is, as the Observer once put it, a ‘brilliant, unpredictable, outrageously outspoken writer who has an iconoclastic, usually offensive, view on everything’.
She was still in her Lutheran phase when Simon Joseph Jones tried to engage her by email between 17 April and 2 May 2007.
Photography: Eamonn McCabe
In Made in Brighton,1Co-authored with her husband, Daniel Raven, and published by Virgin Books in April 2007 you pour scorn on the supercilious attitude people display towards ‘bad’ proles and their condescension to ‘good’ ones. When did you start to become aware of class?
I’m not sure – bad memory, too many drugs!
When did you discover drugs?
I’d left home and was living in London – I was 17.
I felt like an adult in a kid’s body from the age of 12. All I wanted was to stand on my own feet and make my own money. I was a right little madam! But I was super-bright…
Did you have an idea of what you wanted to achieve [back then] – and weren’t you concerned that drugs might inhibit that? Or was your ambition just to have a good time?
I just knew instinctively that drugs – stimulants such as amphetamine and cocaine; I was never interested in downers – would bring me out of myself and help me get out there and achieve my dream of being a writer. I was right. Some people can’t handle drugs, but others can – it’s just a fact of life, beyond all the hysteria and witch-hunts.
Do you mean that you found them mind-expanding, or that taking them was a form of social networking? I’m wondering whether that was just the easiest way for a ‘super-bright’ working-class girl to move into the mostly middle-class world of the London media.
I was naturally very shy and quite lazy, and speed/cocaine made me confident and industrious. That was, and is, genuinely my experience – it doesn’t fit in with the propaganda, but it’s true. I wouldn’t have had it any other way. All that fun, and a career, too!
I express my faith by being extremely generous to others, particularly those in need – not censorious of myself, which I see as a kind of useless vanity
Would you recommend drugs today to someone who was talented but shy and lazy?
Drugs suited me beautifully, but someone else they might not. You can never tell till you try.
Do you still take drugs? I understand you have embraced Lutheranism, and there is a kind of abandon in taking drugs that seems to me to be at odds with that serene kind of faith.
I’d rarely turn down a nice line of coke. But needles, funny fags – forget it! I don’t need encouragement to relax.
I express my faith by being extremely generous to others, particularly those in need – not censorious of myself, which I see as a kind of useless, tight-fisted vanity.
I know that Lutheranism is hot on grace rather than works, but I’m also aware that you’ve described yourself as having ‘a kind of moral cretinism’. Isn’t that being censorious of yourself?
No, I was having a laugh, as I often am.
I have always been generous with my time and money but it is a very big part of my life these days. I put it down to faith, partly.
What attracted you to that faith? Was it a road-to-Damascus thing?
One day in my flat in Bloomsbury [in central London], about 15 years ago, I felt as though a jar of ointment had been broken very softly over my head. I took it to be the Lord, as I wasn’t on drugs or having a hangover from them.
A couple of years ago, my now friend the Rev Gavin Ashenden2Then senior chaplain at Sussex University asked me to his services at Sussex University and I figured I now had faith. I’ve been a basically happy person since my mid twenties, so it is not like ‘Oh, I was a poor, sad wretch and now I’m saved!’ But it does make you much stronger – and it got me through the deaths of my parents a treat. I was very fond of them, but I suffered very little at their passing.
If you mean [what] specifically attracted [me] to Protestantism, it was the lack of showiness, hypocrisy and corruption compared with the Catholic Church that drew me.
What is your attitude to the Bible? How far do you go along with the dogma? The media reported that you gave up your column in the Times in order to do a degree in theology.
I haven’t had the chance to do my theology course yet – too many writing offers I couldn’t turn down. Hopefully I will start in September 2008. I’ll be 48 then and ready to retire. I’m also very keen on doing more voluntary work, as I only do two mornings a week now.
Often dogma masks a lack of true faith, so I can’t say that it interests me much. My favourite religious book, by the way, is Foxe’s Book of Martyrs!
