When Julie Burchill opens the door to her studio flat, a short distance from the sea front in Hove, she is wearing sunglasses, a black top, a black skirt, black tights… and a white and blue foot brace. ‘This? David Beckham had one of these for his metatarsal injury. Mine is for something less glamorous called Charcot’s syndrome. I’ve had it on since Christmas and it comes off in May. I did apply for disability benefit but they said it wasn’t allowed. I wasn’t disabled enough. They must be frigging joking! But I can live with it. I suppose I never was the most active person in the world and I didn’t really need an excuse to sit on my sofa watching Frasier all afternoon. Nice to see you again, by the way.’
This is how she talks, in a rhetorical, breathless, stream-of-consciousness that is so rapid she sometimes runs herwordstogether. In interviews it is traditional to mention that she also has a West Country burr as well as a high, girly register, and that these come as a surprise, what with her writerly voice being so metropolitan and muscular. But, as she says, we’ve met before so I’m used to both. ‘It has meant I’ve had to stop going to the gym,’ she continues, ‘which I can live with. Then the gym burned down, which I took as a sign from the Lord. I have a step machine now. It’s over there.’
And so it is, near a china leopard with a pink feather boa around its neck. On the windowsill there is a Venetian mask and a sculpture of a horse head. On the walls there are a couple of oil paintings. The most expensive cost £15,000 (she is never reluctant to talk about money, Julie Burchill. It’s a working class thing, she reckons). And dominating the room is a large Bang and Olufsen television. It’s not on Frasier at the moment but Jerry Springer. ‘I love him. I shouldn’t watch daytime television but I do. That cost £7,000. It tilts back. Look.’ She points a remote. The screen tilts.
She makes me a coffee, which is the closest she ever gets to cooking, and hands it to me in a mug with the words ‘Queen of Fucking Everything’ written across it. Since we last met she sold her house for one and a half million. ‘Gave about a quarter of it away, because I’m a Christian. There was one guy…’ She takes a cutting off the fridge about a man reunited with his dog from Iran. ‘He needed £4,000 so I gave him it. I’ve never had such a rush. It was great. Better than drugs. When you give more than you think you should… ‘ She sucks in air between gappy teeth… ‘It’s gorgeous. I was like a sailor on shore leave chucking it everywhere. My accountant told me I was going nuts and I wouldn’t have anything left.’ She holds up her wrist. ‘I’ve got a Rolex. My third one. It’s so flash of me. So working class. Every time I go up one I give my old one to a friend and tell them to sell it. Sarkozy said if you don’t own a Rolex by the age of 50 you are a failure. Actually, anyone who hasn’t given away two by the age of 50 is a failure. Can I buy you lunch? Trouble is, I don’t trust myself not to drink and I’ve got to present a prize to probation officers this afternoon. I can’t turn up drunk because I’ll only ask for drugs or something embarrassing. I’ve never presented a prize before. Got a little speech prepared. Do you want to hear how it starts? “Great to be here today. I’m assuming Zoe Ball and Norman Cook turned you down. I assume Nick Berry and that bloke who paints himself like a zebra and runs along the seafront have turned you down, too. I have no delusions about my place in the Brighton celebrity food chain.’
Surprisingly, given that she started her career as a music journalist and once said she had taken enough cocaine ‘to stun the entire Columbian armed forces’, she and Norman Cook, better known as Fat Boy Slim, don’t hang out together in Brighton. ‘No, but apparently he said his dream woman would have my mind and Kylie Minogue’s body, which was a trifle rude. But I can live with it.’
She does a coy gesture of closing her hands together on her knee and drawing her shoulders in. Under her dark glasses she might even be fluttering her eyelashes. I ask why she’s wearing them indoors. ‘They are prescription. Here, try them on.’ Wow. The room goes blurred. Powerful lenses. ‘I know, the only reason I married so many times was that I’m short sighted, everyone looked so good.’
One of her two sons from one of her three marriages is in a band and is practising his bass guitar in another room. When the music stops, a young man with dreadlocks and a ring through his lower lip wanders in. ‘Hi, man,’ he says. This is Jack, from her second marriage to the journalist Cosmo Landesman (who won the custody battle to raise him when he was young). Her first son was with her ‘starter husband’ Tony Parsons. She walked out on that one when he was three. Never even sent him birthday cards. Hasn’t seen him for years.
‘The trouble was, I realised that if I didn’t get married at an early age I would become a complete slapper. So I married the first person I slept with. God that was a mistake. Awful, awful man.’
Doesn’t she protest too much about Parsons. I mean, she did marry him. She must have loved him. ‘I liked him a great deal. I…’ For the first time she is lost for words. ‘Course I did, yeah, I wouldn’t marry someone I didn’t love, but it was the wrong sort of love. I loved him like a brother. He was like a brother who buys you flick knives. Second and third one I married for love. They’ve all been very good looking in their youth but poor old Tony looks like a sick old recess monkey now.’
Burchill had met Parsons on the New Musical Express when she was 17. That was in 1976, in time to cover the emerging punk movement. Ten years later, after writing a bestselling novel, Ambition, she took a job as a political columnist on the Sunday Times, delighting in praising Margaret Thatcher when it became unfashionable to do so. More recently she took a job at the Times — telling everyone she was on a footballer’s contract of £300,000 a year — but was ‘let go’ after two years. She announced to the world that she had ‘lost her mojo’ and was retiring to study a theology degree. For two years, as she puts it, she couldn’t get arrested. ‘Luckily my self esteem is so high I thought if I sit by a pool drinking cocktails they will start ringing again and so they did.’
