married to Tony Parsons (whom she met at NME), moving in with him in 1981, at the age of 21. She left three years later, leaving behind a son, and subsequently there has been "a steady stream of vitriol in both directions"; she claims to have got through the "sexual side" of their marriage "by pretending that my husband was my friend Peter York". Her relationships, particularly with Parsons, have featured regularly in her work; Parsons later wrote that "It's like having a stalker. I don't understand her fascination with someone whom she split up with 15 years ago."
After Parsons, Burchill married Cosmo Landesman, the son of Fran and Jay Landesman, with whom she also had a son. The sons from her marriages with Parsons and Landesman lived with their fathers after the separations. After splitting from Landesman in 1992, she subsequently married again in 2004, to Daniel Raven, about 13 years her junior, her former lover Charlotte Raven's brother. She wrote of the joys of having a "toyboy" in her Times "Weekend Review" column. Fellow NME journalist/author Paul Wellings wrote about their friendship in his book I'm A Journalist...Get Me Out of Here. She has written about her lesbian relationships, and declared that "I would never describe myself as 'heterosexual', 'straight' or anything else. Especially not 'bisexual' (it sounds like a sort of communal vehicle missing a mudguard). I like 'spontaneous' as a sexual description." However, in 2009 she said that she was only attracted to girls in their 20s, and since she was now nearly 50, "I really don't want to be an old perv. So best leave it."
She has lived in Brighton and Hove since 1995 and a book on her adopted home town titled Made in Brighton (Virgin Books) was published in April 2007. Her house in Hove was sold (and demolished for redevelopment as high-density flats) around 2005 for £1.5 million, of which she has given away £300,000, citing Andrew Carnegie: "A man who dies rich, dies shamed."