Julie Burchill: Brash, outspoken and wishing she was Jewish
‘Beautiful and exceptionally intelligent': Julie's views on Jews. Meet Israel's staunchest supporter in the UK media - a working-class former punk from Bristol who's responsible for some of the most entertaining journalism of the past 30 years.
Almost the first words Julie Burchill utters as she opens the door of her Brighton flat are: "Did you go on the rally?" She is referring to the Salute-to-Israel rally at the end of June and which she says was the occasion for her first trip up to London in two years.
Burchill, one of the country's most combative and original writers, has long been an unashamedly outspoken supporter of Jews in general and Israel in particular. An Israeli flag occupies a commanding position in her living room. Another is displayed in her bedroom.
Few media figures have attracted such fervent affection on the one hand and opprobrium on the other as the controversial Burchill, whether for her forthright views or her colourful lifestyle. Famously, she quit her widely read Guardian column with a blistering attack on the paper for its attitudes towards Jews and she has frequently clashed with bien pensant liberals over the Middle East and Islam.
Improbably, it was the soccer writer and novelist, Brian Glanville, who set her on the road to stardom. They make an unlikely mentor and disciple, the secular Jew, renowned for his lofty turns of phrase, and the practising Christian, famed for the sharpness of her verbal darts. Yet Glanville was the trigger, it seems, for the teenage Burchill to leave her native Bristol on a journey that took in the hedonism of Soho before bringing her to Sussex's shadiest shore.
"When I was a very young girl," Burchill, now 49, recalls, "I took Brian Glanville's book The Artist Type from the library. It seemed to sum up everything about the sophisticated life I wanted to live. Looking back, the people in it were absolutely shocking - a right bunch of shaggers and monsters - but I thought ‘that's the life for me' and I guess it was, really. So I've got Brian Glanville to blame. It is a brilliant, very louche book."
"Louche" is a word Burchill uses frequently in conversation, always approvingly. It is a word that perfectly fits Brighton, her adopted hometown, where she lives with her third husband, Daniel Raven (at separate addresses). One somehow cannot imagine it being applied to Bristol, her birthplace. Not that she was unhappy there. She remains unshakeably proud of her West-Country, working-class roots: "I had a brilliant childhood. I was allowed to do what I liked. I was an only child. But, from the time I was 12, I thought of myself as an older person born into a child's body. Mentally, I was a 30-year-old divorcée. I just wanted to get away, take drugs and have sex. I wanted to be a bohemian. My parents were very respectable, great people, but it bored me."
"Boring" is the last word that could be applied to Burchill's life since she left home. It has included two high-profile divorces and a much-written-about lesbian relationship with fellow journalist Charlotte Raven, her present husband's sister.
"In many people's eyes, what I've done has been a horrible way for a person to behave but I haven't had a single moment of regret. Every time I've left a family, I've gone on to be much happier. I have two sons, one I don't see and one who lives with me, for my sins. That's Jack, who's 22. He's the apple of my eye, my Achilles heel.
"I've got no interest in seeing my first son and I'm sure he has no interest in seeing me. Some people just don't take to each other. I'm not going to lie about it. I'd rather be a monster than a hypocrite."
Hypocrisy is a big issue with Burchill. Her new book, Not In My Name, co-written with Chas Newkey-Burden, is subtitled A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy and, behind its eye-catching array of such targets as cyclists, The Guardian, "Fat-girl feminists" and white hip-hop fans, it is not difficult to detect the motor that drives the pair's entertaining and at times inspiring tirade. There is a strong clue in the dedication at the front "to Arik and Bibi" - yes, that Arik and Bibi, messrs Sharon and Netanyahu. For this book does not merely stand up for Israel, it jumps up and down, cheers and waves its arms.