Guilt and regret are both a kind of morbid vanity. ‘“Take what you want and pay for it,” says God,’ says a Spanish proverb
Considering how critical you are of Islam, you must have gone through some process of deciding what you do believe – or at least what you don’t.
I just look at what’s in front of me: how Islam treats women, homosexuals, slaves. It’s evil.
So, is a faith worth adopting if it accords with ethics you find elsewhere? But what is the source of those ethics, then, if they aren’t derived from your faith?
I don’t know. That is why I hope to study theology when I have finished all my commissions. Ask me in 2009!
Can’t you identify the source of your ethical views? They seem to me to be very strongly held. Or are you just saying that you reject ideology, in a postmodern way? Is that why you’ve been accused of inconsistency?
I don’t know. That’s why I want to study theology – I’m hoping to find out. I left school before my A-levels and have no idea of the correct terms for what I experience. I can’t say I’ve missed it, but it’ll be something new to do in my old age.
But I don’t mean just in terms of faith. Why is it, for instance, that you take exception to people sneering at chavs? Is it a question of where you have come from and who you identify with, or were there particular books or people that pointed you in a certain direction?
I suppose a crude example might be the kid who reads The Road to Wigan Pier or The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists and wants to change the world – but there is more nuance in your writing.
I honestly don’t know. My father was a great example of a simply good man, so that must be an influence. He was just a very kind, dignified, generous man – more so than any I’ve ever met. He was a factory worker and a trades union organiser. And a communist.
Was he a good parent?
Yes, he was wonderful.
Do you think that’s a worthwhile ambition, to be a good parent?
There’s no point in having it as an ambition – you are either good at it or you aren’t.
Would it be improper to ask whether you have reflected on your relationship with your own children?
I have no regrets or guilt about my behaviour, if that’s what you mean. Guilt and regret are both a kind of morbid vanity. ‘“Take what you want and pay for it,” says God,’ says a Spanish proverb.
I realised it was silly to have two Rolexes, so I gave the smaller one to a lady I know who is on benefits. It really cheered her up
Can’t feelings of guilt be productive, inasmuch as sometimes it is such feelings that inspire you to seek grace? Or do you not believe in a God who may one day ask you to give an account for your life?
I have no idea, so I’ll have to take my chances and continue in my generous ways. For instance, last week I realised it was silly to have two Rolexes, so I gave the smaller one to a lady I know who works with me at the mentally-handicapped centre and is on benefits. It really cheered her up.
Does not feeling guilty mean that you don’t feel the need to seek forgiveness, either from other people or from God?
I might ask the Lord to please help me not to be a certain way, but not to forgive me. Pointless.
Do you forgive other people easily yourself?
If people displease me too much, I just leave ’em to it. There’s no point in trying to change people – and there are a million people out there one could be equally good friends with. Generally I forgive very easily, and then one day I just switch off. It’s best that way, or else you spend your life fretting.
You imply that you do pray.
Only for other people, never myself – and even then it strikes me as a bit presumptuous. I mean, like I’m gonna change the Lord’s mind! I mostly ask him to stop me being a gossip; but I understand he’s quite busy and that’s a bit trivial.
It’s often said of prayer that it’s not so much about asking God for things as discovering what he wants from you. Do you have any idea what that might be?
For me to be extremely generous to the poor and needy will do for starters.
What about in your role as an opinion former?
Not so fussed about that. If I can point out the evil of Islam, all the better, obviously.
If you had considered Christianity two hundred years ago, wouldn’t that, too, have seemed evil to you?
That was then; this is now. We start from where we are. And Christianity was never in the same league as Islam for evil. Patrick Sookhdeo3The director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity – one of my heroes – is very sound on this. Also Michael Nazir-Ali4Then bishop of Rochester and author of, among many other books, Conviction and Conflict: Islam, Christianity and world order (Continuum, 2006). Nazir-Ali was interviewed for High Profiles in January 2011. – a brilliant man.
Michael Nazir-Ali opposes both the marriage and the ordination of gay people. I’d have thought you would see that as one kind of illiberalism fighting another.
Oops! Now you see why I need to go to theology school: I’m totally ignorant. But he’s bloody sound on Islam, though.
I’ve never cared what people think of me. On the contrary, I get a slight parasexual thrill from criticism. Only a slight one…
Why do you think so many Muslim women see Islam as emancipatory? For example, they might say that their modest dress is a way of resisting objectification.
Muslim women who say that have an extreme form of Stockholm syndrome. I’ve just read a very amusing piece that points out that Tehran is the nose-job capital of the world – more so than Los Angeles. So much for freedom from the tyranny of beauty!
I believe you’re a fan of the ‘glamour model’ Jordan. What do you think of the people who buy pictures of her?
I have no feelings about them either way. I bought a calendar of her two years ago. It was beautiful – but I already had too many calendars, so I gave it to my husband.
So, you don’t take exception to what other feminists have described as the ‘objectification’ of women?
No, because it’s not a sexist issue. Just read any gay male magazine – the ‘objectification’ makes your eyes water! Beauty is beauty and you can’t fight its pull. Even blind rich men tend to marry good-looking women, I’ve heard.
Would you still say you’d rather a daughter of yours took Jordan as a role model than Germaine Greer?
Yes, mainly because Jordan isn’t a hypocrite. I hate hypocrites.
Are you at all interested in your own reputation as a writer?
No, not in the slightest. I’ve never cared what people think of me. On the contrary, I get a slight parasexual thrill from criticism. Only a slight one…
Don’t you care that what they think of you may affect how they view the ideas you’re expressing?
Not at all. If they’re narrow-minded, it’s their loss.
Do you set out to be provocative?
I just say what I mean. There are so many liars and hypocrites around that it stands out.
Your world seems to be quite black-and-white. Can’t good and bad (and right and wrong) co-exist in the same person? In that sense, aren’t we all hypocrites – trying to do the right thing but often failing?
I don’t agree. I am not a hypocrite. But I’ve met hundreds of people who are.
Does the inconsistency in somebody’s personal life invalidate their arguments even if they are very well thought out?
Yes, it does. If they can’t walk it like they talk it, they have no right to recommend it to anyone else. Hypocrites!
I find it hard to follow a party line. I’m too much of a populist – which is why I’m against hunting but pro hanging. I find it quite hard to find like-minded souls
So, if I’m a Marxist I can’t buy a house?
You can buy a house but you can’t have two homes or you will be a hypocrite. You can’t buy to let or you will be a hypocrite.
Doesn’t the whole of life involve compromise? For instance, a priest may believe that Jesus’ command to love our enemies is profound and true, but the chances of him obeying it consistently are pretty slim. In your view, if he preaches that command, it makes him a hypocrite. But, surely, if he doesn’t preach it his parish will be a worse place?
I see what you’re getting at, but I find this attitude somewhat weak and wriggly. I would rather strike out boldly and risk making mistakes than sit on the fence going ‘Yeah but, no but’ forever.
If your journalism is about telling the truth as you see it, what is the aim of your fiction?
To entertain. To make people laugh. To make people gasp at my ways with words, even in a blockbuster sex novel or a teen novel.
Not to influence or persuade? What responsibility do you feel when writing for teenagers?
None. And I would have hated any writer feeling ‘responsible’ for me when I was a kid. What a dull read that would make for!
Perhaps ‘responsible’ is the wrong word. Directly or indirectly, young readers pick up values from what they read. What is it that they learn from your books, do you think?
That life is there to be grabbed and had. And to be true to oneself and never be a hypocrite.
Were there any authors who particularly inspired you when you were a teenager?
Loads! Alan Garner,5Children’s fantasy writer best known for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (William Collins, 1960) and The Owl Service (William Collins, 1967) Saki – now there’s a man who doesn’t feel any responsibility to his readers. And who also hates hypocrisy.
Who inspires you today?