Now, two years on, she is back writing the odd book, and weekly columns for the Sun. ‘I’ll work for anyone, apart from the Guardian. The other day they rang up and said: “Will you write an obituary of Jade Goody?” Icky. Women ain’t even dead yet. So I said, “I don’t want to soil the pages of the Guardian with my filth. I’m happy with my own kind on the Sun.”’
She could identify with Goody, a working class girl made (sort of) good. ‘I thought Jade was a big-hearted girl who made the best of her difficult life and was the victim of white, liberal, middle-class prejudice. She was in my programme on chavs. I though she got a raw deal over the Shilpa Shetty thing. That was a class war.’
Her parents were ‘Bill and Bette Burchill of Bristol’. Her mother was a feisty woman who had a job in a cardboard box factory and was forever jumping over backyard gardens to throttle her ex-best friends. Her father was more gentle, a communist trade union activist who worked for a distillery. ‘I wish you could have met my daddy, he was such a nice man.’ While she admits that her stubborn affection for communism may partly be emotional, she’s not exactly a Cameroon these days. ‘I don’t want a country run by old Etonians again. They had their chance. Inbred idiots. I don’t like posh people. They are not quite human.’
I see time has mellowed her. ‘I’ll tell you one thing my Christianity hasn’t helped me with. I’ve got bitchier. I sort of feel when I do voluntary week that it gives me a license to be bitchy about other people. A trade off. One of the main pleasures in life is being spiteful. I’m going to be 50 in July. Too old to change.’
I ask whether, because her journalism is so tied up with her personality, she takes criticism of her writing personally. ‘No, I was born without the vulnerability gene. When my parents died that was when I realised it, because it didn’t affect me much, even though I loved them. I’m not a soft person. Though I can be kind, even if I do have to work at it and overcome my natural cruelty. Seeking approval has always seemed like a wet thing to do. I’ve always thought it was attractive to be disliked and I’ve done quite well in that department. I shouldn’t say this, because it sounds kinky, but when I do get letters threatening me and calling me terrible names, it gives me a mild sexual frisson… I’ve done some cruel things and some terrible things — I’ve abandoned children — but I’ve never minded about what people called me because of it. Just couldn’t care less.’
Well, up to a point. It is said that no man is an island, but listening to Julie Burchill you do have to wonder. In some ways she is the least insecure person I have met, and yet she does seem to need reassurance that she is being amusing and/or bitchy. And I know she does care what people think about her because a few days later she emails me checking what she has said and sounding a little worried. She enjoyed out chat so much, she says, got so excited by it, that she got a little carried away and might have exaggerated one or two things. She is slightly more reticent about the subject of drugs these days, for example — on the record at least, because of the voluntary work she does.
These emails are to come, for now she is making me laugh by saying that ‘I think there was a biological imperative for to get me away from Bristol so that I didn’t inbreed.’ She is funny like that. Has a way with words. The humour is partly self-deprecating, partly self-approving. She finds herself funny. ‘I sometimes look at myself and have to laugh.’
In her new book, Not in My Name, a Compendium of Modern Hypocrisy, she writes amusingly about how she is a very off message type of fat girl: one who gladly – gluttonously – admits that at one point she ‘reached the mighty dress size of 22 solely through lack of discipline and love of pleasure’. And who, it must be said, tends to despise people – except those with actual medical conditions – who pretend that is often otherwise. She’s is now a 16. Other targets are anti-war protestors, Muslims, cyclists, feminists and gay friendly homophobes. One line that really made me laugh was: ‘At the end of the day, it’s hard to control what turns you on and so long as it doesn’t say ‘quack’ or ‘I’m five’, it’s a free world.’
Last time I saw her she told me that living with someone was the death of love. Soon afterwards she got married, to Daniel, the brother of Charlotte, with whom she had had a six-month lesbian affair. Er, what happened? ‘Yeah but I don’t live with Dan. He lives in his own place across the square. We got walkie-talkies. If my health really went I’d want him here looking after me. But I don’t think that will happen, if anything, he is unhealthier than me, even though he is younger. I think I ruined his health.’
In what way? ‘I run him ragged. He’s a proofreader now but when he had an office job he would go in looking rough and his colleagues would say he’s being Julied. A new verb. He was frailer than me to start with, but he’ll be alright. Maybe we’ve had a bit too much fun. Getting riotously drunk all the time. We drink an enormous amount. Trouble is, we like having friends round and I don’t want to go off my friends any more than I already have so I don’t want to see them sober. I’ve got lots of single friends, bless em, and they can be quite needy. They ask me clubbing but I don’t want to be the fat old bird at the disco so they tend to come here. Besides I can’t get out much because of this.’
She holds up her brace again and tells me she only realised how much her foot had deteriorated when she was taking two blind pensioners for a walk — her voluntary work — and one of them asked if she was leading them, or they were leading her. ‘The doctor had told me it was gout but that was a misdiagnosis so I was then told there was a 25% chance I would lose my foot. You don’t ever envisage yourself as an amputee. I was well scared. When I thought I was going to be an amputee I went on the net and typed in ‘hot amputees’ and there are loads of people out there who fancy them, so that wasn’t so bad.’