When asked if there is anything at all about Israelis she does not admire, Burchill's retort is instant: "Yes. They are much too tolerant of their freaking neighbours, much too reasonable. Even in reasonable Arab countries you've got Hitler's book for sale - and The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Jews who think that ‘moderate' Arab countries don't have the same attitude as the more obviously extreme ones are lying to themselves. I can see why they do because it's scary to think how many people hate you. I also understand why Jews do things like last month's shocking prisoner exchange [of five Lebanese prisoners and 199 bodies for the two dead soldiers, Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev] because they are such a tolerant, civilised people. It's a beautiful thing but I'm glad I'm not like it.
"Antisemitism in Britain is a huge problem. The old jealousy and the new Islam have given life to things we thought were dying out. People like [her co-writer] Chas and I are lucky enough to have escaped this virus in society and that's a brilliant, brilliant thing to find in another gentile. Even decent gentile people are touched by it to some extent. I can see it very clearly even in people I love, which is an extraordinarily horrible thing to have to say.
"My parents were decent people, my father was almost saint-like, and yet they had a certain element of antisemitism, and they never met any Jews! I would say that the way my husband talks about Israel contains an element of anti-Jewish suspicion - and my husband's a wonderful person.
"When I see that Jews can do things so well - everything across the board from having shops to winning Nobel Prizes - I think, wow, how fantastic! It must be great to be one of them. Maybe that's because I've got very high self-esteem. People who have got a little self-hatred, or low self-esteem, or can't do anything - they don't like it. They think ‘why can't we do that?'
"There's the old line that Jews are Communists, and yet they're capitalists; they're cliquey, and yet they spread their influence everywhere. Antisemites know themselves they are being stupid and so just fling it around. People say, if you want to tell a lie, tell a big lie. By the time people get into talking this nonsense they're getting high on their own supply and they're in a frenzy of self-righteousness. And I think that, by that time, they don't know what they're saying. You can see it in their faces. People who maybe don't take drugs or drink or get fun in another way can get themselves into quite a frenzy talking shit about others.
"The Muslim extremists are not hypocrites. They really tell us how much they despise us. It's the Guardian people who say: ‘Oh no, they don't really mean it.' It is incredibly patronising to claim to translate to us what Islamic radicals really mean. The Guardian people say about [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad: ‘He doesn't mean it when he says he wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth. He's doing it for his own people.' That some white, Guardian journalist thinks he can see inside the mind of man from a totally different culture is extraordinary."
Julie Burchill was 17, and two weeks into her A-levels, in 1976 when she answered an advertisement in which the music publication New Musical Express announced: "Wanted, hip young gunslingers".
Her arrival coincided with that of punk rock. And her recollection of her early efforts confirms the tenuous, artificial nature of that most faddish of fads. "They was all hippies on the NME," she says, her fast, furious delivery softened by a Bristolian burr, "and they wanted someone to write about punk. I didn't know a damn thing about punk. Black music was the only kind I liked. When I actually heard a punk record, I thought, ‘Oh my Lord! This is not music, this is just shouting'.
"I had to pretend to be a punk so I dressed the part, looked the part, went to horrible punk clubs. I made up a load of crap and said how great it was. So I was a hypocrite at the beginning and now I've become someone dismantling hypocrisy. My writing was terrible. I got the job because I was 17 and working-class. They'd never seen anything like that before."
Her fellow young NME gunslinger was Tony Parsons, who would later secure himself a niche as a novelist and critic of popular culture. More immediately, he secured himself the role of Julie Burchill's first husband, and father of Bobby, her first-born son, the one from whom she is now estranged. She is pretty estranged from Parsons himself, too - as their exchanges in print and over the internet testify.
"Tony Parsons bothered me constantly and I married him at 19 to shut him up. I thought: ‘I can always leave if I don't like him.' I think of Tony and me as being like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, two Hollywood queens. When I've looked at the stuff we've said to each other, I think, ‘how can two adults be so stupid and how can two straight people be so camp?'"
Burchill left the NME at 19 ("Punk was over in two years. That was the only damn good thing about it"). Her subsequent career has seen her profile - and her fees - climb steadily with her pugnacious, branding-iron style appearing in a range of publications including The Face, The Times, Sunday Times, The Guardian, Sun, Spectator and the recently launched Standpoint magazine.
In the 1990s, with Toby Young, she founded the culturally hip Modern Review. She has written a number of books, non-fiction and fiction, including the highly successful novel, Ambition. Her 2004 tale of teenage lesbian love, Sugar Rush, gave birth to a television series, which won an Emmy in America. As the new book on hypocrisy shows, Burchill is also happy to collaborate with others.
This has not always been true in life. After the collapse of her marriage to Parsons, her next matrimonial move was into a Jewish family, a showbusiness and media one to boot. Husband number two was again a writer and critic - Cosmo Landesman, son of the American musical writing and performing couple, Jay and Fran Landesman.
Initially, she found it all a bit overpowering. "Jewish argument - pushing at you all the time - is quite sexy," she says. "Coming from a stoic, gentile household, when I encounter people getting into a state around the dinner table, it seems to me enormously attractive - though when I first married into a Jewish family and saw it happening every night I thought: ‘Shut up! Shut up!' Cosmo and I had a fun marriage, a brilliant time... but his problem is that he doesn't think he's got any problems."
Landesman is publishing his autobiography later this year, and despite their split and the transfer of their son Jack to Burchill's care, she has no apprehensions about its content. Neither, according to her, do his parents. "Cosmo's book makes his parents into strange anti-heroes, like Victor Meldrew. He portrays them as awful people but they are so excited about the publication - their desire for fame, even in their 80s, far overrides their desire for a good reputation."
Burchill's own father was a Communist and for years she was prepared to argue fiercely in its favour. Though she has dropped it, and has become one of Fleet Street's highest earners and a self-confessed pleasure-seeker, she is far from being a great flaunter of wealth. Counter, perhaps, to the public image, she is not only a donor to charity (including Israeli charities), but a charity worker, too. "I work in a local RNIB home," she reveals, "with lots of old people. I play shuffleboard with them and take them out on the bus. We're all going to be like it one day. I don't find it depressing at all.
"I see myself as semi-retired... I just want to be with my friends and have fun. My dream is to just do my voluntary work as I get older.
So, Julie Burchill, erstwhile "gunslinger" and later "Queen of the Groucho Club", seems content and settled in "louche" Brighton. It seems she could not live anywhere else. Or could she...
She recalls sitting in a Tel Aviv café one day with some locals and a friend from England, "a kittenish blonde with many female wiles. Whenever she acted feminine, as we do in the West, all these beautiful Israeli girls looked at her, amazed. When they see someone pretending to be weak and pretending to be confused, they think: ‘Is she mental?'
"I just loved that place. When I came back I was obsessed with living there and I made my husband's life hell for a month. He said: ‘I don't want to go to Tel Aviv. I'm scared of being blown up.' A few weeks later, they blew up the Carmel market..."
Not in My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy is published by Virgin
‘Beautiful and exceptionally intelligent': Julie's views on Jews
From her new book, Not in My Name: A Compendium of Modern Hyprocrisy:
"Israel's attitude to matters sexual is a breath of fresh air in a deeply rancid region"
"Israel dismantles all the dirty prejudices fostered over the centuries of diaspora, and reveals them as born-again beauties, standing proud in the sunlight of self-determination"
"...the Jews are an exceptionally intelligent race - a quick glance at the number of Jewish Nobel Prize winners compared to the small number of them left in the world establishes this"
Of Israel's diverse population:
"No country ever boasted such a rainbow of beauty, from the black-skinned falashas to the blonds of Scandinavian extraction"
On the "amazing beauty" of Israelis:
"Not for nothing does my enchanting collaborator [Chas Newkey-Burden]...refer to his first trip there - just short of a week - as The Six-Day Phwoar"
From her column in The Guardian:
"I can't help noticing that, over the years, a disproportionate number of attractive, kind, clever people are drawn to Jews; those who express hostility to them, however, from Hitler to Hamza, are often as not repulsive freaks"
"The state of Israel... for all its faults, is the only country in that barren region that you or I, or any feminist, atheist, homosexual or trade unionist, could bear to live under"