I read mainly books about Israel and Islamofascism. I loved Nick Cohen’s book [What’s Left?: How liberals lost their way].6Fourth Estate, 2007 I also reread Patrick Hamilton a lot.
Philip Pullman has said that people who write fiction solely for adults are interested only in ‘cutting artistic capers’, whereas those who write for younger readers address the deeper questions of life. Is that true of you?
The only thing about which I get slightly preachy, in Sugar Rush and Sweet,7Macmillan, 2004 and Picador, 2007 respectively is the evils of the class system: how dumb wealthy kids rise without effort while smart poor kids sink without trace.
Isn’t there a tension between proclaiming that ‘life is there to be grabbed and had’ and protesting that it’s easier for some people to grab it than for others?
No, not at all. The wealthy don’t need to grab things – they’re handed to them. If more poor kids grabbed things, there’d be less to hand to the rich dumbasses on a plate.
Most commentators in the media, whether they like it or not, can be lumped into groups, and sometimes they even form alliances and write joint letters and so on. You always seem to be ploughing a lone furrow. Is there no one out there who you regard as being on the same side as you – or are you just not a ‘joiner’, whatever the issue?
I find it hard to follow a party line. I’m too much of a populist – which is why I’m against hunting but pro hanging.
I find it quite hard to find like-minded souls.
A slightly longer version of this interview was published in the September 2007 issue of Third Way.
|⇑1||Co-authored with her husband, Daniel Raven, and published by Virgin Books in April 2007|
|⇑2||Then senior chaplain at Sussex University|
|⇑3||The director of the Institute for the Study of Islam and Christianity|
|⇑4||Then bishop of Rochester and author of, among many other books, Conviction and Conflict: Islam, Christianity and world order (Continuum, 2006). Nazir-Ali was interviewed for High Profiles in January 2011.|
|⇑5||Children’s fantasy writer best known for The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (William Collins, 1960) and The Owl Service (William Collins, 1967)|
|⇑6||Fourth Estate, 2007|
|⇑7||Macmillan, 2004 and Picador, 2007 respectively|
Julie Burchill was born in 1959 and educated at Brislington Comprehensive School in Bristol.
In 1976, she answered an advertisement for a ‘hip young gun-slinger’ on New Musical Express and got the job, writing especially about the emergent punk scene.
She moved to The Face at its launch in 1980.
Four years later, she moved again, to the Sunday Times, where she wrote a column until 1986. She then had a column in the Mail on Sunday, and the Daily Express until it sacked her in 1998.
In 1991, with her then friend Toby Young and her then husband, Cosmo Landesman, she co-founded the bimonthly The Modern Review, and contributed regularly until its demise four years later.
In 1998, she began a weekly column in the Guardian, followed in 2004 by the Times.
Her writing has also appeared in Vanity Fair, the Spectator and Punch.
In 2006, she announced that she was taking a sabbatical from journalism. With the former Daily Mail writer Sara Lawrence, she launched Dumbass Inc to pitch ideas for reality TV programmes to the television industry.
She is the author of The Boy Looked at Johnny: The obituary of rock and roll (1979) with her then husband, Tony Parsons; Love It or Shove It (1985); Damaged Gods and Girls on Film (both 1986); Sex and Sensibility (1992); Diana and her memoirs, I Knew I Was Right (both 1998), The Guardian Columns 1998–2000 and On Beckham (both 2001) and, with her current husband, Daniel Raven, Made in Brighton (2007); as well as the novels Ambition (1989); No Exit (1993); Married Alive (1998); Sugar Rush (2004), which was televised on Channel 4, winning an International Emmy in 2006; and Sweet (2007).
She was the subject of a one-woman play by Tim Fountain, Julie Burchill is Away…, which ran at the Soho Theatre in London in 2002 and was revived at the Edinburgh Festival two years later.
She has been married three times – since 2004 to the younger brother of a former ‘amoureuse’. She had a son by each of her first two husbands.
Up-to-date as at 1 August 2007