Writer Julie Burchill photographed at the Sussex Arts Centre in Brighton, UK, 9 February 1999. (Photo by Andrew Hasson/Photoshot/Getty Images)

Julie Burchill – a national treasure?

The former Queen of the Groucho Club, for all her contradictions, is a rare voice of courage in an increasingly conformist world

Artillery Row

When I first knew Julie Burchill, she was up and I was down. It was Brighton in the mid-1990s: I had returned to the UK after a lengthy stint abroad to find myself homeless and jobless. She had just ended her reign as Queen of the Groucho Club and had migrated from London to Brighton where she has lived ever since.

Forthrightness has been a recurrent hallmark of Julie’s long career

Discovering that we had a common enthusiasm for the novelist and playwright Patrick Hamilton, whose biography I had recently written, I was entertained to a series of long lunches at the Brighton Arts Club, where Julie was staying while she house hunted. At first, as a traditionalist male, I was embarrassed when she insisted on paying for the meals, but she set my inhibitions to rest with the typically forthright words: “I’m rich; you’re poor. Let’s eat”. (And drink, of course.)

That forthrightness has been the recurrent hallmark of Julie’s long career since she burst into the nation’s consciousness in the late 1970s aged 19 as one of the “hip young gunslingers” hired by the New Musical Express to report on the punk phenomenon. She actually despised punk – “not singing, just shouting” – but it had served its purpose in launching a stellar career as a mistress of words who has delighted, shocked and outraged us ever since.

She has regularly hit the headlines over the decades by going over the top for various causes, but more often than not this goddess of the dark side has been on the side of the angels. It helps that she writes like an angel too. So, it was no surprise when she plunged into hot water again this week; becoming the latest victim of cancel culture and having a book contract scrapped by the publishing conglomerate Hachette/Little, Brown.

The book, titled Welcome To The Woke Trials was to have been another shot in the Culture Wars which are raging, ranging Julie alongside other feminist writers like J.K. Rowling and Julie’s friend Suzanne Moore against the all-powerful trans lobby who are dominating social media and scaring powerful multi-nationals into doing their increasingly insane bidding.

In a pathetically mealy-mouthed statement explaining their decision, the publisher said that Julie had “crossed a line” into Islamophobia in a Twitter exchange with the left-wing journalist Ash Sarkar. Such excuses for the suppression of free speech have become all too wearily familiar as the woke censors sniff out and snuff out new prey.

I doubt that Julie will worry overmuch. Not only for the reason of the old adage that there is no such thing as bad publicity, but also because she has consistently demonstrated an unfashionable quality in her dealings with her many enemies and critics: courage.

She has repeatedly shown her “don’t give a flying fuck” fearlessness both in her public stands and her notably vitriolic personal feuds. The latter have included a long-running spat with her first husband and fellow NME gunslinger Tony Parsons, uncharitably described by JB as resembling a “balding rhesus monkey”. (Parsons gallantly gave back as good as he got, remarking: “Hell hath no fury like a first wife run to fat”.)

Just as lively was the “battle of the bitches” Fax War between Julie and fellow feminist, the American academic Camille Paglia, which concluded with a parting shot from JB that ran: “Fuck off, you crazy old dyke”. More recently, Julie got into a cat fight with Elli Tikvah Sarah, a liberal lesbian Rabbi in Hove, whose progressive synagogue she had been attending while mulling a conversion to Judaism.

Long may she continue to appal, enlighten and delight us

This particular feud seems to have had both personal and political roots. Julie took offence after bringing two bottles of Bollinger champagne round to a Shabat meal with Rabbi Sarah, only to be served with “filth”: elderflower wine brewed by the Rabbi’s civil partner. More serious, perhaps, was the Rabbi’s “reaching out” to Muslims, for the most consistent of Julie’s causes throughout the years has been her philo-Semitism and fierce defence of Israel against its Arab enemies.

Julie’s second and present husbands, Cosmo Landesman and Daniel Raven, are Jewish, and it was her brief affair with Daniel’s sister Charlotte that first brought her to Brighton. Her criticisms of the Jewish state have been directed at Israeli efforts to appease its Arab neighbours.

Examining Julie’s public stances, we are struck by their apparent inconsistency: a passionate philo-Semite, she has been equally passionate in her critique of individual Jews. At one time an out lesbian, she has not spared her Sapphic sisters like Puglia. A writer on right-wing papers like the Mail on Sunday and The Telegraph, she was for years a self-proclaimed communist. An anti-monarchist, she made an adoring cult of the late Princess Diana.

Drilling deeper, however, a red thread of consistency appears amidst all the seeming contradictions. Her communism is a leftover loyalty to her working-class roots in Bristol, where her father was a communist trade union activist and her mother worked in a factory making cardboard boxes. Her worship of Diana came from a fellow feeling for a woman wronged by a cold and privileged elite. Above all, she is an enemy of groupthink and has always set herself against the prevailing zeitgeist.

That, and the fact that her writing – cruel, jaw-droppingly outrageous though it is, but often ringing with unvarnished and uncomfortable truths – is what has kept Julie in the news and newspapers for more than forty years. Past sixty now, she is surely approaching the status of national treasure. Long may she continue to appal, enlighten and delight us.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover